M A I N   N E W S

Antony gets Defence
* Pranab Mukherjee moved to External Affairs
* Jai Prakash Yadav, Ambareesh sworn in
T.R. Ramachandran
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, October 24
After some hiccups, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lightened his burden by drafting senior Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee to oversee the crucial External Affairs portfolio and brought back three-time Kerala Chief Minister and former Union Minister A.K. Antony as the Union Defence Minister along with making adjustments in the assignments of Union Panchayati Raj Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar coupled with giving Minister without Portfolio Oscar Fernandes independent charge of Labour and Employment.

In the brief oath taking ceremony here this evening in the Asoka Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan, Mr Antony returned to the Cabinet along with RJD’s Jai Prakash Narain Yadav and picked Karnataka’s unrivalled angry man of the silver screen M.H. Ambareesh as Ministers of State. While Yadav, who had resigned about a year back, retained his old charge as a junior minister in the Ministry of Water Resources, Ambareesh will be the new Minister of State in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

In one of the briefest interface with mediapersons after the swearing in ceremony, Dr Singh said: “I am very relieved” at having a Cabinet-rank minister to oversee External Affairs. The Prime Minister has been overseeing External Affairs since the exit of Mr K. Natwar Singh in the wake of the United Nation’s Oil for Food scam in Iraq about a year back.

Initially, some reservations had been expressed in the Congress leadership about Mr Mukherjee taking over the External Affairs Ministry as he has virtually been the number two in the government and a master strategist in tackling delicate political matters and liaising with the allies of the Congress-led UPA government, especially the Left parties.

Besides, Mr Mukherjee has also been heading a host of Group of Ministers panel to evolve a consensus on various issues, including the controversial quota matter. Some of these aspects might have to take a back seat now. The tough talking Mr Mukherjee has his plate full with several aspects of crucial national interest with major world powers to be resolved as also the stalled Indo-Pak composite dialogue after the Mumbai serial blasts in suburban trains being put back on the rails. Then there is also the proposed joint mechanism to tackle the menace of terrorism between the two neighbours.

It was after yesterday’s meeting between Dr Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi that the minor expansion and reshuffle was clinched as also who moves to the high profile External Affairs Ministry.

An RJD slot in the Union Council of Ministers had to be filled and clearly the party supremo and union Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav held sway in Mr Yadav returning to his old charge despite some queer twists and turns about a year back. A non-bailable warrant was issued against him for allegedly aiding the escape of his brother from police custody during the Assembly elections in Bihar.

Refusing to go into the unsavoury incidents of the past, Mr Yadav observed he was a foot soldier and follower of the RJD chief and would discharge his duties and responsibilities diligently and sincerely.

Simultaneously, Mr Aiyar overseeing Panchayati Raj, Youth Affairs and Sports has been given additional charge of development of the Northeast region and minister of state Chandersekhar Sahu moved to the Ministry of Rural Development.

Of the three new entrants to the Manmohan Singh government, two hail from the south — Kerala and Karnataka. Mr Antony’s name has been doing the rounds since this morning which he confirmed later in the day that he had been invited to join the government. As is his won’t he maintained that the allocation of portfolio was the Prime Minister’s prerogative. He returns to the Union Cabinet after a decade . In his earlier avtar he had resigned as the Union Civil Supplies Minister in the Narasimha Rao government.

Given Mr Antony’s track record as a person of unimpeachable integrity, his installation as the Defence Minister assumes significance in the light of major acquisitions in the pipeline for the armed forces and the various inquiries that are under way.

The induction of the MP from Mandya in Mr Ambareesh too has its political significance aimed at bridging the gap between the Congress and the influential Vokkalinga community in Karnataka. A first time minister at the Centre, he becomes Union I and B Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi’s junior.

With the fresh inductions in the Manmohan Singh government, the tally of the Union Council of Ministers stands at 80 with 34 Cabinet Ministers, seven Ministers of State with independent charge and 39 Ministers of State. The Prime Minister had undertaken a comprehensive expansion of his Cabinet in January this year.



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