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Soni, Soz, Deora join Union Cabinet
Bansal, Ashwani Kumar among 19 new faces in
Manmohan Ministry
Anita Katyal
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, January 29
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first comprehensive reshuffle and expansion of his 20-month-old Council of Ministers attempted to address the regional imbalance in his team and take into account the upcoming Assembly polls in five states.

It was also meant to rationalise the distribution of portfolios and fill the large number of existing vacancies in the Cabinet. In the process, the long-awaited exercise, turned out to be particularly partial to Rajya Sabha members. Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, with a total of seven ministers each, have got more than their share of nominees while Uttaranchal and Chhattisgarh were overlooked.

Nine of the 19 new ministers sworn in today belong to the Upper House. This includes Ambika Soni, Vayalar Ravi, Murli Deora, Saifuddin Soz, Jairam Ramesh, T.Subirammi Reddy, Anand Sharma, Ashwani Kumar and Akhilesh Das.

Today’s exercise, which followed months of discussions, involved the induction of seven Ministers of Cabinet rank, 12 Ministers of State and elevation of three MoS to the Cabinet level.

As indicated yesterday, nobody was given the key External Affairs Ministry as the Prime Minister decided to retain the portfolio in view of US president George Bush’s upcoming visit. All top ministries - Defence, Home, Finance and Human Resource Development - remain untouched. Law Minister H.R.Bharadwaj, who was in the eye of a storm over the Quattrocchi controversy, has been retained.

High profile minister Mani Shankar Aiyar lost the coveted Petroleum Ministry to Murli Deora, whose appointment raised many eyebrows in the Congress, given his proximity to certain controversial industrial houses.

Renuka Chaudhary, who was engaged in a prolonged battle with her ministry’s bureaucracy, was divested of the tourism portfolio, which has now gone to Ambika Soni, a close aide of Congress President Sonia Gandhi. This is her first stint as a minister though Mrs. Soni has held several senior positions in the party.

Former Maharashtra Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, who was appointed Andhra Pradesh Governor despite the party’s victory in the last state Assembly poll, has been moved to the Cabinet. He gets the key Power Ministry, held by P.M.Sayeed, who died recently.

It was speculated that like Mr. Shinde, former Karnataka Chief Minister S.M.Krishna, who is not particularly happy occupying the Maharashtra Raj Bhavan, would also be given a berth in the Union Cabinet.

Drawing a distinction between the two, Congress insiders said, the party lost the Karnataka election under Mr. Krishna’s leadership while Mr. Shinde secured a victory in his state. That the Maharashtra leader was a Dalit also worked in his favour.

In an effort to correct the regional imbalance in his team, the Prime Minister has given greater representation to Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra while several states, which were left out, have been given their due share. Punjab, for instance, which did not have any nominees, now has two representatives, Ambika Soni and Ashwani Kumar, while Chandigarh MP Pawan Kumar Bansal and Himachal Pradesh’s Anand Sharma have been inducted as Ministers of State, also a first for both.

However, Chhattisgarh and Uttranchal still remain unrepresentated.

Congress sources said Uttaranchal PCC chief Harish Rawat was also to be inducted but the party was unable to contact him as he was travelling in his home state.

The ministerial changes, finalised by Dr. Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi after several rounds of discussions yesterday, have also taken into account that Assembly elections are due in several states.

Vyalyar Ravi, for instance, has been given a Cabinet berth in view of the upcoming polls in Kerala, where the Congress had performed poorly in the last Lok Sabha election.

Similarly, Tamil Nadu PCC chief and son of late G.K. Moopanar, G.K.Vasan, has been inducted as Minister of State (independent charge) with an eye on the Tamil Nadu elections. Mr. Santosh Mohan Deb has been elevated to Cabinet rank, because of his seniority and the fact that his home-state Assam is among the five poll-bound states.

Saifuddin Soz, a senior leader from Jammu and Kashmir, and former Maharashtra Chief Minister A.R.Antulay, were inducted to give representation to minorities in the government. The Union Cabinet was bereft of any Muslim face after Ghulam Nabi Azad’s move to Jammu and Kashmir and P.M.Sayeed’s death.

Although today’s expansion-cum-reshuffle was confined primarily to the Congress, JMM leader Shibu Soren, who resigned after he became Jharkhand Chief Minister, reclaimed his coal portfolio. Prem Chand Gupta, known for his proximity to Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, was elevated to the Cabinet rank.
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