India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley looks set to retain his post if Prime Minister Narendra Modi wins a second term as expected when results come on Thursday.
But if his health worsens, Railways and Coal Minister Piyush Goyal could take over.
Whoever holds the job, Modi needs a finance minister who can reinvigorate the economy without hiking debt.
Fuelled in recent years by low oil prices, growth sputtered to a five-quarter low of 6.6% at the end of 2018 and economists fear that may worsen due to falling rural consumption demand and slowly-rising fuel prices.
The current finance minister is a lawyer and the most important leader in Modi’s cabinet who often acts as chief troubleshooter.
In the past five years, Jaitley not only steered through parliament major economic legislation such as a nationwide goods and services tax – which had languished for nearly two decades – but also argued for the government’s bid to end the Muslim instant divorce practice known as “triple talaq”.
Seen as having good ties with ruling and opposition lawmakers, the 66-year-old Jaitley is known for his eloquent speeches within and outside parliament.
In a reflection of his importance, Modi gave him the responsibility of three ministries when he first took office.
Jaitley is a diabetic and had to skip the interim budget in February when he was in hospital in the United States, getting cancer treatment. He had a kidney transplant in May last year.
Railways and Coal minister Piyush Goyal, 54, has been billed as a future finance minister and stepped into the role twice in the Modi government when Jaitley was out sick. He also served on the board of India’s largest commercial bank, the State Bank of India, and the Bank of Baroda.
Goyal, a trained chartered accountant who presented the last interim budget, has suggested more tax cuts for the salaried class if the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retains power.
Madan Sabnavis, chief economist at Care Ratings, said whoever becomes finance minister will not matter much because most big decisions come from prime minister’s office.
“I think the markets will be looking at it more from the point of view of whether it’s an NDA government or whether it’s a non-NDA government,” Sabnavis said, referring to the BJP-led ruling National Democratic Alliance.
“If it is an NDA government, I really think they will be fairly agnostic to whether it’s Jaitley or Piyush Goyal.”