>> Thursday, May 28, 2009

28 May 2009, 0204 hrs IST, TNN

NEW DELHI: Team Manmohan is finally in place. After three days and several rounds of brainstorming, the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi finalised
PM & Sonia Gandhi
PM Manmohan Singh and UPA president Sonia Gandhi during memorial ceremony for Nehru. (AFP Photo)
a team of 78 at around noon on Wednesday, clearing the way for the second stage of government formation which will see no less than 59 ministers take oath of office on Thursday. ( Watch )

As the calls began to go out — some by both PM and Sonia — to the ones that had made it, a buzz grew about surprise exclusions and inclusions. After seeking to work through conflicting claims, Singh and Sonia have delivered a package that packs 29 first-timers and nine ex-CMs, matches loyalty with experience with political equations and tries to ensure that merit does not get the short shrift.

Blog: Only the selfless lobby for ministership

The government won’t have old-time loyalists H R Bhardwaj and Arjun Singh, Jat veteran Sisram Ola, and outgoing ministers Saifuddin Soz and Ashwini Kumar.

With 33 ministers of Cabinet rank, seven MOS with independent charge and 38 MoS, there is now hardly any space for more as the size of the council of ministers cannot cross 81. In other words, there can at best be just three more. For those who are in, it is now a tense wait for porfolios and for rejects it is a case of heartburn that some may give vent to in the next few days.

If there was some puzzlement over why, despite a resounding mandate, the Congress brass took so long to draw up the ministry, the answers may lie in the choices that had to be made. Take the case of ex-Maharashtra CM Vilasrao Deshmukh who, given his seniority may land an important portfolio, despite proving to be incapable of handling crisis situations as 26/11 proved. This is because he is seen as a Maratha leader capable of countering a Congress friend-rival — NCP chief Sharad Pawar.

An Assembly election looms in Maharashtra in a few months and Congress ministers from the state like Sushil Kumar Shinde, Gurudas Kamat, Murli Deora and Mukul Wasnik are all non-Marathas. And Deshmukh can talk tough. Similarly, why induct ex-Himachal Pradesh CM Virbhadra Singh when the tiny state already had a Cabinet minister in Anand Sharma? Well, Sharma was rewarded for loyalty. But this would leave his senior Virbhadra Singh and Thakurs — an important caste in Himachal — in the cold.

The caste matrix can make your head spin, but another poser is why is there not a single Cabinet minister from UP even when Congress’s efforts to revive itself in the state seem to be paying off. But the dilemma was how to pick the suave Salman Khursheed as the chosen one over Sriprakash Jaiswal who has now won thrice in a row. Beni Prasad Varma has just crossed over from SP and it may also not be right to select him just yet.

Congress campaign lynchpin Jairam Ramesh has come in — he is efficient and articulate and one of the few who can claim proximity to Rahul Gandhi. R P N Singh and Pradeep Jain come in as junior ministers and are said to be close to Rahul, as is Jitin Prasada. Another young minister with promise is Sachin Pilot. He is also the only Gujjar in Manmohan’s team.

It is not such a surprise that M S Gill is a Cabinet minister, most certainly in-charge of sports. He came in towards the fag end of the previous government and could not be dropped. He is seen to have shown a sense of purpose and is a key figure in Delhi’s Commonwealth Games. The ministry may need an additional pair of hands — an MoS as well, which it can get after being put under a Cabinet minister. Equations with PMO also helped.

From J&K, Ghulam Nabi Azad is a senior and vastly experienced politico. NC’s Farooq Abdullah is no great shakes as an administrator but is an ally and the Congress brass felt the need to have a Kashmiri outfit represented in the Cabinet. Perhaps, Rahul Gandhi’s equations with J&K CM Omar Abdullah were also in play. Farooq may be designated minister without portfolio.

When the Prime Minister's Office declared that Deshmukh would be one of the cabinet members sworn in on Thursday, the ex-CM's opponents were shocked. Deshmukh has emerged the biggest winner in the cabinet announcements. In the entire cabinet he is the only minister who is neither a Lok Sabha nor a Rajya Sabha member. "No doubt, in the wake of 26/11, Deshmukh had to quit. In fact, he was a victim of NCP politics. But once again he has established his clout in New Delhi and will be elected to the Rajya Sabha,'' a senior Congress minister told TOI.

