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Pawar wants to shed load

New Delhi, July 5: Sharad Pawar today called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with an unusual request: reduction of his workload.

Singh was non-committal to the agriculture, food and civil supplies minister’s request, sources said. That Singh did not reject the plea outright is being seen as indication that the cabinet may be shuffled before Parliament’s monsoon session begins on July 26.

With the Opposition joining hands over price rise, Singh and his Congress managers would be relieved to have spare minister berths. Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal has been knocking on the doors of the UPA, which has only a working majority of 274 MPs in the Lok Sabha. If Ajit agrees to become food minister, the UPA would get an additional cushion of five members.

Pawar, who was elected International Cricket Council president last week and is required to spend four-five days at the ICC headquarters in Dubai every month, said his request had little to do with cricket. “Dubai is barely (a) three-hour flight (away) and I would be going there mostly on weekends,” he said, speaking from his Krishi Bhavan office.

“The reason I met the Prime Minister and requested (him) to relinquish some of my work is that I want to concentrate on building my party, the Nationalist Congress Party.”

Pawar’s request has generated interest in political circles because he is not known to make any move without weighing the political dividends. The buzz in the NCP is that if Singh relieves Pawar of food and civil supplies, he would be under pressure to induct an additional junior minister from the NCP. So, Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule or colleague Tariq Anwar would stand to gain.

On the political plane, Pawar’s move appears aimed at fending off criticism on the rise in prices of essential commodities. Sources close to Pawar said if he was divested of the food portfolio, he would not be constantly blamed for failing to rein in prices.

Sources close to Pawar said he had not been enjoying his second UPA cabinet stint as much as he had the first one (2004-2009). Pawar had then headed various groups of ministers (GoMs) and informally acted as UPA convener. In the cabinet hierarchy, he had been ranked after Pranab Mukherjee. But after P. Chidambaram moved to home, Pawar is ranked behind both, which denies him the chance to head GoMs.

In Congress circles, Pawar’s offer is being taken with a “bagful of salt”. “Experience has taught us that he is a clever fox. We will wait and see how things shape up,” a veteran Pawar-watcher said. “The politician in Pawar is always capable of turning the tables. We just hope and pray he is not up to some games….”

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