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Atal huddle fuels shuffle hopes for Mamata

New Delhi, Aug. 21: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s scheduled meeting with his deputy, L.K. Advani, finance minister Jaswant Singh and BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu on August 23 has triggered a fresh round of speculation that yet another shuffle could be effected sooner than expected.

BJP sources said Saturday’s meeting will be the first of the “informal” consultations Vajpayee will hold with leaders before effecting changes in his cabinet.

However, sources close to the Prime Minister insisted that the meeting was intended primarily to shortlist nominations to the Rajya Sabha that have to be filed by August 26 when as many as eight nominated members, including Shabana Azmi, Mrinal Sen, Kuldeep Nayyar and Raja Ramanna, will retire. Vajpayee, they said, was eliciting suggestions before finalising the names.

The BJP sources said the prospective shuffle would be a “limited” one and confined to the NDA. Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee and a representative of the MDMK were “certain” to be given berths, they said.

The MDMK lost a slot in the council after minister of state Gingee Ramachandran resigned when his personal secretary was caught accepting a bribe.

Mamata would have been inducted in the last shuffle itself, but for a last-minute hitch created by Advani and Naidu, who allegedly proposed that her colleague, Sudip Bandopadhyay, too, should be given a berth. Mamata opposed the idea and Vajpayee decided against taking her in as well.

This time round, the BJP sources said, Vajpayee was in a position of strength vis-a-vis his party after he asserted his authority in the wake of Naidu’s “lauh purush-vikas purush” controversy. It is believed that he would use the opportunity to carry out the changes he could not earlier.

The Prime Minister had also wanted ministers holding more than one portfolio to “shed weight”, but the idea was scuttled by Advani and Naidu.

However, if a shuffle takes place, the BJP sources said Vajpayee may not “tamper” with ministers from his party and upset the government-party equation before the Assembly elections.

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