Khursheed gets Law, Railways for Dinesh Trivedi; Last reshuffle before the polls, says Manmohan

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made two key changes in his Union Council of Ministers on Tuesday: Jairam Ramesh, whose high-profile tenure as Environment and Forests Minister led to the enforcement of long-neglected environmental norms for major industrial projects, was moved to Rural Development, his place being taken by Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan, now Minister of State (MoS) with independent charge. And M. Veerappa Moily, whose stint as Law Minister saw the government suffering several embarrassments in the Supreme Court, was replaced by Salman Khursheed.

The change in Mr. Ramesh's position was, of course, sugar-coated: he was promoted to the Cabinet rank and given Rural Development, a critical portfolio for the United Progressive Alliance, where his past involvement with designing, and later, monitoring the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme — as a member of the National Advisory Council in UPA-1 — is expected to be useful.

On the other hand, ministerial sources said Mr. Moily was downgraded by being shifted to Corporate Affairs, just as Vilasrao Deshmukh's key portfolios of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj were substituted with the relatively less important Science and Technology and Earth Sciences.

However, Dr. Singh's promise of “expansive” changes was, in the end, not dramatic enough to warrant the adjective “substantive,” though as many as five Cabinet Ministers (including Dayanidhi Maran, who recently submitted his resignation) and two Ministers of State were axed, and there was infusion of fresh blood with eight new faces, including party veteran V. Kishore Chandra Deo as Cabinet Minister for Tribal Affairs and Panchayati Raj.

Dr. Singh told journalists he had tried to make the changes as “comprehensive” as possible and that the reshuffle reflected “the balance necessary between various States,” and “considerations” of efficiency and continuity in government.

The Prime Minister also created a stir by saying “this is the last reshuffle before the polls,” a statement that was seized upon by many Ministers at the tea after the swearing-in at the Rashtrapati Bhavan's grand Ashoka Hall as meaning there would be no further changes till the general elections in 2014.

However, asked whether he meant 2014, Dr. Singh said: “Yes, this is the last reshuffle … but there is no finality in life.” He stressed that he had kept two slots vacant for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam as doing so was part of the “coalition dharma.”

Those who lost their jobs were Dayanidhi Maran, Murli Deora, B.K. Handique, M.S. Gill and Kantilal Bhuria, and Ministers of State S. Sai Prathap and Arun S Yadav. If Mr. Maran's exit was precipitated by allegations of corruption, party sources cited poor health for the retirement of Mr Handique and Mr. Deora (who won a berth for his son), and inefficiency for Mr. Gill. Mr. Bhuria has been asked to focus on his job as Congress chief of Madhya Pradesh, a BJP-ruled State, and Mr. Yadav drafted as a party secretary, while Mr. Sai Prathap was perceived to be a Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy loyalist.

The government also suffered some embarrassment when Ministers of State Gurudas Kamat and Srikant Jena, who were elevated and given independent charge, expressed their unhappiness at not being given Cabinet status.

As predicted, Trinamool Congress leader Dinesh Trivedi became the new Minister for Railways. Beni Prasad Verma was upgraded to the Cabinet. Paban Singh Ghatowar was sworn in as MoS with independent charge, while the five new Ministers of State are Sudip Bandopadhyay (Trinamool), Charan Das Mahant, Jitendra Singh, Milind Deora and Rajeev Shukla (all the four Congress).

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