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PM plans big, party gets cold feet

New Delhi, Jan. 28: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s intention to carry out a cabinet overhaul has run up against the Congress leadership’s inclination to play safe.

As a result, what was planned as a major expansion and shuffle of the ministry might be reduced to a “fill-in-the-blanks” exercise when it takes place at noon tomorrow.

Sources said the top posts ' external affairs, finance, home, defence, law and human resource development ' are likely to remain untouched despite the Prime Minister’s wish to make changes.

The cut-and-paste job that might take place instead is expected to affect the ministries of petroleum and natural gas, power, science and technology, chemicals and fertilisers and steel, and environment and forests and wildlife.

The only significant change being discussed is the likely appointment of general secretary Ambika Soni as information and broadcasting minister in place of Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, provided she wants to leave Sonia Gandhi’s side.

Mani Shankar Aiyar, the petroleum minister, could turn out to be big loser.

The sources said though Singh had wanted to divest himself of external affairs, at the end of three long meetings with Sonia, the head of the United Progressive Alliance, it was felt he should keep the ministry until at least President George W. Bush’s visit in March.

At least three names were shortlisted for the job: Karan Singh, Andhra governor Sushil Kumar Shinde and Maharashtra governor S.M. Krishna. But there was no consensus on any of them.

The Prime Minister had wished to bring in C. Rangarajan, the chairman of his economic advisory council and former RBI chief. Such a high-profile entry would have suggested a change in the finance ministry, occupied by P. Chidambaram.

A plan like this was said to be on the Prime Minister’s mind, despite the fact that the budget is a month away. Rangarajan was to be taken into the Rajya Sabha as a presidential nominee.

But an influential section in the party cited the former Andhra governor’s closeness to N. Chandrababu Naidu, the Telugu Desam leader who was then chief minister.

Chidambaram was to have gone to home or external affairs. The plan was to move home minister Shivraj Patil to Bihar as governor but, counted as a Sonia loyalist, he is unlikely to be touched.

Aiyar, also a Sonia loyalist, may not be as fortunate. The claimants for petroleum that he holds now are Murli Deora, Kamal Nath and Kapil Sibal. If Nath, who has commerce and industry, were to get petroleum, Sibal would be elevated as a cabinet minister and given his portfolios.

It seems almost certain Jharkhand leader Shibu Soren, dropped after a court case, will be reinstated in the coal ministry.

That leaves three vacancies in the power, sports and overseas affairs ministries, but the contenders are several ' Vayalar Ravi, Veerappa Moily, Giridhar Gamang, Ajay Maken, G.K. Vasan and Mohsina Kidwai.

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