The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Singh springs finance surprise
Pranab trips on home run

New Delhi, May 23: After a daylong struggle over competing demands from allies and from his own party, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sprang a clutch of surprises, naming P. Chidambaram his finance minister.

The Prime Minister himself was expected to hold charge of finance, but with Chidambaram taking over, business and the stock market would be equally happy.

All the big four ministries stay with the Congress — finance, external affairs, home and defence.

Pranab Mukherjee, who was tipped to get home, will instead be the defence minister, another surprise. Shivraj Patil will hold home.

Dogged through the day, which he began with a tribute at Rajghat, by several tussles over portfolios, Singh announced the berths after a dinner meeting at Sonia Gandhi’s house attended by the allies and Congress leaders.

K. Natwar Singh will man external affairs, as had been anticipated. Among the old guard, Arjun Singh had been tipped to get human resource development and that is what he will have.

Sources close to Manmohan Singh said: “The Prime Minister himself opted for Chidambaram. His strong pro-reform views would send the right signals about the new government’s economic agenda.”

They added that the Prime Minister’s choice would have had the support of Sonia. “Obviously, the Congress chief has endorsed Manmohan Singh’s decision,” the sources said. Though a past favourite of the Gandhi family, Chidambaram was not even a certainty for yesterday’s swearing-in.

In the run-up to the elections, he had resisted the Congress leadership’s repeated appeals to merge his regional outfit with the parent party. But he worked his way back in favour in the past few days.

Among the other key ministers are Laloo Prasad Yadav, who gets railways as expected, and Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, his party colleague who has been allocated rural development. This too is not a surprise.

Another big ally, Sharad Pawar, has been put in charge of food and agriculture, portfolios that he had apparently wanted.

Lok Janshakti leader Ram Vilas Paswan, who had nearly boycotted the swearing-in and went along only after being persuaded by former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, has been given chemicals and fertilisers and steel.

Paswan would possibly have got health as a concession for forgoing railways had it not been for Tamil ally PMK. The health portfolio had earlier been promised to the PMK’s R. Anbumani and the Tamil Nadu lobby in the coalition had its way.

After the government’s installation yesterday, Singh had been trying to reconcile conflicting demands from the allies, but it was not as though ministers from the Congress were behaving as angels.

Caught in the jostle, the Prime Minister went to Sonia’s 10 Janpath residence early this afternoon for help to strike a compromise portfolio distribution package.

After a nearly two-hour meeting, there was no sign of a final list as Singh headed to his South Block office to hold the first cabinet meeting in the shadow of the blast in Kashmir in which BSF personnel and their families died.

Although he commented on television about the explosion, Pranab Mukherjee, who ranks next only to the Prime Minister in hierarchy and was expected to get home, now appears to have spoken too soon.

Arjun Singh, who did not contest the elections, is believed to have pitched for home, an attempt that may have soured Mukherjee’s chances.

Patil in that case would have been a compromise candidate, not to speak of the fact that he lost the election. “Sonia can trust Patil to deliver results in a way that Manmohan Singh can deliver the goods for her as Prime Minister,” said a party leader.

The second cabinet minister from Bengal, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, gets water resources.

Kamal Nath is a big winner, with commerce and industry in the bag.

Ghulam Nabi Azad has been rewarded for his loyalty with the urban development portfolio in addition to parliamentary affairs.

The power ministry has gone to another surprise choice, P.M. Sayeed, who too lost the election but is a proven family loyalist. Mani Shankar Aiyar, also in the charmed circle, gets the important petroleum ministry.

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