The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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PM causes no flutter with 19 new faces

New Delhi, Jan. 29: The Prime Minister avoided big surprises as he expanded and shuffled his council of ministers today to achieve what he described as “proper regional representation and giving importance to young and talented people”.

But even that limited agenda was hardly met. Most of the 19 new faces came from three states ' Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab ' and only three from the party’s “youth brigade”: Ajay Maken, M.M. Pallam Raju and D. Purandareshwari, daughter of the late N.T. Rama Rao.

Most of the newcomers were from the Rajya Sabha, a feature that triggered heartburn among the popularly elected Lok Sabha members who felt their “hard work among the masses” had gone unrewarded despite Sonia Gandhi’s stress on grassroots links at the Hyderabad plenary.

Singh kept the external affairs ministry with himself but hinted to reporters that another shuffle was possible after the budget session.

“In due course of time, we will have one. There is always a possibility. One can never rule it out,” Singh said, but denied he was “overburdened”.

The new faces include Andhra Pradesh governor Sushil Kumar Shinde, Rajya Sabha member Murli Deora from Mumbai, Congress general secretary Ambika Soni, Rajya Sabha member Saifuddin Soz from Jammu and Kashmir, Lok Sabha member A.R. Antulay from Maharashtra, film producer and Rajya Sabha member T. Subbirami Reddy, National Advisory Council (NAC) convener Jairam Ramesh and Congress spokesman Anand Sharma.

Shinde got the power portfolio and Deora the prized petroleum and natural gas ministry.

Deora’s gain was Mani Shankar Aiyar’s loss. Aiyar was “compensated”with sports and youth affairs in addition to the panchayati raj portfolio that he already held. Another loser was Ambika, who had been the de facto number three in the Congress hierarchy and enjoyed proximity to Sonia. She now has to be content with tourism and cultural affairs.

Ambika had reportedly insisted on information and broadcasting before the last shuffle but watched it go to Priya Ranjan Das Munshi.

The Congress president is believed to have made it clear this time that Das Munshi would not be “disturbed” and Ambika settled for what was available without ado.

Kapil Sibal scored a half-hearted win by being elevated to cabinet rank without being able to bag a “weightier” portfolio. He had been eyeing law, commerce and power, but the leadership decided not to shift either law and justice minister H.R. Bhardwaj (despite the Quattrocchi controversy) or commerce and industry minister Kamal Nath.

The choice of a Jammu and Kashmir candidate ' to fill the void caused by Ghulam Nabi Azad’s exit ' was a toss-up between Soz, former chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and the latter’s daughter Mehbooba Mufti.

Since it had been decided that this expansion would be “Congress-centric”, the Prime Minister and Sonia opted for Soz, who had mediated in the talks between Delhi and the Hurriyat. Soz got the water resources portfolio.

Till last evening, Rajya Sabha member Mohsina Kidwai had looked likely to bag the “minority quota”, but she got pipped by Antulay. The former Maharashtra chief minister, who has been given the charge of minority affairs, is returning to office after several decades.

Jharkhand Mukti Morcha chief Shibu Soren ' dropped last year after an old criminal case against him was revived ' is back as coal minister.

Among the 12 new ministers of state, three ' Jairam, Subbirami Reddy and Dinshaw Patel ' haven’t got their portfolios. Jairam may get commerce or rural development. Sonia had wanted him in.

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