The United Progressive Alliance's top two leaders — Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — met on Saturday, for the third time in three weeks, ahead of strong speculation that there would be changes in the Union Council of Ministers early next week.
Even as these two leaders met in the national capital, Union Finance Minister — and UPA's chief troubleshooter — Pranab Mukherjee called on Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) supremo M. Karunanidhi in Chennai and emerged later, saying that the Congress-DMK alliance was still on.
However, it is learnt that Mr. Karunanidhi expressed his unhappiness about the arrest of his daughter, Rajya Sabha MP, Kanimozhi, and Congress sources added that that she might have to be made Minister once she was cleared of charges.
It was important, the Congress sources here added, to ensure that all UPA partners were on board before undertaking the ministerial reshuffle. There are also two vacancies in the DMK now, following the exit of Union Textiles Minister Dayanidhi Maran earlier this week, and the resignation of Telecom Minister A. Raja, last year. These sources, however, said the DMK was not too keen on replacing the two at this moment.
The departure of Mamata Banerjee from the Union Railway Ministry to the Chief Minister's office in West Bengal has also created a Cabinet slot for the Trinamool Congress, which will have to be filled.
Then there has been the public offer of resignation by Corporate Affairs Minister Murli Deora, being read in political circles as an indication that he was to be dropped.
Informed sources here said that the top four Ministers — Mr. Mukherjee, Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Union External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna — were not going to be touched. There has been speculation earlier about Mr. Krishna, but with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton due to visit India on July 19, that has been ruled out.
Meanwhile, even as Ministers, whose names were being taken in political circles as heading for the exit door, maintained a stoic silence, Union Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily told journalists that he was confident he would continue in his Ministry, scotching rumours that he was due for a change.
Changes are expected in the Uttar Pradesh contingent, as the Congress wishes to send out a positive message to the State ahead of next year's crucial Assembly elections, including talk of Minister of State for Steel Beni Prasad Verma being elevated to the Cabinet, and the induction of actor-MP Raj Babbar in the Council of Ministers. As far as the troubled State of Andhra Pradesh is concerned, where the Telangana issue continues to keep the Central leaders busy dousing fires, there is a great deal of speculation about elevations and fresh inductions, but no confirmation.
It was also not clear whether Ministers holding dual charge such as Kapil Sibal who has Telecom and HRD or P.K. Bansal who handles science and technology, earth sciences and parliamentary affairs will have their workload lightened.
President Pratibha Patil returned to Delhi on Friday after a week-long stay in Andhra Pradesh, making it possible for the government to conduct the reshuffle any time.