Tuesday, May 27, 2014, 12:01
Modi opts for smallest Cabinet in recent times
By Nirmala Ganapathy, The Straits Times/ANN

 Modi opts for smallest Cabinet in recent times
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) is greeted by his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif after Modi took the oath of office at the presidential palace in New Delhi May 26, 2014. (Photo / Reuters)

NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has unveiled a leaner Cabinet with the top portfolios going to senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders.

His right-hand man, Arun Jaitley, and party stalwarts Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj, topped a list of 45 ministers who were sworn into the new Cabinet yesterday.

The new team is the smallest in recent times. The previous Cabinet in the Congress government, for instance, had over 70 ministers.

Jaitley, a 61-year-old corporate lawyer, surprised many with his twin appointments to the heavyweight Finance and Defence portfolios.

The former commerce minister now faces the formidable task of returning India to rapid economic growth even as he sorts out delays in purchases of weaponry in the defence ministry.

Singh, the 62-year-old president of BJP, was made home minister and would be the second in command in the government.

Swaraj, 62, who is known as a fiery orator, will be India's top diplomat after being appointed the new minister for External Affairs.

She will have a busy first day at work, as Modi is set to meet key South Asian leaders, including Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, today.

Modi came to power with the biggest winning margin in 30 years.

His decisive mandate means the new government is less likely to be bogged down by demands from regional allies, which in the past has resulted in bloated Cabinets.

Still, BJP's allies had been jostling for berths in the new government. Modi gave five seats to each of the allies, including Cabinet berths to Ramvilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party, Anant Geete of the Shiv Sena Party and Ashok Gajapathi Raju of the Telugu Desam Party.

Modi's broader ministerial team, which includes 23 Cabinet ministers and 22 junior ministers, is a mix of old and new faces.

They hail from different parts of the country, including from the Hindi heartland state of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which helped propel the BJP to its stunning victory.

A surprise inclusion in the Cabinet is 38-year-old Smriti Irani, a former television actress who contested and lost to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi in his family stronghold of Amethi.

She is among seven women who are in the Cabinet, inclu-ding 74-year-old Najma Heptullah, who is among the oldest ministers to be sworn in yesterday evening.

Modi and his team have kept their Cabinet selection under tight wraps.

Even those who were chosen were reportedly told only yesterday morning, and then invited to tea with Modi.

"I got a call in the morning. I did not know before that," insisted Prakash Javadekar, the new information and broadcasting minister.

In a statement on Sunday, Modi said he would have a lean leadership team that aimed for "minimum government and maximum governance".

The new premier also promised to change the "work culture and style of governance" - a move appreciated by industry groups which have high expectations of the new government.