New Delhi, Jan 19: Three new ministers of state were inducted, three promoted to cabinet rank and some major portfolios changed hands Wednesday in the much-anticipated shuffle of the ministerial pack that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described as minor and his critics as too timid.
The exercise, meant to shore up the battered image of the 19-month-old government buffeted by corruption scandals and charges of non-performance, saw no minister being dropped and no changes made in the big four – the prime minister’s core team of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, Defence Minister A.K. Antony and External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna.
The changes in this first overhaul of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II government were restricted largely to his Congress party and did not include any from his allies, except for the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Muslim League Kerala State Committee.
NCP leader Praful Patel was promoted as cabinet minister along with Congress veterans Salman Khursheed and Sriprakash Jaiswal, taking the cabinet strength to 35, including the prime minister.
Khursheed got water resources with additional charge of minority affairs. Patel got charge of heavy industries and public enterprises and Jaiswal retained his portfolio but got promoted because of his good work.
The entrusting of coal and water resources portfolios to cabinet rank ministers reflected the importance of such important resources to the national economy.
The three new faces in the prime minister’s new team of ministers administered the oath of office by President Pratibha Patil at the Ashoka Hall of Rastrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace were Ashwani Kumar, K.C. Venugopal and Beni Prasad Verma.
While Ashwani Kumar (science and technology, earth sciences, planning and parliamentary affairs) and Beni Prasad Verma (steel) have been union ministers before, Venugopal (power), a lawyer and a first-time MP, has only been a minister in Kerala.
“This is a minor reshuffle. There will be an expansion of the cabinet after the budget session (of parliament),” the 78-year-old prime minister, halfway into his second term, told reporters after the swearing-in of the three new ministers in his government.
Though sceptics pointed out that there appeared to be no punitive action against any non-performing or tainted minister in this reshuffle, being held in the backdrop of the many crises faced by the government, some like Murli Deora (corporate affairs) and M.S. Gill (statistics and programme implementation), were obviously downgraded.
Deora was removed from the petroleum and natural gas ministry in an apparent bid to offset criticism about escalating fuel prices and the charge was given to S. Jaipal Reddy.
Gill’s removal from the sports ministry comes after the Commonwealth Games, which went off successfully but saw India’s image being tainted for the many corruption scandals. Ajay Maken takes over from him.
In another change, senior minister and NCP chief Sharad Pawar, under attack for his alleged failure in curbing the rising prices of essential commodities, was relieved of the charge of consumer affairs and food though he retained the agriculture portfolio.
The consumer affairs and food portfolio was given to K.V. Thomas.
The three – Maken, Thomas and Beni Prasad Verma – are ministers of state with independent charge.
With this, the Manmohan Singh ministry will have 78 ministers – 35 cabinet ministers (including the prime minister), six ministers of state with independent charge and 37 ministers of state.
The opposition was unimpressed.
“Except for the reduction in the portfolio of Sharad Pawar, there is nothing new in the reshuffle of union cabinet,” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman told IANS.
Forward Bloc national secretary G Devarajan added that the reshuffle “just old wine in new bottle”, a phrase that found oft repetition by political commentators.
“This is not going to solve any of the pressing problems of the people like inflation, price rise or unemployment,” he said.
Analysts pointed out that there was little effort to address some old problems.
The new council of ministers has only three women cabinet ministers, one woman minister of state with independent charge and four women ministers of state. This accounts for only 10 percent representation against the much touted 33 percent.
The Congress might also find itself in a tricky situation vis-à-vis its allies. No minister has been inducted from West Bengal, home ground of the Trinamool Congress of feisty Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee, and from Tamil Nadu, where DMK is the leader.
Both states are heading for polls. However, Kerala, also poll-bound has been well looked after – there’s a new minister in K.C. Venugopal, a new portfolio (external affairs) to Muslim League minister E. Ahamed, independent charge to K.V. Thomas (consumer affairs) and additional charge of civil aviation for Overseas Indian Minister Vayalar Ravi.
The importance accorded to Uttar Pradesh, which goes to polls next year, was also evident. While Khursheed, also a former state Congress chief, and Sriprakash Jaiswal were promoted to cabinet rank, former socialist Beni Prasad Verma was inducted as a minister of state.
The government has been plagued by issues of governance, reflected mainly by its inability to curb rising prices of food and fuel and political corruption that has made even industry leaders write letters seeking the prime minister’s “urgent” intervention to check the “governance deficit”.