While Maharashtra had 10 ministers in the outgoing cabinet, it will have only nine in the new one. Mumbai has been rewarded for helping the Congress-NCP sweep the election in the city. Rajya Sabha MP Murli Deora retains his petroleum portfolio, while Mumbai North-West MP Gurudas Kamat, a new face in the cabinet, will be a minister of state.

The other six cabinet ministers from Maharashtra are Mukul Wasnik, Sharad Pawar (retains agriculture), Sushilkumar Shinde, Praful Patel (minister of state with independent charge), Prithviraj Chavan (minister of state) and Pratik Patil (minister of state).

Aside from Deshmukh, the announcement of Sangli MP Pratik Patil was another surprise. The 36-year-old automobile engineer is being viewed as the choice of Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi. Patil's induction is considered a part of the campaign by Rahul Gandhi to bring in new, young faces.

When the poll process began in end-March, there was strong opposition to the candidature of Patil, grandson of Vasantdada Patil, the veteran Congress leader and pioneer of the cooperative movement. Revenue minister Patangrao Kadam was eyeing the Sangli nomination for his son Vishwajeet. The list for western Maharashtra was put on hold by the AICC because of the split over Pratik's candidature.

Ultimately, Patil was nominated, but the local Congress and NCP worked against his campaign. In addition, the BJP withdrew its official nominee and supported Congress rival Ajit Ghorpade. "What his father, who was also an MP, and his grandfather achieved, Pratik also did,'' said a minister. Patil won by a slender margin.

Deshmukh, Patil, Kamat and Wasnik are the new faces in the cabinet from Maharashtra. Kamat, a six-time MP, was expecting a berth in the earlier government, but missed the bus then. Kamat, who has been Mumbai Regional Congress Committee president, shifted from his traditional Mumbai North-East Lok Sabha constituency and successfully contested from Mumbai North-West.

Wasnik is being viewed as the new Dalit face of the Congress. Known for his close alliance with the Gandhis, Wasnik won from the reserved Ramtek constituency. He has been actively working with the party as AICC general secretary. He was reportedly reluctant to take up a ministerial job, but was persuaded to join the cabinet to ensure the party base in Vidarbha is strengthened.

Along with Maratha strongman Pawar, who was once defence minister in the P V Narasimhrao government in 1991, Shinde, Patel, Chavan and Deora have been retained in the cabinet. However, except for Pawar and Deora, the PMO has not declared the other portfolios.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may retain Chavan as minister of state in the PMO. Pawar's favourite political negotiator, Patel, will also be a minister of state.

Among the losers are Mumbai North-Central MP Priya Dutt, high-profile Pune MP Suresh Kalmadi, Nagpur MP Vilas Muttemwar (outgoing minister of state), A R Antulay (outgoing minister for minority affairs), senior MP from Nandurbar Manikrao Gavit (outgoing minister of state for home), Nanded MP Bhaskarrao Patil Khatgaonkar and former home minister Shivraj Patil. Khatgaonkar and Shivraj Patil were vying hard for a central berth. In fact, chief minister Ashok Chavan was lobbying for Khatgaonkar, his brother-in-law, but the PM opted for Deshmukh.

Antulay, a Muslim face in the Congress government, was also expecting a berth, but he lost the polls from Raigad and there was little scope for his reinduction. "They were all in the zone of consideration, but it was not possible to include them,'' a minister said.

In the outgoing government, there were 10 cabinet members from Maharashtra, seven belonging to the Congress and three to the NCP. Now, while the strength of the Congress has remained the same, the NCP's strength has been reduced to two. So far as region-wise representation is concerned, four are from western Maharashtra, two each from Mumbai and Vidarbha and one from Marathwada.

Deshmukh's presence in Delhi is expected to be used by the party as a deterrent against Pawar, who is giving fresh touches to his poll strategy for the crucial assembly elections scheduled for September. The Congress high command hopes that Deshmukh is suited to understanding and countering political moves by Pawar aimed at strengthening the NCP at any cost. Deshmukh has been pushing for the Congress to go it alone in the assembly polls.

Deshmukh is now all set to contest the bye-election to the Rajya Sabha from a seat that will be vacated by Sushilkumar Shinde. Shinde was an RS member, but has been elected from Solapur.

With Deshmukh off to Delhi, chief minister Ashok Chavan will now be a much-relieved man as he no longer has to worry about any threat from Deshmukh.

The NCP's Meghalaya MP, Agatha Sangma, is also all set to take oath as a minister of state.


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