Amit Shah’s recent appointment as BJP president in place of Home Minister Rajnath Singh has added a fresh twist to the raging debate on who, between Singh and Arun Jaitley, is No. 2 in the NDA regime with Prime Minister Narendra Modi leaving it unresolved even as he left for Brazil Sunday to attend the BRICS summit. An indication of the pecking order can come if there is a Cabinet meeting in the next five days, during the PM’s absence. The one who is asked to preside over it will obviously be considered No. 2 in the NDA regime, although it is also only notional.
Official sources said till Sunday evening there was no intimation from the PMO to the Cabinet Secretariat about any Cabinet meeting this week, which would necessitate the naming of a minister to preside over it. Even in the event of someone presiding over it, he or she does not formally becomes No. 2, said sources. In the UPA regime, Pranab Mukherjee presided over the Cabinet meetings in the absence of the then prime minister Manmohan Singh. In January 2009, when Singh underwent a heart bypass surgery, Mukherjee got the additional portfolio of Finance and was virtually acting as PM when it came to taking decisions, but the fact that it was notional and not formal became evident when A K Antony stood in for the prime minister at Republic Day functions that year.
Given that Rajnath Singh had taken oath right after Modi and the fact that he was the BJP president and also Home Minister, he was considered No. 2 in the government even though there was no consensus on this. After Shah’s appointment as BJP chief, Singh remains Home Minister only while Jaitley has two crucial portfolios of Finance and Defence. Singh, on the other hand, is the only other minister on the reconstituted Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, apart from the PM. “As it is, neither is No. 2 in the government,” said a minister.
“A Prime Minister is a Prime Minister whether he is in India or abroad. If need be, he can be consulted even when he is flying. So, there is no reason to formally appoint a No. 2. Only when a Cabinet meeting has to be held in his absence that the PM instructs somebody to chair it,” said Sanjay Baru, former media advisor to former prime minister Manmohan Singh.