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Just what is a minister without portfolio?
George Iype
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November 08, 2005

The Paul Volcker report time bomb exploded on Monday, with Natwar Singh losing the job of external affairs minister

Under fire from the Opposition parties, the Manmohan Singh [Images] government has instituted a commission, headed by retired Chief Justice of India R S Pathak, to probe Natwar Singh's alleged involvement in a global scam that then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein devised to fool the world and make money out of the United Nations' Oil For Food Programme in Iraq.

But Natwar Singh has not lost all. He remains in Manmohan Singh's Cabinet, as a 'minister without portfolio.'

If you are wondering just what that means, read on:

Why was Natwar Singh not removed from the Cabinet?

Despite mounting pressure on him in the wake of the scandal, Natwar Singh remained adamant that he would not resign as external affairs minister. 'The BJP does not decide who India's external affairs minister will be,' he told NDTV 24x7 Managing Editor Barkha Dutt on Sunday. This forced the Congress leadership and the prime minister to allow Natwar Singh to stay in the Cabinet without a portfolio.

'Not fair to drag Sonia into the issue'

How does divesting Natwar Singh of his ministry help investigations into the scam?

The ministry of external affairs has a major role to play -- and will be an important source of information -- in the probe into the scam. The logic for removing Natwar Singh is that an impartial investigation cannot be conducted if he continues to head the ministry.

Who will India's new external affairs minister be? After all, we have many thorny foreign policy issues coming up.

Under India's Cabinet system, any unallotted portfolio remains with the prime minister. Since the prime minister has so far not named a new minister, the ministry of external affairs will be under his charge.

Why the Iraq scam report is so explosive

Who are the ministers of state in the Ministry of External Affairs?

E Ahamed and Rao Inderjit Singh. But they will not take over Natwar Singh's responsibilities. The prime minister will now run the ministry.

What does 'minister without a portfolio' mean?

It means the minister does not have a department to handle. He has no office to attend. In other words, a minister without portfolio is akin to a consolation prize.

Natwar, son visited Iraq, says businessman

So, is Natwar Singh entitled to a minister's perks and facilities?

Very much. Natwar Singh continues to be one of the 25 Cabinet ministers in the Manmohan Singh government. The minister is entitled to a furnished, official bungalow (in Natwar Singh's case, 19, Teen Murti Lane, New Delhi); he can make unlimited telephone calls; he has an official car; he can employ private assistants on government pay; he can fly business class, for free, across the country. And, he gets his monthly salary of Rs 38,000 per month.

Is there any other minister without portfolio in the Manmohan Singh government?

Not currently. But after Dr Singh took charge as prime minister last year, K Chandra Shekhar Rao, chief of the Telengana Rashtriya Samiti, was inducted as a Cabinet minister without portfolio. He was later given charge of the ministry of labour and employment.

Corporates refute Volcker charge

Why didn't 'KCR' get a ministry initially?

Rao, who has been fighting for a separate state of Telengana -- which is now part of Andhra Pradesh -- did not want to take charge of any ministry without his dream realised. But after the government persuaded him that it would consider his demand at a later date, Rao took up the ministerial post.

Has there been any other case of a minister of portfolio in recent years?

When Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee staged a comeback into the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in September 2003, she was inducted as a minister without portfolio. She did not like the ministry Vajpayee offered -- coal -- and was adamant on being given charge of the ministry of railways.

Congress welcome to send legal notice: Volcker

So, this minister without portfolio thing is a recent phenomenon in Indian democracy?

No. India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru inducted V K Krishna Menon into the Union Cabinet on February 3, 1956 as a minister without portfolio. Nehru appointed Menon defence minister in 1957, after the latter was elected to the Lok Sabha from Bombay. In retrospect, it was a huge error. Krishna Menon's handling of the defence portfolio is widely considered to be a factor in the humiliation the Indian Army suffered at the Chinese People's Liberation Army's hands in the 1962 war.

Is appointing a minister without portfolio an Indian practice?

No. In countries like United Kingdom and Canada [Images], there are ministers without portfolio.

Also see:
Enforcement sleuths grill Sehgal
UN yet to receive Congress, NDA letters
NDA seeks Volcker papers from UN
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