The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Push for Farooq and Mamata

New Delhi, Jan. 24: Defence minister George Fernandes is learnt to have conveyed to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah and Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee should be taken in the Cabinet in the next expansion.

The exercise is slated to take place before the budget session of Parliament and, as NDA convener, Fernandes was invited for a long, one-on-one meeting with Vajpayee yesterday — their first in a long time, said BJP sources.

The meeting comes in the backdrop of a belief in the BJP that deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani had “advised” the Prime Minister not to induct Mamata because of her “erratic” attitude towards the BJP. It was said the Trinamul leader should be allowed to cool her heels for some more time before she is reinducted in the ministry.

Sources close to Fernandes maintained that he impressed on Vajpayee that it would be in the NDA’s “interest” to bring Abdullah and Mamata on board.

“The Prime Minister’s response seemed to be positive and now the question of finding portfolios for them remains,” they claimed.

According to sources, in the absence of a “weighty” portfolio “suited to his stature and experience”, Abdullah may be made a minister without portfolio and mandated to be a roving ambassador, carrying the government’s “brief” all over the world.

Mamata may be given coal and mines subject to incumbent minister Uma Bharti agreeing to relinquish it and take charge of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh.

The sources also made light of Abdullah’s son Omar’s assertion on TV that his father would not join the government as the National Conference already had a “hard time” explaining to the people of Jammu and Kashmir why it was in alliance with the BJP.

Fernandes also reportedly conveyed to Vajpayee that his Samata Party was not interested in securing berths in this round.

Samata sources indicated that their minister of state for public distribution and civil supplies, V. Srinivasa Rao, may be asked to be dropped because of their “feedback” that he had been allegedly hobnobbing with the Janata Dal (United) in Karnataka from where he hailed. Party leaders would not be keen to replace him with another member, said sources.

The NDA convener was not in the picture the last time a Cabinet expansion/reshuffle took place. The exercise largely involved the BJP and, therefore, the consultations mainly involved Vajpayee, Advani, finance minister Jaswant Singh and parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan.

Interestingly, though this time too the changes are expected to impact BJP ministers and hopefuls, NDA sources were quick to see the Fernandes-Vajpayee session as a sign that the defence minister may regain his earlier importance in the ruling coalition as a “buffer” against the internal pulls and pressures the Prime Minister could be subject to.

Samata sources said Fernandes briefed the Prime Minister about his Russia visit and exchanged notes on the Centre’s talks with the NSCN (I-M).

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