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The Rediff Special/ George Iype
Sonia loyalists rewarded in cabinet expansion
January 30, 2006
Twenty months after he took charge, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has carried out the first major ministerial expansion by inducting 19 new faces in his government.
Who are the losers and winners? And what sets this new cabinet apart?
For starters, the winners in the reshuffle game are all loyalists to Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Many of them are from the Rajya Sabha and some of them have never contested elections. Their sole claim to fame, therefore, has been their devotion to 10, Janpath.
Those whose career graphs have soared are Ambika Soni, general secretary, All India Congress Committee, Andhra Pradesh governor Sushil Kumar Shinde, Kerala Congress leader Vayalar Ravi, Jairam Ramesh, Anand Sharma, Murli Deora, Pawan Kumar Bansal, T Subhirami Reddy and Akhilesh Das.
Out of these movers and shakers at 10, Janpath, only Pawan Kumar Bansal is an elected MP in the Lok Sabha; all others are Rajya Sabha members.
And Law Minister H R Bhardwaj, a close Gandhi family loyalist, has also been retained; his recent achievement was to help Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, an accused in the Bofors scandal, free his frozen bank accounts.
Now, the losers. Mani Shankar Aiyar, who has been stripped of the key petroleum portfolio has been the biggest one. By common consent, Aiyar has been adjudged as the best best-performing minister in the Manmohan Singh government all these months. But why was his portfolio taken off and left with only the Panchayat Raj and Youth Affairs Ministry?
Because, Aiyar's views and actions oil diplomacy have not been in sync with the ruling establishment. He single-handedly pursued the India-Pakistan-Iran strategic pipeline plan, despite the confusing signals that the Manmohan Singh government has been giving on the issue. Recently, he concluded a historic agreement with China on a joint bid for energy assets in third countries.
The other loser has been Jaipal Reddy. A few months back, Reddy had lost the Information & Broadcasting Ministry. With this reshuffle, he lost the Culture Ministry, too. And he is left with only the Urban Development Ministry.
The other losers have been the youth leaders of the Congress party. In the just concluded Congress plenary in Hyderabad, the party leadership asserted that it would promote youth because India has 540 million youth between the age of 20-30. But not even a single youth leader has been inducted in the new council of ministers. "Youngsters can wait," was the quick reply from Sonia Gandhi, when reporters asked her about why this is so.
The reshuffle has been in the offing ever since Natwar Singh resigned as External Affairs Minister some months back in the backdrop of the Volcker report on the oil-for-food scam. But interestingly, a new Minister of External Affairs has not been appointed; instead, Dr Singh will continue to handle this sensitive ministry.
Congress leaders say the prime minister did not want to get into any more embarrassment by appointing a new external affairs minister, who could 'behave like Natwar Singh'. Singh was often seen out of sync with the government's changed foreign policy. The prime minister may not perhaps want such ministers until after the India visits by US President George Bush and French President Jacques Chirac in the next two months.
For the first time, the Manmohan government has formed a new ministry, one for Minority Affairs. Dr Singh has handed over the new ministry's charge to former Maharashtra chief minister A R Antulay. Many view the setting up of this ministry as a purely political decision, as the Congress is eager to regain confidence of the minority communities in north India.
However, Congress secretary Tom Vadakkan says its creation has been a poll promise of the party. "We had promised that we will form a ministry to look after the affairs of the minority communities. We have fulfilled another election promise," he said.
The ministerial expansion has been an exercise of organisational compulsions of the Congress party and it was an occasion to correct what the party leaders say was a regional imbalances in the Council of Ministers. Thus, all the new entrants are from the Congress party and representation has been given to states like Punjab, Orissa and Kerala.
States going to the assembly polls in the next few months - Kerala, Assam and Tamil Nadu - have been rewarded, as Vayalar Ravi has been picked up from Kerala, Santosh Mohan Dev from Assam has been upgraded as a Cabinet Minister and late Congress leader G K Moopanar's son G K Vasan has been inducted from Tamil Nadu.
Are there voices of dissent after the ministerial expansion?
Yes, especially from a crucial state like Andhra Pradesh where the Congress held the plenary recently. Congress Working Committee member G Venkataswamy says he will meet the prime minister and Congress president to take up the injustice meted out to Andhra Pradesh.
"Injustice has been done to Andhra Pradesh as a whole. Not a single MP was given Cabinet rank. The Telangana region and the weaker sections have received a raw deal," he told reporters. He said senior backward class leader V Hanumantha Rao should have been inducted.
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