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October 13, 1999


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Delight, disappointment greet new council of ministers

Tara Shankar Sahay in New Delhi

Exuberance and disquiet. The crestfallen faces of those who had been overlooked mingled with the happy countenances of first-timers who had made the grade and were singing paeans to the man who had made it possible -- Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who outshone the galaxy of political stars who had congregated in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan for the swearing-in of the National Democratic Alliance government.

That the two-hour ceremony was shorn of much of the glamour and gaiety usually associated with such occasions was largely because of its duration and the heat. The sun shone brightly throughout, forcing the guests to make regular beelines for the glasses of chilled water.

The gathering greeted the new ministers with mild applause for the first half-hour after which the seats were vacated with the occupants either fading away or seeking shelter under trees.

Only when President K R Narayanan administered the prime ministerial oath of office to Vajpayee did prolonged applause break out. Dressed in a mild creamy yellow dhoti-kurta with a brown half-jacket, the prime minister smiled briefly and acknowledged the ovation.

But the sun did not spare him too and Vajpayee was seen sheltering his face from the glare.

President Narayanan was not too better off. He became visibly tired as he administered the oath and later sat down, rising only briefly to greet the newly sworn-in ministers and quickly resuming his seat.

There were exclamations of delight as the names of the ministers were announced. But there were sighs of disappointment too and some muttering under the breath at the omission of names expected to be given berths.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi smiled expansively in apparent satisfaction at his partymen, including senior leader Murasoli Maran, being named in the new government. He shook hands all around, especially with the likes of Lal Kishenchand Advani, George Fernandes, Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha.

The prime minister indicated his "even-handed" approach when Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee took the oath after Advani, T R Balu of the DMK and Ananth Kumar. Clad in her trademark cotton saree and hawaii rubber slippers, she elicited prolonged applause in apparent appreciation for her fiery role in taking on the Marxists in West Bengal.

Banerjee's party colleague Ajit Kumar Panja, who took oath as a minister of state, did not get similar applause. In fact, his name was announced towards the fag end of the ceremony.

Janata Dal (United ) leaders George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar and 'first-timers' Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav got Cabinet berths, but the omission of senior party colleague Ramakrishna Hegde caused several eyebrows to rise. "What can we say, it is the prime minister's prerogative," said Paswan. Nitish Kumar merely shrugged his shoulders.

Among the seven ministers of state with independent charge, Arun Jaitley of the BJP beamed at the press gallery. When a reporter congratulated him before the ceremony, he accepted the compliments, betraying the fact that he was soon to become a minister. He was dressed for the occasion with a beige closed-neck Nehru coat and matching trousers.

That Prime Minister Vajpayee had given much thought to the BJP's allies was reflected in his Council of Ministers, which is two-tiered and comprises 70 members -- with Cabinet rank and 45 ministers of state -- among whom a large number belong to non-BJP parties.

The BJP's Tapan Sikdar, who humbled his Marxist rival in Dum Dum, Calcutta, was rewarded with a berth as minister of state.

The lone Muslim member sworn in was the BJP's Sayyed Shahnawaz Hussain who humbled former Union minister Mohammed Taslimuddin of the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Kishenganj. The talk in Rashtrapati Bhavan's forecourt was that senior BJP leader Sikandar Bakht had been excluded to accommodate Hussain.

The BJP's Rita Verma also found a berth as minister of state in recognition of her victory in Dhanbad for the fourth time. "I am thankful to Vajpayeeji, I will justify his faith in me by my performance," she cooed.

Ministerial aspirants in the BJP and the other constituents of the NDA who could not make it remained stoic. "Vajpayeeji has become our prime minister once again, that itself is cause for celebration," said senior BJP politician and former Delhi chief minister Sahib Singh Verma. But the way Verma, who won the Outer Delhi seat by a 200,000-plus margin, beat a hasty retreat soon after indicated that any sort of joy was the last thing in his mind.

Vijay Kumar Malhotra, also present at Rashtrapati Bhavan, seemed crestfallen at not being included. Malhotra had defeated Congress candidate Manmohan Singh in South Delhi. "What do you want me to say?" he almost snapped at

Strangely, neither Advani and Jaswant Singh nor George Fernandes gave their reactions on the coup in Pakistan. Prime Minister Vajpayee was inaccessible and drove away immediately after the ceremony. Congress president Sonia Gandhi merely smiled when asked questions.

But former prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral said dismissed prime minister Nawaz Sharief apportioning the blame for sectarian violence in Pakistan to the Taliban and their terrorist camps "might have had something to do with the coup". He said the destiny of the people of Pakistan had changed because of the fallout from Kargil.

Gujral pointed out that " the protagonists of democracy all over the world should assert in favour of democracy in Pakistan and India should keep its guard sensitised including the militqancy in Kashmir."

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