The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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New Delhi, May 22: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took the reins of governance this evening. So did the old guard.

Meeting the 5.30 deadline with hardly an hour to spare, Singh led to Rashtrapati Bhavan a 67-member council of ministers which has a considerable representation of minorities and weaker sections but a negligible presence of the young — a key factor of Elections 2004.

Women were another casualty, accounting for only 11 per cent of the entire ministry with a lone berth in the 28-member cabinet.

Sown in the precarious balancing act — which forced Singh to increase the size of the first lot and leaves him not much room for manoeuvre later as a new law limits the total size to 82 — were inevitable seeds of discontent.

Ram Vilas Paswan, who kept Singh on tenterhooks through the day and took oath only after V.P. Singh shuttled between the Bihar politician and Sonia Gandhi, tonight threatened to walk out of the alliance in the state for the Assembly polls.

A last-minute surgery on the list of portfolios to appease Paswan set off a chain reaction of murmurs that ensured the berths could not be announced as usual after the swearing-in today. The portfolios are expected to be made public tomorrow when Singh holds his first cabinet meeting.

Health, besides chemicals, was offered to Paswan as consolation for giving up railway to Laloo Prasad Yadav. But the compromise touched a raw nerve in the PMK, which was keen on health.

Asked about the scramble for berths, Sonia, who was beaming throughout the ceremony, said: “It is usual when different people with different ideologies come together. But there is no problem. It will be a stable government.”

Reflecting the regional shift in the power equations, Singh’s ministry has several faces from the south — Tamil Nadu has as many as 12 ministers. Bihar, too, has 12 while political behemoth Uttar Pradesh has only two.

“India is a country of great diversity. This cabinet reflects that diversity much more than any of its predecessors,” said Singh, who drove straight to his office in South Block after being sworn in.

But the overriding feature of his ministry is the presence of the Congress’ old guard and loyalists of 10 Janpath.

The Congress contingent is packed with war horses like Arjun Singh, K. Natwar Singh and H.R. Bhardwaj. Loyalists like Shivraj Patil and P.M. Sayeed have found place in the cabinet, though they both lost the elections. A surprise inclusion in the cabinet is P. Chidambaram, who is yet to formally rejoin the Congress. But his past loyalty to the family worked in his favour.

The choice of ministers of state from the Congress also showed that the party leadership preferred loyalty and experience, though some of them like Santosh Mohan Dev, Jagdish Tytler and Kapil Sibal were expecting cabinet berths. After nearly 25 years of work in the party and unstinted loyalty to the family, general secretary Oscar Fernandes found a slot as minister of state.

The 28 cabinet-rank ministers — 10 are from the allies — took oath according to their order of seniority in the new government. Pranab Mukherjee, the first to take oath after Singh, is considered number two in the hierarchy. Bengal has another cabinet minister, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi.

The ministry-makers also seem to have laid stress on an undeclared combine of upper castes, other backward classes and minorities. In the cabinet, upper castes and OBCs have 12 members each and minorities four. The whole council has nine from the minority communities.

Among the allies, M. Karunanidhi’s DMK is the winner with three cabinet slots. Laloo Prasad’s RJD — the largest coalition partner after the Congress — has two cabinet berths and six ministers of state. Of the 39 ministers of state, 15 have gone to the allies. Laloo Prasad, not keen on moving to Delhi till late last night, was also sworn in.

With Tamil Nadu and Bihar bagging the lion’s share, states like Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh have no representation.

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