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Virender Kapoor | August 22, 2005

Once again, talks of a reshuffle. Over the last couple of months, however, there have been so many false alarms that no one in the ruling combine is willing to say when this one will take place. However, this column boldly asserts that, in all likelihood, the first half of September will see a not-so-minor reshuffle in the Manmohan Singh ministry.

Not many know that before the start of the monsoon session, the PM was all set to carry out minor changes. Rashtrapati BhaVan was duly informed but, at the last moment, the exercise was abandoned. Now, tentatively, the expansion-cum-reshuffle is set for the first week of next month.

Two clear slots have become vacant due to the demise of Sunil Dutt and the forced resignation of NRI Minister Jagdish Tytler.

A serious contender for Dutt's job is Suresh Kalmadi, the MP from Pune who has long controlled the Sports Authority of India and believes he is a natural choice. The fact that he turned bitterly against Sharad Pawar could give the Congress high command another reason to make him a minister.

Ajay Maken's case is on an entirely different footing. After Tytler's exit, Delhi does not have a representative in the central government. Tytler was bitterly against Chief Minister Sheila Dixit and, of late, Maken too has veered away from her. Besides, he has been cultivating key members of 10 Janpath. As the MP from the prestigious New Delhi constituency, Maken has been canvassing for ministership on the grounds that he defeated BJP stalwart Jagmohan.

Apart from the Congress component, a couple of nominees from the party's allies are also likely to be inducted. Sharad Pawar is keen on his ally in Maharashtra, Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party of India, being accommodated as a minister of state from the NCP quota, while Laloo Yadav's RJD may also get an additional junior slot.

Ups and downs in Sonia durbar

Ambika Soni, Congress Party general secretary, no longer serves as Sonia Gandhi's eyes and ears. That honour now lies with another general secretary, Ahmed Patel, who has emerged as the chief point man of Sonia for both the party and government. Rarely, if at all, does Soni act as the interface of Sonia with ministers or members of the party.

Aside from inside info from close quarters, there are two simple rules of thumb that indicate whose star is on the rise. One -- how many ministers and chief ministers make a beeline for the house of a key courtier. And, two -- how many Congress supplicants are attracted to an aide of Sonia's when he or she shows up in the Central Hall of Parliament. Soni has slipped up badly on both counts, in recent weeks.

There is some talk in Congress circles that Soni might be fobbed off with a ministership next month. At the time of government formation last year, she had declined ministership, preferring to work for the party instead. Now that equations have drastically changed, she may settle for the second best option.

Musical chairs in J and K?

More on the Congress. The buzz in the higher echelons is that the party will insist on its right to have its own chief minister as per the rotational principle agreed upon with its ally, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed of the Peoples' Democratic Front, when he completes three years in office in late October.

Earlier, the party was not keen to assert its claim to the post, believing it might upset the not-so-established order in the Kashmir valley. Besides, Urban Development Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad was reluctant to relocate.

However, in recent weeks, the Congress is said to have revised its position. Apprehensive that its reluctance to take up the CM's post might send a wrong signal to its cadres in Jammu and, further, allow the impression to grow that it has no political stake in the valley, the party has decided to insist on replacing Mufti later this year. Unlike all other state assemblies elected for five years, the J and K assembly alone enjoys a six-year term.

Should Azad take up the challenge and become CM -- incidentally, he has never won even a local corporator's election from the state -- newly-anointed PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti might become deputy CM. Mehbooba is currently a member of the Lok Sabha from Anantnag.

Malhotra drones on all occasions

Someone should tell Vijay Kumar Malhotra, the BJP MP from South Delhi, that there are 136 other members of his party in the Lok Sabha who might want a chance to speak in the House.

Since Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani cannot be present on all occasions, Malhotra, deputy leader of the BJP, invariably monopolises the right to hold forth on all manner of issues, much to the chagrin of fellow MPs.

A large number of MPs are invariably told to confine themselves to various legislative bills, leaving the 'zero hour big controversies' for Malhotra to speak on in his drab, droning manner.

Speaker Assamji?

Ascribe it to the culture of sycophancy in the political class or the typical Indian habit of being needlessly obsequious to authority, but it was amusing to see a staff member hailing the official car of a speaker of the Assam assembly on the public announcement system thus: 'Speaker Assamji ki gaadi gate number Ek par laye. Speaker Assamji."

The PC politician

Jairam Ramesh, dubbed an intellectual among politicians and a politician among intellectuals, takes his job as Congress member of the Rajya Sabha seriously. He sits through long debates in the House and is often seen elucidating the finer points of legislative measures to fellow colleagues who may not be blessed with his intellect or inside knowledge of the workings of the UPA government.

But even making full allowances for Ramesh's academic background, several visitors to the Central Hall, including fellow MPs, find it quite amusing to see him working on his laptop while everyone around him indulges in loud, and loose, talk over grossly subsidised glasses of fresh juice.

To be fair to Ramesh, he is always game for switching off his laptop and gossiping with whoever approaches him, but the problem is your average run-of-the-mill politico is so overawed by his intellectual prowess that he tends to leave him alone. Ramesh, then, is simply obliged to work by himself.

Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh

Capital Buzz

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