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Shuffle stalled by spreading ‘stain’

New Delhi, Aug. 4: Manmohan Singh’s reported plan to expand his cabinet before Parliament reassembles on August 16 hit a roadblock today after TRS leader K. Chandrasekhar Rao was served a non-bailable warrant by a Hyderabad court for not honouring its summons.

Rao had been asked to appear personally in a case relating to distribution of tickets during the last elections.

The Telengana leader met Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and the Prime Minister to give his version. Even as the BJP seized on the development, saying Rao is the “latest to join the interminable list of tainted ministers in a government headed by a helpless PM”, sources close to Singh said he would take a view only after ascertaining the facts.

“The case is different from (Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader) Shibu Soren’s. There was a warrant against the President of India issued by a Gujarat court. Lower courts keep issuing such warrants. In Rao’s case, it was issued because he was in Delhi and could not keep his date with the court today,” said a source.

The BJP hopes to try and use the situation to its advantage by driving a wedge between the Congress and its ally from Andhra Pradesh — a strategy it played around with in Jharkhand but failed.

Rao is a cabinet minister without portfolio. He was originally put in charge of shipping but relinquished the ministry after a sulking DMK asked for it.

The sources said Singh was toying with the idea of slicing off mines from the coal and mines ministry, of which he took charge after Soren resigned, and give mines to Rao. But this would have been done after consulting the JMM, they added, in case Soren’s party wanted to keep the ministry.

Soren had to step down after a Jharkhand court issued a non-bailable arrest warrant against him in connection with a massacre.

But for pressure from the TRS, sources said Singh was not too keen on an expansion. “He wanted to have a better idea of the performance of his ministers in Parliament and see who was shaping up in what way,” a source said.

There is a feeling in top circles that except for a handful of senior ministers, those down the hierarchy are either “not up to the mark” or run into needless controversies. Minister of state for tourism Renuka Chowdhury invited Opposition criticism when she wrote to the defence minister recommending a particular kind of weapon. The BJP pounced on her letter as a “breach of national security”.

Singh was reportedly cut up with her. Chowdhury tried to make amends by showing him a power-point presentation of her ministry. But as speculation that she might go raged in a section of the Andhra press, the minister went ballistic. At a public meeting in her constituency, she accused the political establishment of “gender bias”.

The sources, however, said Singh is unlikely to rock the boat by dropping ministers.

Singh is also keen on trimming administrative flab by dispensing with commissions set up by the NDA government if they are found to be serving no specific purpose. The Prime Minister’s Office sent a confidential circular on July 29 to various central departments. It directed them to “urgently” examine permanent commissions and those addressing specific issues set up by the previous government and “report back” with recommendations on each by August 6.

The NDA government created some of these panels to accommodate out-of-work members or disburse political patronage.

Singh, the sources said, feels most of these bodies are a “waste of public money”.

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