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India's Modi names yoga minister in major reshuffle

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appointed a yoga minister as part of a major revamp of his government after storming to power in May.

Hindu nationalist Modi, a vegetarian who practises yoga daily, strengthened his right-wing government on Sunday by appointing 21 new ministers as he tries to speed up reform of the faltering economy.

Among the portfolios designated late Sunday was that of AAYUSH, whose minister will be charged with promoting the traditional medicines and practices of Ayurveda, yoga, naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and homeopathy.

Modi asked the United Nations in September to consider an international yoga day and also discussed the ancient Indian discipline with President Barack Obama during his visit to the United States.

“Congratulations to all colleagues who have taken oath today. Looking forward to working with them to accelerate India’s development journey,” Modi said in a tweet late Sunday.

Modi added four new ministers to his cabinet and 17 junior ministers for a 66-strong government.

AAYUSH was previously part of the health minister’s responsibility, but has become a separate portfolio under former tourism minister Shripad Yesso Naik after Sunday’s reshuffle.

Among other changes, suave regional leader Manohar Parrikar was handed the defence ministry and charged with modernising the ageing armed forces.

Parrikar’s appointment will ease the burden on Arun Jaitley, who had been juggling both the defence and finance ministries since the government took office in May, while battling ill-health.

Jaitley also takes information and broadcasting under the revamp, but will be mostly free to focus on steering through difficult reforms pledged during the election campaign to revive the faltering economy.

Parrikar, with a reputation for clean government during his time as chief minister of tourism state Goa, will be expected to speed up long-delayed defence orders and overhaul the country’s Soviet-era military hardware.

A series of corruption scandals under the previous Congress government had brought defence procurement to a near-standstill.

Jayant Sinha, the Harvard-educated son of a former finance minister, was named junior minister for finance, underlining Modi’s priority to boost business and attract foreign investment.

In recent days Modi has unleashed a series of reforms, scrapping fuel subsidies, simplifying labour rules and pledging to open coal mining to private players.

But the government has so far steered clear of “big bang” initiatives that economists say are needed to boost investment and manufacturing.

Sinha said his priorities would be to create jobs and keep inflation in check.

“First and foremost, creating jobs is very important for us and for the economy,” Sinha told reporters in Delhi after taking charge.

“The second (priority) area is obviously managing inflation… this year we are expecting growth to pick up and then to be on the accelerating growth trajectory.”

The economy last year grew by 4.7 percent, the weakest pace in nearly a decade, while steep interest rates aimed at fighting stubborn inflation and a fall in the rupee have eaten into corporate profits.

The railways portfolio was given to Suresh Prabhu, a veteran leader of the Hindu hardline regional Shiv Sena party who switched allegiance to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) just before Sunday’s swearing-in ceremony. -AFP

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