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Ramachandran, Ajit Singh quit on eve of reshuffle

By Harish Khare


The Union Minister of State for Finance, Gingee N. Ramachandran, outside his South Block office in New Delhi on Friday.

New Delhi May 23. The Agriculture Minister, Ajit Singh, has resigned from the Vajpayee Union Government on the eve of the reshuffle/expansion of the Union Cabinet. The BJP leadership had been gunning for Mr. Singh's ouster and instead of accepting a change of portfolio as was suggested to him, Mr. Singh opted to quit.

While the Prime Minister could exert himself against Mr. Singh whose the Rashtriya Lok Dal commands only one vote in the Lok Sabha, Mr. Vajpayee and his senior Government and party colleagues had a difficult time trying to persuade the Minister of State for Finance, Gingee N. Ramachandran, to put in his papers. Mr. Ramachandran's continuation in the Vajpayee Government was deemed untenable after the arrest on Thursday of his personal assistant by the Central Bureau of Investigation for allegedly accepting a "bribe" from an Income-Tax official for transferring him to a place of his choice.

It was only late in the evening that Mr. Ramachandran had sent in his resignation. It was immediately accepted by the Prime Minister and forwarded to the President with the advice that it be accepted.

There was the belated realisation that the Ramachandran caper and the Minister's public stance of defiance have taken the gloss off the scheduled reshuffle of the Union Cabinet. The die was cast against Mr. Ramachandran when Mr. Vajpayee was briefed by the CBI Director, P.C. Sharma, on the nature of evidence in the matter. The Finance Minister, Jaswant Singh, was for his deputy's ouster from the moment Mr. Ramachandaran's personal assistant was arrested. But managers of the National Democratic Alliance — of which Mr. Ramachandran's MDMK is a partner — had to reckoned with.

The Cabinet expansion is due to take place tomorrow evening, when the President would administer the oath of office to the new entrants. The Prime Minister again had two rounds of consultation with his colleagues on the nature of the reshuffle/expansion of the ministerial team. Besides the usual participants — the Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, the Finance Minister, Jaswant Singh and the BJP president, Venkaiah Naidu — this morning's conclave was also attended by Pramod Mahajan, BJP general-secretary.

The shape of reshuffle remains "inconclusive'' even after five rounds of consultation in the last few days. Informed sources are unwilling to say with any degree of certainty on who is coming in and who was going out (besides Ajit Singh and Mr. Ramachandran).

Ajit Singh

However, the return of Mamata Banerjee is a certainty, and she is likely to settle for the Ministry of Coal. The Trinamool Congress leader is still insisting on dictating who would be the second nominee from her party. The BJP leadership is reported to be pushing for Sudip Bandopadhyaya, the friendly "dissident''.

With the departure of Ajit Singh, Rajnath Singh becomes the most obvious choice to head the Ministry of Agriculture. The Civil Aviation Minister, Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, is in danger of losing his portfolio and may have to move over to the Ministry of Textile; that should suggest that Kanshi Ram Rana, the Textile's Minister, goes to the Ministry of Rural Development.

There is also a suggestion to induct a nominee of the newly-formed group in the Lok Sabha, the Indian Federal Democratic Party; P.C.Thomas is the likely choice.

Even though Mr. Ramachandran's resignation has been secured, the ruling NDA appears to have lost the battle of public perception.

The resignation came after the principal Opposition party, the Congress and the Communist party of India (Marxist) demanded that the Minister be immediately removed. Earlier in the day, Mr. Ramachandran, who arrived here from Chennai ruled out his resignation and asserted that his "conscience was clear."

While the ruling party's political opponents were inclined to tar the entire Government with the same brush of corruption, Mr. Naidu was unable to take an unequivocal stand.

Earlier in the day, he insisted that it was the Prime Minister's prerogative whether to ask for someone's resignation and claimed credit for "my government'' for arresting the "bribe-taking personal assistant" to Mr. Ramachandran.

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