The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Missing: seal of Singh and Sonia

New Delhi, May 22: The ministry-making was a marathon race that ensured Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi sweated for as many as 16 hours. Yet, the final product lacks the stamp of either Singh or Sonia.

The council of ministers is a picture of compromises. The strains of coalition politics and intra-Congress feuds are written all over the list. Singh, a “politician-bureaucrat” was forced to reward loyalty at all levels.

The line-up of 28 cabinet ministers reveals no dearth of talent, expertise and regional or religious representation. What is lacking is a degree of cohesiveness, a team spirit that could deliver results fast and without fuss.

Congressmen themselves are not too happy with some of the choices, wondering how the image-conscious Sonia and Singh gave the green signal to those like Laloo Prasad Yadav, Sibu Soren and Taslimuddin, all accused in corruption or criminal cases. This is a far cry from Sonia’s resolve to make the Congress a party of the “best and the brightest”.

Singh, who acted as the party’s conscience keeper and headed the Congress’ ethics panel, had vetoed tickets to many “tainted” leaders while Sonia had wasted no time in suspending a leader over his son’s alleged involvement in the Jessica Lal murder case.

Sharad Pawar, Arjun Singh, Natwar Singh, Shivraj Patil, Laloo Prasad, Pranab Mukherjee, Ram Vilas Paswan and P. Chidambaram are some of the most experienced politicians in the country but the big question doing the rounds in the Congress circles is whether they can work together.

It is an open secret that Arjun, Paswan and Laloo Prasad differ on most socio-economic issues with Pawar, Pranab and Chidambaram because they have been around too long and held too many important portfolios to restrict themselves to their respective ministries.

As soon as the swearing-in was over, a whisper campaign began in the Congress about the possibility of influential cabinet ministers teaming up with “like-minded persons” and pursuing their agenda. If the speculation comes true, Singh could be in trouble sooner than later.

Size too matters. A close associate of Singh said: “A council of ministers of 67 does not inspire confidence. It reeks of compromises and lethargy. There is a shortage of fresh faces, women and youngsters.”

Other sources close to Singh, however, said the exercise should be seen in the context of “coalition dharma” where contradictions have to be managed and leaders have to sink differences to achieve the “broader goal”.

The Singh camp is counting heavily on Sonia to frequently rein in and check potential mischief-makers within the party and mavericks among the allies.

Throughout today, Singh struggled with portfolio finalisation. Shivraj Patil’s name came from nowhere for defence after Pawar showed preference for agriculture and food. P.M. Sayeed’s name popped up from 10 Janpath and given his popularity within the Congress, Singh readily agreed, discarding a principle that defeated candidates should not be included at the first instance.

If Singh is given a chance, he would count on the relatively “young” and freshers in his team. This group includes Kapil Sibal, Prithviraj Chavan, Mani Shankar Aiyar, P.R. Das Munshi, Sunil Dutt, Jaipal Reddy, B.K. Handique and Renuka Chowdhury.

Manmohan, however, has sought to satisfy almost all the allies. His initial success of meeting the deadline to pick the team is no mean achievement.

The minorities and the weaker sections have received generous representation and these groups are going to ensure stability. But the threat to Singh does not come from outside. It is lurking within.

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