Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s conspicuous absence from key pre-budget interactions between the Prime Minister with policymakers and industrialists has sparked off speculation of a change of guard at the ministry. The consensus is that this will happen post budget (because anyway it is the PMO and not the Finance Ministry that is the key architect of the budget); but there is no consensus on the replacement. Some say the PM could follow the Jaishankar model and bring in a technocrat like K.V. Kamath into the ministry. Others point to the fact that while Nirmala was absent from the Niti Aayog meet, three other ministers were there flanking the PM—Piyush Goyal, Nitin Gadkari and Amit Shah. Goyal, as we know, was a frontrunner for the FM’s job last year, but apparently it was the late Arun Jaitley’s ABP policy that did him in (Anybody But Piyush). Piyush certainly has Shah’s backing, but will the PM oblige? After the last Lok Sabha polls, there has been a significant dip in the rapport between Modi and Gadkari, claim sources, thereby ruling out his shift to the North Block. However, another candidate could be Shah himself. After all, his “In Tray” at the Home Ministry is now empty. He has delivered on all the key promises in record time—from revoking Article 370 to the CAA (with or without the NRC). Will the economy be his next big challenge? Of course since this is the Modi era, all such speculation must come with a warning: however well-placed the source may be, only one person knows the correct answer—and that is the PM himself.

CM vs Deputy CM

The Ashok Gehlot vs Sachin Pilot face-off is now being played out in front of the cameras, instead of just being whispered about in the corridors of Rajasthan. First there was Pilot’s criticism of his own government’s handling of the infant deaths in Kota. After Pilot visited the bereaved families—and Gehlot did not—the two had another exchange, with the CM commenting that there was no logic in visiting the families. Immediately, Pilot reacted by saying if there was no such “tradition” to visit the bereaved then such a tradition needs to be established. Interestingly, Gehlot was in the national capital last week and spent a considerable chunk of time meeting the media. Some say this was the veteran’s way of sending a message to his deputy that he was not the only one who had access to Delhi’s media elite. But the question that is doing the rounds is: who does Sachin have access to within the Congress party’s power troika? For he is not suicidal enough to take on Gehlot without Someone’s backing. Or is he?

Hooda’s Shakti Pradarshan

The Hoodas from Haryana—former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and son Deepender—had their annual Lohri lunch in the national capital, which was well attended by Congress leaders cutting across all factions, with Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ashok Gehlot, V. Narayansamy, Janardhan Dwivedi, Anand Sharma, P. Chidambaram, Kumari Selja, Randeep Surjewala, Madhu Goud Yaskhi, Jitin Prasada, Rajiv Shukla, Shashi Tharoor, Prithviraj Chavan and Sandeep Dikshit present there. UPA allies Praful Patel, Sharad Yadav, Ajit Singh and Jayant Chaudhury were also there. But what was interesting was the attendance of as many as 29 of the 31 Congress MLAs from Haryana. Quite naturally, the talk turned to what might have been had the Hoodas been given more time to campaign, for as an MLA pointed out, the total difference in the number of votes won by the BJP and the Congress was not much, though the BJP’s total tally was 40 seats. Although the BJP has formed the government in alliance with the JJP, some of Dushyant Chauthala’s MLAs have recently gone public with their displeasure. Given this, one wonders if the presence of 29 MLAs on his front lawns was not a subtle muscle flexing by the Hoodas—both to the Opposition outside, and within. And so speculation keeps the fires burning well after Lohri. (Note: technically, it was not the Hooda’s front lawns but Raj Babbar’s bungalow that hosted the said party. And who knows the power of show-and-tell better than a Bollywood veteran?)

Overheard at a Lutyens Lunch

A group of veteran Congressmen were reminiscing about the good old days when political differences did not verge on the personal and there was bonhomie not just between parties but also within various factions in the same party. But soon one of them quipped: “Let’s not stress too much about being old, otherwise we will all be sent on a tirth yatra (pilgrimage).” Therein lies the (generation) gap between the Sonia and the Rahul Congress.

Why make it Modi vs Kejriwal?

Why is the BJP making Delhi a Kerjiwal vs Modi fight by not fielding any candidate to take on the Delhi Chief Minister? Well there is one view that post 2019 the BJP has not fared well in any of the state polls—Haryana (where it has formed the government but with a post poll ally), Maharashtra or Jharkhand. BJP sources say that main reason for this was that it was the sitting CMs who faced anti incumbency, rather than this being a referendum on the Central government. The dominant view is that Modi’s magic remains intact. It is this “magic” that they hope will give the party a fighting chance in Delhi. But the problem is that despite the Modi hoardings, and playing a Me-Too game on key issues of healthcare (Ayushman Bharat vs Mohalla clinics), regularisation of colonies and offering subsidies, the BJP doesn’t seem to have a distinct plan to combat the Aam Aadmi Party. Or a local face to take on Kerjiwal.

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