At UPA coordination committee meeting, DMK and NCP express discomfort

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hoped to reshuffle and expand his Council of Ministers by month-end, but it now looks, a senior Congress leader told The Hindu on Thursday, as though the changes will have to be postponed, possibly till the second half of October. Asked whether it was likely that this exercise could be deferred till the new year, he said: “No, there are too many vacancies: they must be filled.”

Indeed, over the last three years, a spate of resignations has forced the Prime Minister to give dual charge to several Cabinet colleagues. If A. Raja and Dayanidhi Maran of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were asked to resign because of their alleged involvement in the 2G scam, more recently, Mukul Roy and six of his junior colleagues — all Ministers of State — from the Trinamool Congress quit when their party withdrew support to the government. In between, the Congress’s Virbhadra Singh was asked to step down on corruption charges, and Vilasrao Deshmukh died.

Over the last few weeks, as the Prime Minister and Congress president Sonia Gandhi sought to reshape the Council of Ministers, there has been resistance, party sources said, from some of those whose portfolios are sought to be changed. Of those holding dual charge, many have a favourite Ministry which they do not wish to part with. Simultaneously, with the DMK leadership not keen on naming any of its MPs to replace those who have quit, and the Trinamool walking out of the UPA, the pool of names to choose Ministers from has shrunk. The only new ally the UPA has gained in the recent past — in December 2011 — is the Rashtriya Lok Dal whose leader Ajit Singh is Civil Aviation Minister.

The first indication that the reshuffle was being put off came when Surface Transport Minister C.P. Joshi was given additional charge of the Railways portfolio last Saturday, these sources added: for if the reshuffle was to be effected within a week, this announcement could also have been deferred. But clearly, a key Ministry like the Railways could not have been left headless for a longer period.

The last few weeks have also seen the Prime Minister in decisive mode, undertaking a string of controversial economic policy measures. A furious Trinamool exited the UPA, forcing the government to find alternative support to ensure its continued stability. Next, to stem discontent in any other section of the UPA, it first secured the endorsement of the Congress Working Committee for its decisions on raising the price of diesel, capping the number of subsidised LPG cylinders that individual households could get and FDI in retail.

And on Thursday, a similar exercise was undertaken at a meeting of the less than two month-old UPA coordination committee. If both the DMK and the NCP expressed their discomfort, sources in these parties said, especially with the decisions on diesel and cooking gas, the Prime Minister and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram explained the urgent need for the measures taken. The DMK, which had participated in the Opposition-sponsored bandh on September 20, wanted a partial reversal of the diesel price hike and the cap on LPG cylinders to be increased; the NCP concurred with the DMK on the LPG issue.

‘Policy measures necessary’

Emerging from the meeting held at the Prime Minister’s residence, Mr. Chidambaram told journalists: “There was general satisfaction that many of the steps taken by the government, although some of them would put a burden on the people, have been welcomed by stakeholders as necessary and unavoidable.” The need for more reforms was discussed, he said, adding, “The Prime Minister underlined the need for a number of measures that will ensure that there is no volatility in the rupee and investments continue to flow into India as well as stimulate domestic investors so that they would also invest in the economy.”

Clearly, the Prime Minister needs the negative impact of the economic policies to recede, and the UPA allies to settle down, before undertaking what is being billed as the last big reshuffle before 2014.

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