New Delhi, Sept. 20: The capital was in the grip of feverish speculation tonight — not about what Mamata Banerjee will do tomorrow but about who Manmohan Singh will pick and dump in the immediate future.
“Mamata would be disappointed to know that the political disturbance she sought to trigger from the Bay of Bengal has not caused any violent hailstorm in the national capital which is experiencing a cool breeze of heightened expectations as the final touches are being given to the cabinet shuffle,” a Congress leader said with a lyrical flourish that the opponents of the UPA would term inopportune.
The vacancies created by Trinamul’s exit have lifted the hopes of aspirants in the Congress. The big guns are lobbying hard to replace Mukul Roy in the railway ministry, while others are itching to enter the offices left vacant by Trinamul’s five ministers of state.
The Prime Minister, too, wants to send a subtle message to Mamata, whose ministers are scheduled to resign tomorrow, by filling up the vacancies as early as possible.
Manmohan Singh also intends to flash a not-so-subtle message to all parties opposing his recent decisions through a formal address to the nation tomorrow itself, a day when his government is losing the coalition’s largest ally.
Sources said the Bengal Congress would gain from the shuffle as Sonia Gandhi was reportedly keen to give an important cabinet berth to someone from the state in addition to a minister of state slot to another nominee.
Asked about the pain of losing an ally, one minister responded with bitterness: “UPA-II suffered greater ignominy owing to policy paralysis than scandals. Who was responsible for that? At every stage, she opposed the government and sought to cripple the decision-making process. Her ministers wouldn’t even attend cabinet meetings and other meetings and complained of lack of consultation. We are all relaxed now.”
The sense of calm among Congress ministers emanates from the assurance of numerical comfort, although stray voices of concern could be heard at the party level.
Information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni today rejected any threat to the government. “We have the support of over 300 members of Parliament who do realise that these are difficult times and know that hard decisions need to be taken. Nobody would like to thrust an election upon the country in these difficult times,” Soni said.
“Nobody is happy raising prices that affect the common man. But you have to take tough decisions at times in the larger national interest. Today they are upset that the fuel price has increased, tomorrow if our country cannot afford fuel at all, how will that be? Tomorrow there will be no money to pay salaries. How will buses, transport, industry… how will it run? We are trying to provide these things for our country,” she added.
The battle-scarred Sharad Pawar also moved to the frontline, contesting the charge that the allies were not consulted and contending that the government tried its best to evolve a consensus.
“Nobody was happy to do this... not even the PM.... But it was required,” Pawar said, defending the decisions, including FDI in multi-brand retail and the hike in diesel price, taken over the past week.
Law minister Salman Khurshid echoed the sentiments, saying the tough decisions taken were in the interest of the country. “What we have to look at right now is what is good for the country. We are convinced that these reforms are not for a few rich. This is the reform for the aam aadmi.”
Khurshid asserted that elections would take place only on schedule.
Finance minister P. Chidambaram went a step ahead, asserting that the government was not averse to acquiring new friends. He said: “We had enough friends yesterday, we have enough friends today. So, I don’t think you should doubt our stability.”
Asked whether the government would look for new allies, Chidambaram said: “If we can acquire new friends, why would we not?”