The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Shuffle signal before budget

New Delhi, Jan. 7: A Cabinet expansion or shuffle is likely to take place before the budget session starts on February 17. The scale of the change would depend on whether certain ministers are willing to return to the BJP and whether the Prime Minister is ready to re-induct at least three senior party functionaries who reportedly evinced an interest in going back to the government.

Also waiting in the wings are National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah and Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee. Farooq reportedly sent feelers that he is not averse to joining the NDA government, more so after the resignation of his son, Omar Abdullah, who was minister of state for external affairs, was finally accepted.

But government sources maintained that neither Atal Bihari Vajpayee nor his confidants, involved in the process of ministry-making, were “in a hurry” to absorb Farooq and Mamata, “at least not on their terms any longer”. The sources said only NDA convener George Fernandes was pitching for Mamata’s reinduction. Even his interest seemed “politically motivated”, they added.

“He seems to want to use Mamata as a counter to Nitish Kumar (the railway minister) in their turf war in Bihar. After all, Mamata is keen on getting the railway ministry back and her presence could unnerve Nitish, at least this seems to be Fernandes’ calculation,” the sources said.

It looks almost certain that the two ministers of state, Vasundhara Raje and Raman Singh, who were appointed BJP chiefs of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh respectively, would have to quit before the budget session. With elections due in these states in November, there is growing pressure from the local leaders that they ought to concentrate on their regions instead of Delhi.

Singh had put in his papers, but Vajpayee has not accepted them as he was waiting for Raje to do likewise.

The third minister who may have to bid adieu to Delhi is coal and mines minister Uma Bharti, who is most likely to be projected as the BJP’s answer to Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh.

Like Raje, Bharti wanted to have the best of the bargain, which was why the BJP anointed veteran Kailash Joshi as the Madhya Pradesh party president.

However, party sources claimed Bharti’s recent public meetings were a “huge success” and put the chief minister on the “backfoot” on issues like Hindutva and terrorism. As in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, this led to a clamour for Bharti’s full-time presence in the state in election-year.

While a section of the BJP felt that the Cabinet changes should be “performance dictated”, the pragmatists were of the opinion that in the run-up to the crucial Assembly elections, the yardstick should be “more flexible and preferably political”.

One suggestion was that BJP general secretary Rajnath Singh — one of the party functionaries believed to be interested in going back to the government — should be accommodated.

“Even though there is no election in Uttar Pradesh, it is important to project a strong Thakur leader for Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and Rajnath may fit the bill,” the sources said. There was a “Thakur vacuum” in Rajasthan after Bhairon Singh Shekhawat moved to Delhi and Bharti, who is from the backward castes, is still deemed as “not good enough” to match Digvijay, a Thakur.

Another general secretary, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi is reportedly angling for a berth once word got around that the brass was not too happy with the party’s lone Muslim Cabinet representative Syed Shahnawaz Hussain.

There were reports that the high-profile Arun Jaitley, too, wished to return to the Cabinet though he denied the news. “I am happy doing what I am. At the moment, I am too involved with the Himachal elections to think of anything else,” he said in response to a query.

The sources said the prospective shuffle could be effected in the interregnum between the Himachal polls and the start of Parliament since Vajpayee’s official platter was packed with engagements through January.

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