| Advani and Vajpayee during the ministers’ swearing-in at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Monday. (AFP)
New Delhi, Sept. 8: Mamata Banerjee today rejoined Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s council of ministers, but the Trinamul Congress chief’s 29-month wait for a portfolio continues.
The Bengal leader, who resigned as railway minister in March 2001 in the wake of the Tehelka sting operation that exposed corruption in defence purchases, refused to accept the low-key coal ministry despite hectic efforts by Vajpayee and NDA convener George Fernandes. She was inducted as minister without portfolio.
The swearing-in — advanced because of the “inauspicious” two-week-long pitrapaksha period from September 11 when Hindus remember their ancestors and stay away from liquor and non-vegetarian food — was low-key. Several Trinamul MPs were conspicuous by their absence, among them Sudip Bandopadhyay, Ajit Panja, Ranjit Panja, Krishna Bose and Bikram Sarkar.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said when Mamata met Vajpayee last night, she was offered coal but declined it, preferring to remain a minister without portfolio. They said Mamata is averse to the coal ministry for two reasons: most of its unions are Left-controlled and there is not much she can do as Lok Sabha elections are round the corner.
Mamata, however, discounted reports that she was unhappy at being offered coal. “This is not true. I am very happy. So is my party,” she told reporters after the swearing-in at Rashtrapati Bhavan. “Ministry or no ministry, it does not matter. I am not going to fight for any portfolio.”
Asked where she would function from, the Trinamul leader said: “The entire country is my office.”
But she did not forget her constituency back home. “I am from West Bengal. Whatever politics I do, I will not forget that I am from West Bengal…,” she told reporters at her residence.
Mamata said her party has always supported the NDA and she had “great respect for the Prime Minister” and would abide by whatever Vajpayee said. “I cannot say no to the Prime Minister,” she added.
Asked what transpired during her meeting with the Prime Minister, she shot back: “I cannot talk about it outside. It is totally confidential.”
Sources said the Prime Minister is likely to have another round of talks with his deputy, .K. Advani, finance minister Jaswant Singh and BJP chief M. Venkaiah Naidu on how to resolve the Mamata issue. Vajpayee held separate talks with the three before deciding to reinduct her.
Asked after the swearing-in whether he expected Mamata to create problems, a smiling Vajpayee said: “I will ask her in your presence here.”
Sources said Mamata is demanding surface transport or rural development, but the BJP is unlikely to spare either. The Prime Minister, according to NDA sources, may not replace surface transport minister B.C. Khanduri, who is doing a good job with the national highway project. The BJP, they added, also does not want to give rural development to any of its allies as the ministry oversees scores of populist and developmental projects.
To find a way out of the tangle, Mamata, the sources said, may be offered civil aviation, held by Rajiv Pratap Rudi.
Mamata dismissed “rumours” that senior Trinamul leaders were not happy with her reinduction, and said Ajit Panja had congratulated her and sent flowers. Asked why Bandopadhyay, whom Advani almost got a ministerial berth in July, was not offered one this time, she said: “It was the Prime Minister’s prerogative.”