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George calls for cap on ministry strength

New Delhi, Nov. 14: With speculation rife about an impending Cabinet expansion and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee under pressure from various lobbies, NDA convener George Fernandes today resurrected an 11-year-old Bill he had introduced in the Lok Sabha seeking a cap on the council of ministers.

The private member’s Bill, introduced on June 30, 1991, seeks to amend the Constitution to limit the number of Unions ministers to 10 per cent of the strength of Parliament. In the case of states, the ministry size is sought to be confined to 10 per cent of the legislature strength where there are two Houses and 15 per cent where there is one.

Vajpayee already has 76 ministers and, if he is to stick to the 10 per cent limit, he could at the most induct five or six more. Parliament has 782 members.

PMO sources declined to either deny or confirm whether Vajpayee had asked Fernandes to send the message across to all aspirants. They added that there was no concrete plan for a Cabinet expansion at present.

While Vajpayee is keen on inducting Mamata Banerjee as well as representatives from the Telugu Desam and the Bahujan Samaj Party in the next round, there is pressure from Fernandes’ Samata Party, the Biju Janata Dal and the newly-formed Indian Federal Democratic Party (a loose outfit of Independent MPs) for more berths.

Fernandes said his party would launch a national campaign against jumbo-sized ministries and that he would raise the issue within the government. The defence minister argued that the ceiling would put an end to horse-trading and political blackmail. The tendency to have mammoth ministries is a drain on funds meant for development and a mockery of democracy, he said.

To a question why he had brought up the issue suddenly after over 10 years, the defence minister said he was concerned about what was happening in Uttar Pradesh where everyone wanted to become a minister, endangering the stability of the government.

Asked why he had not set an example by quitting the Cabinet after the Tehelka expose, the defence minister erupted in anger. “What is the connection between the two'”

“If a real debate starts, you (media) will be in trouble. Some people also have problem with coffins (a reference to the coffin scam). They want to speak despite being illiterate. Imaginary and false things are being propagated,” Fernandes fumed.

Asserting that his party would try to persuade the government to act on the suggestion for a ceiling, he said even the Sarkaria Commission had advocated the need for such legislation.

Fernandes’ Samata Party has five legislators in Jharkhand, all of whom are ministers in the jumbo council there. In the erstwhile Samata-led Koijam government in Manipur, almost all Samata MLAs were ministers. In Arunachal Pradesh, most of the party’s legislators are ministers.

The lone Samata MLA in Uttar Pradesh had recently quit the party as he was not made a minister.

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