The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Party hijacks Vajpayee shuffle
- blow by blow: how the picture changed

New Delhi, May 24: On May 18, sharing his views on the Cabinet shuffle with reporters in Manali, Atal Bihari Vajpayee made two things clear: Mamata Banerjee would be in and “overburdened” ministers holding two or more portfolios would be asked to shed weight.

Six days later, the Prime Minister has not achieved either intention. Mamata will probably have to wait a while before she is made a minister. And the “overburdened” ministers — Arun Shourie, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj — have preserved their turf because they were out of the country, leaving higher-ups to exert the pulls and pressures on their behalf.

When Vajpayee was on vacation, the buzz in the BJP headquarters was he was “busy” working out the shuffle because he was “keen to leave his imprint” and “undo the perception that the last exercise was an Advani-dominated one”. Vajpayee’s “imprint”, sources said, meant he would honour his promise to accommodate NDA allies over the BJP, which was indulged in the last two rounds.

Barely was he back than the BJP unveiled its wishlist through sources said to be speaking on behalf of .K. Advani and M. Venkaiah Naidu. One, it was made clear Mamata would not get rural development because the portfolio, involving a multi-crore budget, was linked to the BJP’s gaon chalo abhiyaan and was always held by the party.

Two, there was no way any BJP minister would “shed weight”. The subtext, sources explained, was M. Karunanidhi’s request that commerce — under Jaitley — be given back to the DMK since Murasoli Maran held it earlier. The BJP’s spin was Jaitley had done the spadework to articulate India’s position on WTO at the Mexico conference and it was pointless to unseat him. Besides, the Centre was doing the DMK a “favour” by retaining the ailing Maran as a minister without portfolio.

Third, there was no way other NDA leaders — like Farooq Abdullah whom Vajpayee was keen on — could be taken. The message from the Advani-Naidu duo was that since the BJP was the nucleus of the coalition, it should have the largest number of ministries as well as keep the crucial portfolios.

With the list ready after endless rounds of consultations — in which Vajpayee sought to bolster his position with the presence of loyalists like Jaswant Singh, George Fernandes and Pramod Mahajan — sources admitted there were no clear winners. “The only message is that the NDA has started to come apart.”

While Advani and Naidu nearly succeeded in keeping Mamata out by ensuring Sudip Bandopadhyay’s entry, Vajpayee hit back by making sure he would not if Mamata was against it.

BJP sources spoke of how Vajpayee was “misled” on Bandopadhyay. “Before she (Mamata) went out of the NDA, she gave the impression she had no problems with Bandopadhyay, so on that basis the Prime Minister agreed to have him,” claimed a source.

“There is a communication gap with Trinamul and we hope it will be bridged soon because Mamata and the BJP coming together will be useful to us as a counter against the CPM.”

The other Advani-Naidu inspired changes were giving Kashiram Rana rural development and making former VHP leader Swami Chinmayanand a minister of state for home.

Chinmayanand figured prominently in Advani’s rath yatra when it traversed Uttar Pradesh in 1990. Sources said Advani insisted on giving him home though he is a member of a VHP committee looking after temple construction and he has shared the dais with anti-Vajpayee elements in the Sangh.

Sources questioned the “wisdom” of inducting Chinmayanand despite his public criticism of the NDA when Ajit Singh was thrown out on the same ground. Singh, who heads the Rashtriya Lok Dal, said his office-bearers would meet in the next two days to decide whether to pull out of the Mayavati government. Five ministers have given in their papers to him.

Other BJP-related changes were explained in caste terms. Rajnath Singh’s induction as agriculture minister was to appease the Rajputs who were “drifting away” from the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. Madhya Pradesh MP Prahlad Patel was taken in to fill the OBC Lodhi Rajput vacuum caused by Uma Bharti’s exit and Kailash Meghwal to send a “signal” to the powerful SC Meghwal caste in Rajasthan.

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