Wednesday, July 3, 2002, Chandigarh, India

National Capital Region--Delhi


M A I N   N E W S

Parleys on to rope in Mamata
T. R. Ramachandran
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, July 2
Hectic parleys are on with a defiant Mamata Banerjee to hammer out a face-saving compromise whereby the NDA buys valuable time on the bifurcation of Eastern Railway thus paving the way for the Trinamool Congress chief’s reinduction into Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Cabinet.

“The doors are open and every effort is being made to meet Ms Banerjee’s concerns regarding her home state of West Bengal,” according to authoritative sources.

They are quick to acknowledge that Ms Banerjee has her political compulsions and needs to send a proper message to her constituents that the interests of West Bengal are not being brushed under the carpet. There is cautious optimism that the prevailing deadlock will be resolved soon.

If proper assurances are forthcoming from the NDA leadership, Ms Banerjee is now reconciled to accepting a portfolio other than the Railways under the charge of Samata party’s Nitish Kumar.

She has been assured that the Trinamool Congress will definitely have two ministers for a start — one of Cabinet rank and the other Minister of State. Depending on the accommodation displayed by the Trinamool Congress, Ms Banerjee can enjoy the leverage of a second Minister of State from her ranks.

Mr Vajpayee has asked Union Defence Minister and NDA convener George Fernandes and Officer on Special Duty in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) Sudheendra Kulkarni to liaise closely with Ms Banerjee and find an amicable way out to her misgivings about bifurcating the Eastern Railway scheduled to be effected in October. Frenzied efforts are on to work out a face-saving compromise for both sides.

Mr Fernandes, who is away in Mumbai and expected to return here tonight, has already spoken over the telephone with Ms Banerjee. As Mr Vajpayee’s troubleshooter, Mr Fernandes will take up the Eastern Railway imbroglio with his party colleague and Railways Minister Nitish Kumar to find an amicable way out.

As Mr Vajpayee’s aide, Mr Kulkarni, who has a rapport with Ms Banerjee is also in close touch with her.

Ms Banerjee has come around that she cannot regain the Railways portfolio. Consequently, she is indulging in some hard bargaining so that the strength of the Trinamool Congress goes up to three in the Union Council of Ministers.

She has been sounded out on the Ministry of Surface Transport or Coal and Mines. The Ministry of Surface Transport can affect BJP’s Maj-Gen B.C. Khanduri, who is holding independent charge of Road Transport and Highways. She has desired clubbing Shipping with Surface Transport. The Vajpayee government is not averse to these suggestions but the bee in her bonnet on bifurcation of the Eastern railway has to be erased.

The NDA leadership believes that an assurance that bifurcation of the Eastern Railway will be put on hold till a high-powered committee studies the issue in its entirety or stalling the emotive matter through some other mechanism will satisfy her.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister after his major reshuffle-cum-expansion of the Cabinet yesterday has effected several subtle but important changes, largely among the huge battery of Ministers of State.

Significantly, he has brought about another swap of portfolios at the Cabinet level besides that of Mr Jaswant Singh and Mr Yaswant Sinha. After the reshuffle, Mr Jaswant Singh has moved to Finance and Mr Sinha to the high-profile External Affairs Ministry.

The second swap of ministries was between Mr Shanta Kumar, who has managed to retain his ministerial berth because of the upcoming assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh, and JD’s Sharad Yadav. While Mr Shanta Kumar will look after Labour, Mr Sharad Yadav will deal with Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution.

Then, in a precedent setting move the Prime Minister has provided additional charge to at least three Ministers of State all of whom belong to the BJP. Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office Vijay Goel gets additional charge of Statistics and Programme Implementation with the exit of Ms Maneka Gandhi from the Union Cabinet.

The suave Ravi Shankar Prasad, who fought the fodder scam case in the Bihar High Court and made a big dent in the mafia-ridden coal and mines sectors, will assist Mr K. Jana Krishnamurthy in the Ministry of Law and Justice. He will now report directly to Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani who is additionally his senior minister in Coal and Mines.

Minister of State in the Ministry of Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation O. Rajagopal will be Mr Pramod Mahajan’s deputy in the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs.

Minister of State with independent charge of Food Processing Chaman Lal Gupta has been moved to the crucial Defence Ministry as Mr Fernandes’ deputy.

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