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MPs joust & jostle to make Singh's 70 - Hat in the ring

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By RADHIKA RAMASESHAN in Delhi
  • Published 26.05.09
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New Delhi, May 26: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will expand his ministry on Thursday, with the swearing-in scheduled at 11.30am, amid fresh jousting for berths within the Congress.

As word spread that the strength of the council of ministers could cross 70 — up from the 60 that Manmohan and Sonia Gandhi had in mind — to take into account “regional balance, social engineering and the senior-youth ratio”, Congress MPs and even non-MPs lobbied for a place.

The maximum number of ministers that can be inducted is 81, since a 2003 amendment to the Constitution caps the ministry size at 10 per cent of the combined strength of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. On May 22, 19 ministers took oath with Manmohan.

The latest “heavyweight” to throw his hat in the ring is Vilasrao Deshmukh, who was forced to step down as Maharashtra chief minister after the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai. Deshmukh is arguing that among the 19 ministers sworn in, five are former chief ministers — A.K. Antony, Ghulam Nabi Azad, S.M. Krishna, M. Veerappa Moily and Sharad Pawar. Pawar belongs to the NCP.

“Those pleading for Deshmukh are spreading the line that Sonia and the Prime Minister believe the government will stand to gain from the experience of the former chief ministers,” a source said. But the source added that Deshmukh quit the office in disgrace and was, therefore, not expected to “add value” to the quality of governance.

Deshmukh, who is not an MP, has pitched for the Rajya Sabha seat vacated by Sushil Kumar Shinde, who won this Lok Sabha election and has been inducted as minister.

Virbhadra Singh, the former chief minister of Himachal Pradesh who is the only party MP elected from the state, is also staking claim to a cabinet berth.

His confidants publicly carped about how a “senior loyalist” like him was passed over for the “relatively young” Anand Sharma, who is a Rajya Sabha MP.

But on the flip side, it was argued that Virbhadra had presided over the Congress rout in the 2007 state elections and that he had “done nothing” since to revive the party.

The rekindled aspirations of former chief ministers is not the only problem for the Congress.

Several ministers of state in the last UPA government tipped to be “rewarded” with a return to the ministry are unhappy they are not getting a promotion. Pawan Bansal, Prithviraj Chavan, Ajay Maken and Vilas Muttenwar are among the unhappy junior ministers. That Anand Sharma, who too was a minister of state in the last government, has got cabinet berth is rankling them further.

Only Jairam Ramesh, who was a junior minister of power and commerce, is likely to be elevated and given independent charge as minister of state.

Karnataka Congress sources questioned the induction of Krishna as foreign minister on the ground that his “political utility” in the state was over. “His caste vote has been appropriated by the Gowdas. He did not have the guts to contest against (the BJP’s) Ananth Kumar (from Bangalore South). His relatives lost their deposits (in the Assembly polls),” a leader said.

Krishna’s detractors in the state unit said that to make good the “mistake” of inducting him, Mallikarjuna Kharge and K.H. Muniappa who represent Karnataka’s Dalit politics would have to be accommodated. “Statistics show the Dalits and OBCs still voted for us. We should maximise the gains,” a source said.

It appears that Oscar Fernandes, who can overcome the caste breach, might be brought back to the cabinet as a “compromise” nominee.

Uttar Pradesh is expected to get five ministers — two cabinet rank and three ministers of state — to represent the many caste and religious groups. Salman Khurshid is likely to be a cabinet minister. State unit chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi has demanded six berths.

From Jammu and Kashmir, Farooq Abdullah’s induction looks almost certain. But Congress MP and former minister Saifuddin Soz is sulking.