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Big Two rate team before rejig

New Delhi, May 24: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has had two rounds of talks with United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi on the performance of his ministers, with an eye on a shuffle expected mid-June.

But given the nature of the coalition, Sonia and Manmohan will have limited room for manoeuvre, other than sending some Congress ministers to the party or to states as governors.

Most senior ministers ' P. Chidambaram (finance), Pranab Mukherjee (defence), Sharad Pawar (agriculture), Kamal Nath (commerce and industry), Mani Shankar Aiyar (petroleum and panchayati raj) and Praful Patel (civil aviation) among them ' seem to have satisfied both the Prime Minister and the UPA chief.

Among the seniors, external affairs minister K. Natwar Singh and human resource development minister Arjun Singh have been found wanting, not in performance but enthusiasm.

While giving full marks to Natwar, Sonia and Manmohan feel the foreign office needs better coordination with the PMO. Similarly, the duo acknowledges Arjun’s pioneering work in human resource development but feels the process has slowed down and got mired in political rhetoric.

Good news awaits home minister Shivraj Patil, who is seen as having improved considerably since he started.

Priya Ranjan Das Munshi (water resources), Kapil Sibal (science and technology), the RJD’s Raghuvansh Prasad Singh (rural development) and the DMK’s Dayanidhi Maran (telecom) have passed with flying colours.

Sources at the highest level said the Sonia-Manmohan appraisal took into account the ministries’ functioning in terms of fulfilling the common minimum programme, team spirit or coordination, political handling and presenting a united face of the UPA.

“It is not a report card but a holistic exercise aimed at enhancing UPA’s productivity and longevity,” a source said.

Both Laloo Prasad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan have suffered on the team spirit count, following their public spat during and after the Bihar elections.

The sources said in order to draft fresh faces, ministers holding dual charge such as Mani Shankar Aiyar, Kamal Nath and Ghulam Nabi Azad (parliamentary affairs and urban development) might lose a ministry each.

Azad is, however, trying to defend his twin turfs, arguing that parliamentary affairs is a “seasonal” portfolio.

Left to them, Sonia and Manmohan would like to stake the Congress’ claim to some of the infrastructure ministries, like civil aviation, rural development, surface transport and communications. But they are unlikely to tinker with “coalition dharma” as these ministries are in the allies’ quota.

Similarly, the decision to axe ministers from non-Congress parties rests with their respective leaders. Sonia and Manmohan can only try to persuade them to suggest alternatives.

Among the Congress ministers, those facing the axe are Sis Ram Ola (mines) and P.M. Sayeed (power). Given Ola’s loyalty and experience, the Jat leader is tipped to be made governor. Sayeed, seen as honest, might be drafted in the AICC. I&B minister Jaipal Reddy is set to swap places with general secretary and media department head Ambika Soni.

Since President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam will be abroad till June 4 and the Congress’ internal polls are in full swing, the shuffle that Sonia and Manmohan want to make as painless as possible is likely to wait till mid-June.

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