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    India's Modi grapples with first challenge - filling his cabinet

    May 19, 2014

    India's prime minister-to-be Narendra Modi was huddled in discussions with close aides and advisers on Sunday, finalizing the names of people to join his cabinet and grappling with the crucial decision of who will be his finance minister.

    Two days after he won a thumping victory in the general election, there was little clarity about who Modi would include in his team, even in other key portfolios like defense, interior and external affairs.


    The alliance led by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 336 of the 543 seats in India's lower house of parliament, making it the first time in a quarter of a century that the country will not be led by a coalition government.


    One of his most important decisions will be whether to name front-runner Arun Jaitley to the finance minister's post. Jaitley is eminently suited, sources in the BJP said, but he was defeated in his race for a parliamentary seat and that is a minus point.


    Yet Jaitley is a former commerce minister, is regarded as a capable administrator, and is one of the few people in the party who has experience but is not too old at 61.


    Modi and his inner circle have played their cards close to their chests and are unlikely to reveal who will take senior cabinet posts until a meeting of the BJP parliamentary leadership on Tuesday, one senior party leader said. Modi was considering merging some ministries to streamline government, other sources said.


    The meeting is expected to confirm Modi as the party's parliamentary leader, after which he will meet President Pranab Mukherjee to formally start the process of forming the government. He is likely to be sworn in as prime minister this week.


    The BJP was last in power 10 years ago, and some of the ministers who served then are now past their sell by date, leaving Modi a relatively small pool of experience at his disposal. On the plus side, the party's runaway success in the election has brought a lot of new faces into the decision-making lower house of parliament.


    All government ministers have to be members of parliament, either the upper or lower house, although they have six months to comply. Jaitley remains a member of the upper house.


    Like outgoing finance minister P. Chidambaram, Jaitley is a corporate lawyer and a suave English-speaking politician seen as a moderate in the Hindu nationalist BJP. He would be a popular choice with investors.


    "It doesn't change the situation all that much," said a senior figure in the party, referring to Jaitley's defeat in the city of Amritsar. "He's already a member of parliament and he is a trusted person for Modi-ji. It's still a strong possibility. Whether he lost is not a big issue."


    Another party source concurred he remained the front-runner for finance.


    "If you look very carefully we don't have too many options," the source said.


    Other sources close to Modi's campaign say the final decision on who will become finance minister has not yet been taken, with other names being mentioned that include Deepak Parekh, the chairman of the Housing Development Finance Corporation Limited, and K. V. Kamath, a former chairman of Infosys and CEO of ICICI, a bank.


    Neither has political experience but sources have said Modi may look to competent leaders in the states, or even try to bring professionals into his cabinet.


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