The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Atal seeks ammo in George

New Delhi, May 22: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee manoeuvred himself back into a position of relative strength on the Cabinet shuffle exercise by getting George Fernandes as an “additional reinforcement”, apart from old loyalist Jaswant Singh, in consultations this evening.

So far, .K. Advani and BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu were perceived to have had the upper hand on the proposed changes, expected to be announced on Saturday.

Today’s meeting remained inconclusive, but indications were that Vajpayee managed to have his way partially on pruning portfolios and going half-way to please Mamata Banerjee. Official sources said the latest offer to Mamata was civil aviation.

It was also tentatively agreed that Trinamul Congress’ Sudip Bandopadhyay may not be taken in immediately, although Advani and Naidu were eager to bring him as a minister of state and almost made it a condition for Mamata’s return to the government. Bandopadhyay met Advani today.

BJP sources, however, said part of defence minister and NDA convener Fernandes’ mandate was to make a last effort to persuade Mamata to agree to Bandopadhyay’s induction.

MDMK minister of state for finance Gingee Ramachandran is expected to be dropped after his personal assistant was caught taking a bribe.

While the same fate might have befallen civil aviation minister Shahnawaz Hussain, he has been spared because of the unwillingness of Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi — the BJP’s only other Muslim MP — to accept a slot and fill the “minority” vacuum.

Pressure was building on Hussain after the BJP leadership received reports of his alleged misdeeds, party sources said. However, the fact that he is the sole Muslim in the ministry and blessings of powerful friends in the government and the RSS came to his rescue.

But Hussain’s “benefactors” were told that when the BJP wanted to bring out a chargesheet against the Congress’ “corruption and black deeds” in the poll-bound states, the party could not afford to blunt its campaign by having Ramachandran and Hussain as ministers.

Fernandes was in touch with MDMK leader Vaiko — in jail facing anti-terror charges — to apprise him of his minister’s fate, while Naqvi was sounded this evening about a ministership.

When Naqvi turned down the offer, saying another seven or eight months in government would not help him as much as staying on in the party, the leadership decided to shift Hussain to youth affairs and sports, now held by Vikram Verma.

Sources said Verma may get communications. Although Advani and Naidu were keen on not trimming the portfolios of ministers holding dual and even triple departments, Vajpayee wanted Arun Shourie, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj to “shed weight”.

It was tentatively decided that Shourie alone would have to give up one — communications — and hold on to disinvestment so that an anti-reforms signal is not sent.

Sushma is learnt to be interested in communications — a ministry she once held. If she is obliged, Verma may get health, Sushma’s second portfolio in addition to parliamentary affairs.


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