Thursday, October 5, 2000,
Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

PM may not expand Cabinet
From T.R. Ramachandran
Tribune News Service

NEW DELHI, Oct 4— Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is unlikely to enlarge his Cabinet in the immediate future as that will inevitably open the floodgates for the other constituents of the National Democratic Alliance government to seek additional ministerial berths.

That is something Mr Vajpayee wants to avoid at this juncture though he has refused to put a cap on the strength of his Council of Ministers. As he is heading the largest ever coalition government at the Centre, the Prime Minister has stressed that inductions will depend on the exigencies of the situation from time to time.

An exercise is, however, on at full steam in the Prime Minister’s office to assuage the feelings of Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee who put in her papers as Union Railways Minister along with her party colleague Ajit Panja who was Minister of State for External Affairs on September 30 in protest against the steep hike in the prices of petroleum products.

She has demanded a rollback in the prices of kerosene, diesel and cooking gas. The Prime Minister’s special emissary Sudheendra Kulkarni, who had extended discussions with Ms Banerjee in Calcutta, has since returned here with a formula which is aimed at boosting the sagging image of the Trinamool Congress chief in West Bengal.

Mr Kulkarni is scheduled to report to Mr Vajpayee about the extended discussions he had with Ms Banerjee to end the impasse. It is evident that all parties involved in the fresh political imbroglio are looking for a face-saving device whereby the BJP-Trinamool Congress alliance remains intact.

The Prime Minister, who was extremely busy yesterday and a greater part of today with the official visit of President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, is then expected to firm up the proposals.

Amazingly, Mr Naik has been candid in admitting that he is clueless about any rollback in the prices of petroleum products. He has made it clear that neither the PMO nor the Finance Ministry has contacted him so far. He has remained steadfast that there can be no rollback as the government is committed to gradually bring down subsidies to zero level by March 31, 2000.

This issue is to be decided at the Cabinet meeting tomorrow which the PMO feels, will hopefully pave the way for Ms Banerjee and Mr Panja to “honourably” withdraw their resignation.

Mr Vajpayee is keen to resolve the issue with Trinamool Congress early and in any case before he departs for Mumbai on Sunday for the knee replacement surgery at the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai slated for October 10.

It appears certain that the Vajpayee government is set to roll- back partially the price hike imposed on LPG and kerosene. Sources suggested a reduction in LPG to the tune of Rs 10 per cylinder and between Re 1 and Rs 1.50 per litre on kerosene. There are serious differences of opinion in the government about tinkering with the increase in the price of diesel and petrol. This will push the oil pool deficit to a staggering Rs 25,000 crore.

As regards increasing the ranks of the Trinamool Congress in the Union Council of Ministers, sources say it is premature to offer any comments. At the same time they feel Mr Vajpayee may keep matters in this regard in abeyance to avoid the cacophony of accommodating the other partners of the NDA.

As quid pro quo, the Prime Minister is not averse to elevating Mr Panja by providing him independent charge of a new portfolio. That necessarily entails moving Mr Panja out of the External Affairs Ministry.

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