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Poser for PM: To shuffle or not to shuffle

New Delhi, Oct. 29: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is in two minds ' should he go in for a big shuffle or simply fill in the blanks in the cabinet'

With his position and the government's stability reinforced after the Congress victory in Maharashtra and Arunachal Pradesh, sources close to Singh said, a debate is raging whether this is an 'opportune' moment to send a signal that governance is the Prime Minister's top priority. Should he fell the 'deadwood' from the council of ministers or should he take more time to assess the performance of the ministers'

'There are two schools of thought. Some think this is the moment to strike, make the big changes and reinstate the Prime Minister's authority. But there is an equally strong argument that six months is perhaps too short a time to make a fair evaluation, especially since a month-and-a-half were taken up by the budget session,' a source said.

In his unobtrusive way, Singh has reportedly sized up his ministers on various occasions. Over the past month, he has met each of them, including ministers of state, separately and tried to suss up if they were plugged into the working of their ministries. The sources said the Prime Minister would observe them during cabinet meetings to see how much they spoke and whether their submissions were substantive or not.

He is reportedly impressed with rural development minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh. Usually voluble and aggressive in Parliament, the minister's interventions in cabinet meetings were rare and 'to the point', the source said.

Singh will host the first dinner for his council of ministers on November 1. The sources said the reshuffle is likely to take place either on November 5 or 6, before he leaves for an EU summit at The Hague, or soon after his return.

As of now, the Prime Minister intends to give a portfolio to K. Chandrasekhar Rao of the Telengana Rashtra Samiti and see if Jharkhand Mukti Morcha chief Shibu Soren can be reinstated or a representative of his party taken in.

Kamal Nath, who holds the twin portfolios of commerce and industry, may lose one of them while Mani Shankar Aiyar is expected to retain both petroleum and panchayati raj.

The sources said shuffling his council of ministers is not the only item on the Prime Minister's agenda. His 'real' priorities are bringing the economy back on track ' Singh's key interest sectors are investment, employment and infrastructure ' and improving the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast, the sources added.

He is believed to be concerned about the 'tardy' pace of progress in the roads, transport and shipping sectors. All three are under T.R. Baalu of the DMK. The sources said the Prime Minister has told Baalu that he should 'deliver' within specific time schedules.

With the railway being another important area in infrastructure, Singh told minister Laloo Prasad Yadav that he should create conditions to attract overseas investment as Japan has reportedly evinced interest in Indian Railways.

The ministry was asked to prepare a feasibility study for laying special single tracks for super-fast trains that Japan specialises in. Mumbai-Ahmedabad, Delhi-Agra and Mumbai-Delhi routes have been identified as 'highly tenable'. The sources said Laloo Prasad's response was 'positive'.

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