India’s premier replaces trade minister

The Financial Times, May 29, 2009
Kamal Nath, India’s high profile trade negotiator, has been replaced as the country’s commerce and industry minister and removed from the international policy circuit as the ruling United Progressive Alliance cements its team for a new term in office.

Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, has handed the commerce portfolio to Anand Sharma, a former minister of state in the foreign ministry. Mr Nath, meanwhile, has been shifted to the road transport and highways ministry, a less glamorous portfolio.

While upgrading India’s outdated transport systems is considered a top priority for India’s fast growing economy and badly in need of more private funding, some commentators read into Mr Nath’s appointment the displeasure of Mr Singh and Sonia Gandhi, the president of the ruling Congress party.

Mr Nath is well known for the uncompromising stance he took in the World Trade Organisation’s Doha round of talks. He successfully rallied developing countries in opposition to the US and, more politician than technocrat, enjoyed the international spotlight.

Some even blame Mr Nath for the failure of the talks last July. He had championed deeper cuts in US farm subsidies and more leeway for poor economies to protect their farmers with import tariffs.

Rajan Bharti Mittal, the managing director of Bharti Enterprises, said Mr Nath was not viewed as a deal-breaker locally but rather someone who had defended Indian industry and agriculture from pressure by the US.

Pradeep Mehta, of the Consumer Unity and Trust Society, a think-tank based in Jaipur, said Mr Nath, 62, was keen to broaden his government experience with an infrastructure portfolio having served in the textile, environment and latterly the commerce ministries.

“He had been hoping for a more powerful ministry and the ministry that he’s got has been cut in half. Shipping used to be part of it,” Mr Mehta said.

Mr Nath, who inherits a portfolio neglected by his predecessor TR Baalu, a Tamil Nadu politician, played down any suggestion of disappointment. “I was never disappointed…I have said that I want something which has a domestic component. And that is it. This is a big challenge and I am happy about it,” he told reporters.

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