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A first in Indian history
Renu Mittal in New Delhi
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January 23, 2009 22:43 IST
On the day Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] was admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Puloke Chatterjee, arguably one of the most powerful bureaucrats in the country, also left the Prime Minister's office on Friday.

Chatterjee, who was brought to the PMO in 2004 as joint secretary by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi [Images], was promoted to additional secretary and then secretary. He is now headed to the World Bank. For almost five years, he has been Sonia's eyes and ears at the PMO and was instrumental in many key decisions as well as appointments.

A senior bureaucrat admitted Chatterjee's departure is bad timing as he has been clued in on the job since the day Dr Singh became prime minister. He understood well the need to balance the political compulsions of the Congress party as dictated by Sonia Gandhi and the problems of governance and taking all the United Progress Alliance constituents along.

Chatterjee will be succeeded by the efficient M N Prasad, formerly, the secretary at the minorities affairs ministry.

Cabinet Secretary K M Chandrashekhar will issue an internal memo, delegating the responsibilities held by the prime minister, after the surgery concludes on Saturday.

Sources say that if all goes well it will a routine note for the ministers of state handling portfolios directly held by the prime minister. If Dr Singh's convalescence takes longer than a fortnight, that work could be delegated to other Cabinet ministers. These include the portfolios of coal, information and broadcasting and environment which had been under the prime minister's charge.

The only heavy duty portfolio that has been shed by Dr Singh for his temporary leave of absence is finance, which has been handed over to Pranab Mukherjee [Images], who handled the ministry in the early 1980s when Indira Gandhi [Images] was India's prime minister.

Knowledgeable sources in the Congress party say the decision to give Mukherjee additional charge of finance was taken by the prime minister in concurrence with Sonia Gandhi who met Dr Singh before he left for AIIMS.

PMO sources said Mukherjee met the Congress president at her 10, Janpath home on Friday evening.

The Republic Day celebration's responsibilities have been divided between Vice President Hamid Ansari and Defence Minister A K Antony. Either Ansari or Mukherjee will receive the President and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, this year's Republic Day chief guest, when they arrive for the parade. Customarily, the prime minister receives the dignitaries.

It will be the first time in the history of independent India that a prime minister is absent at a Republic Day parade.

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