As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi are engaged in an assessment of the performance of Ministers the talk is that lateral shifts among the top four — Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, Defence Minister A.K. Antony and External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna — are possible.

Some Congress leaders feel Mr. Krishna might be headed for a gubernatorial assignment again. The counter argument, however, is that Dr. Singh has a good working relationship with Mr. Krishna on foreign policy and may not want a new minister to disturb the “line of control” between the PMO and MEA.

Cabinet ministers considered vulnerable by party sources include Sports Minister M.S. Gill, Labour Minister Mallikarjun Kharge, Tribal Affairs Minister Kantilal Bhuria and Corporate Affairs Minister Murli Deora. In Mr. Bhuria's case, party leaders are keen that he concentrate on his recent appointment as Madhya Pradesh Congress chief — elections to that State, where the Congress has lost two consecutive elections, are due in 2013. As for Mr. Deora, party sources said, he could be dropped if his son, Milind, is made Mumbai Pradesh Congress chief.

With Assembly elections due in Uttar Pradesh, there is talk of elevating Beni Prasad Verma to the Cabinet. As for the allies, Mukul Roy of the Trinamool Congress, now MoS Railways, could be upgraded to the Cabinet in the same job, though the Congress would have liked to keep the railways for itself, as it had major reforms in mind. But Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee has made it clear she wants her party to retain the railways portfolio.

As for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham, the only party MP senior enough for a Cabinet berth is T.R. Baalu. But government sources say the Prime Minister is not keen to have him back. There could, therefore, be a compromise on S.S. Palanimanickam, currently MoS, Finance.

Meanwhile, Punjab Governor Shivraj Patil is keen on returning to full-time politics and is said to be eyeing the Rajya Sabha seat vacated by Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. If the party does agree to give him the seat, he could well be back in the Cabinet. However, sources said the leadership is not keen on having him back; he was axed as Home Minister after the 26/11 episode.

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