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Soren returns as coal minister

New Delhi, Nov. 27: Jharkhand Mukti Morcha chief Shibu Soren today returned to Manmohan Singh's cabinet as coal minister but lost the mines portfolio he had also held before stepping down in July after an arrest warrant in a massacre case.

Congress leader Sis Ram Ola was given charge of mines. Telengana Rashtra Samiti chief K. Chandrasekhar Rao, who had been a minister without portfolio, was allotted labour and employment, a portfolio Ola held before the minor shuffle.

The Opposition National Democratic Alliance stayed away from the swearing-in at Rashtrapati Bhavan which lasted less than four minutes. Senior Left leaders were also absent.

Sonia Gandhi, the chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance's, also did not attend the ceremony because of prior engagements.

Sources said pressure from the Congress brass and allies forced the Prime Minister to defer plans for a major revamp. Asked about the next round of expansion, Singh said: 'When these things take place, you will know.'

Singh brushed aside criticism from the BJP for re-inducting Soren, who had to step down after an arrest warrant was issued against him in connection with the 1975 Chirudih massacre in Jamtara, Jharkhand. 'The basis because of which he (Soren) left the government does not exist now,' the Prime Minister said.

The main Opposition party said it would raise the matter in Parliament without stalling proceedings. An NDA meeting is likely to be convened just before the winter session begins on December 1 to chalk out a strategy.

'This only reaffirms that being tainted is no disqualification for being inducted in this government,' BJP general secretary and spokesman Arun Jaitley said. The 'moral fabric' of this government is 'suspect', he added.

Asked about his re-induction, Soren said: 'I was a minister earlier and now I am back. I did not put any pressure on the government.'

Congress sources said the coming elections in Jharkhand and the unrest among his tribal supporters clinched his return. The 62-year-old leader is a strong contender for the chief minister's post.

Sources said Soren tried his best to stop mines from being taken away from the ministry he had held before he resigned. He contacted several senior Congress leaders, including Sonia's political secretary Ahmed Patel this morning, pleading for both the departments. But he denied reports that he was 'unhappy'.

'I belong to the coal belt of the country and so there is no reason why I should be unhappy,' Soren said after taking charge as coal minister.

'Guruji', as his supporters call him, however, forgot to mention his name while taking the oath of office and secrecy. The bearded leader merely repeated 'mein' after President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam instead of 'mein Shibu Soren' and went ahead with the oath-taking.

Earlier, there was a flutter in media and political circles when reporters noticed three chairs in Ashoka Hall. A private television channel went on air saying two others ' including Satish Sharma ' would be inducted.

Media persons began ringing up the Prime Minister's Office for confirmation. PMO officials thought Sonia may have intervened while Congress leaders thought the Prime Minister may have decided to include one or two more in his cabinet. The confusion was soon cleared after Rashtrapati Bhavan officials removed two of the chairs.

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