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March 19, 1998

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Finance for Sinha, defence for Fernandes

George Iype in New Delhi

Bharatiya Janata Party leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee was sworn in as India's 14th prime minister on Thursday.

He has allocated the most coveted portfolio -- the finance ministry -- to Bihar BJP president Yashwant Sinha, finance minister in the Chandra Shekhar government.

BJP president Lal Kishinchand Advani, who will be second-in-command in the 42-member ministry, is the new home minister.

Sinha, a former bureaucrat, is a relative newcomer to the BJP and has emerged as a compromise candidate in the high-pitch bargain within the party for the finance portfolio.

The BJP's swadeshi hardliners, led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and the liberal camp, are said to be comfortable with Sinha as finance minister.

Vajpayee has retained the external affairs ministry to revive memories of his successful stint as foreign minister during the Janata Party rule.

Earlier in the day, Vajpayee along with 42 ministers -- 21 Cabinet ministers and an equal number of ministers of state -- of the 13-party coalition were administered the oath of office by President Kocheril Raman Narayanan at a ceremony in the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The Vajpayee government's coalition partners include the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and its allies in Tamil Nadu, the Shiv Sena, the Lok Shakti, the Biju Janata Dal, the Akali Dal, the Trinamul Congress and the Samata Party.

Vajpayee inducted three Sikhs, two Muslims and one Christian into his ministry in a bid to dispel the fears that the BJP government will be pro-Hindu and would work against the minorities's interests and welfare.

Besides the prime ministership, the BJP has kept 10 Cabinet rank and 14 ministers of state. J Jayalalitha's AIADMK, which had created a ruckus about joining the government, has got two Cabinet and two minister of state berths.

The new prime minister, who convened the Cabinet for an hour in the afternoon, virtually spent the whole day finalising the portfolios of ministers. Sources said intense bargaining was evident for coveted ministries by the BJP's alliance partners.

Finally, late on Thursday night, Vajpayee could finalise only the list of portfolios for his Cabinet ministers. The portfolios of the 22 ministers of state will be announced in a day or two.

While former BJP president Dr Murli Manohar Joshi is the minister for human resources development with additional charge of science and technology, senior party leader Sikander Bakht is the industry minister.

The other two crucial portfolios -- defence and railways -- have gone to Samata Party leaders George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar respectively.

Lok Shakti leader Ramakrishna Hedge has been given the commerce ministry and the Akali Dal's Surjeet Singh Barnala chemicals and fertilisers.

Jayalalitha's two nominees in the Cabinet -- Thambi Durai and former Tamil Nadu speaker Sedapatti R Muthaiah -- have been allocated the relatively low-profile portfolios of law, justice and company affairs and surface transport respectively.

While the only woman member in the Cabinet, Sushma Swaraj, gets information and broadcasting, former Delhi chief minister Madan Lal Khurana is the minister for parliamentary affairs. P Rangarajan Kumaramangalam gets power, Satyanarayan Jaitya labour, Anant Kumar civil aviation and Kashiram Rana textiles.

Criminal lawyer Ram Jethmalani is the urban development minister. Jayalalitha's ally,, Tamizhga Rajiv Congress leader Vazhapaddy K Ramamoorthy gets petroleum and natural gas, Biju Janata Dal leader Naveen Patnaik steel and mines, Shiv Sena leader Suresh Prabhu environment and forest and Independent Buta Singh communications.

As home minister, Advani's first task will be to listen to one of Jayalalitha's demands: take action against her political rivals Dravida Munnetra Kazagham president and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi and Tamil Maanila Congress leader and former Union finance minister P Chidambaram who were indicted by the Jain Commission that probed the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.

Advani will be compelled to take some hard decisions to unravel the controversial Bofors case, especially in the light of Sonia Gandhi taking over as Congress president .

By keeping the external affairs portfolio, Vajapyee's most important task will be to kickstart the India-Pakistan dialogue on Kashmir which lost its momentum last year. Sources said Vajpayee may choose a deputy in the foreign ministry after winning the confidence vote in the Lok Sabha on March 28.

The ministers of state who will be distributed portfolios later are Omok Apang, son of Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Gegong Apang, Sukhbir Singh Badal, son of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, Andhra Pradesh BJP president Bandaru Dattatreya, Ramesh Baintha, the BJP's Uma Bharti, Pattali Makkal Katchi leader Dalit Elumalai, independent Maneka Gandhi, Santosh Kumar Gangwar, AIADMK's R Kumar, Devendra Pradhan, Babu Lal Marandi, the BJP's Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Ram Naik, Dr A K Patel, Baba Gowda Patel, D Pradhan, K Purkayastha, senior BJP leader Vijayaraje Scindia's daughter Vasundhara Raje, BJD leader Dilip Ray, the BJP's Som Pal, Satyapal Singh Yadav, the AIADMK's K R Janardhan.

Elections '98

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