A NEW ERA BEGINS: The President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, administering the oath of office and secrecy to the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Saturday. - Photo: Shanker Chakravarty
NEW DELHI, MAY 22. India has a new Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, the first man ever from a minority community to hold the highest political office in the land. Dr. Singh became the 14th person to take oath as Prime Minister today.
The 71-year economist and architect of India's economic reforms was administered the oath of office and secrecy by the President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, at the Ashoka Hall of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Watched by his predecessors and by future colleagues as well as by the leaders of the allied parties, Dr. Singh took the oath as the head of a 68-member Council of Ministers, with 18 Cabinet rank Ministers, 10 Ministers of State with independent charge and the rest Ministers of State.
After the swearing-in ceremony, Dr. Singh spelt out his priorities: "This is a mandate for change; for strengthening the secular foundation of our republic, to carry forward the process of social and economic change which benefits the poorer sections of our community, particularly our farmers and workers. We will ensure that we have a development strategy to empower our people to realise their vast latent potential."
The Cabinet sworn in this evening is rich in ministerial talent and experience as it includes some of the most experienced hands such as Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh, Shivraj Patil, Natwar Singh, Sharad Pawar, Ram Vilas Paswan, P. Chidambram, Hansraj Bhardwaj and Ghulam Nabi Azad.
There is no official announcement so far on portfolios, though the allies have apparently negotiated their Ministries. It seems there is scope for further juggling of portfolios among the Congress Ministers.
The new Council of Ministers has the requisite geographical spread, regional distribution and gender representation; the seven women members do fall short of the politically correct one-third formula.
It also reflects the new political realities of the United Progressive Alliance.
The lion's share has gone to Tamil Nadu, which has, as many as 12 seats in the Council of Ministers, whereas Uttar Pradesh, which traditionally dominated the Congress Ministries, has only two representatives, with only one with Cabinet rank.
Pranab Mukherjee was the first to take oath after Dr. Singh, suggesting a new order of standing in the new Cabinet.
Mr. Mukherjee was followed by Arjun Singh, Sharad Pawar and Laloo Prasad Yadav. There were minor glitches on way to the swearing-in ceremony as Ram Vilas Paswan was reported to be sulking after having been denied the Railways portfolio, which has reportedly gone to Mr. Laloo Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The portfolio has acquired a strange symbolism in Bihar politics, with every senior politician from the State wanting to preside over the Rail Bhavan.
Mr. Paswan is believed have been mollified with two Ministries - Health and Family Welfare, and Chemicals and Fertilizers.
When the Prime Minister was asked about the difficulties in government formation, he conceded that there were "difficulties but all of them were overcome."
He gave all credit to the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, for the party's good showing in the elections and reiterated that he would not be where he was today but for her ``as he had never expected to become the Prime Minister."
Late in the night, according to reliable sources, Dr. Singh and Ms. Gandhi were reported to be coping with `mild resentment' among Congressmen over the induction of three non-elected leaders — Shivraj Patil, P.M. Sayeed (both have lost the Lok Sabha elections) and Oscar Fernandes (whose Rajya Sabha term ended last month) in the Council of Ministers.
The sources said the resentment was part of a `ploy' by various newly-inducted Ministers to get the portfolios of their choice. It seemed the most pronounced in the case of Mr. Shivraj Patil, who is slated to get one of the "big four" Ministries — home, defence, external and finance.
The first meeting of the new Union Cabinet, headed by Dr. Singh, will be held tomorrow.
The Prime Minister, accompanied by his wife, Gursharan Kaur, was received at the office by the Chief Economic Adviser, S. Narayanan, and other senior officials.
Later, Dr. Singh held discussions with the Cabinet Secretary, Kamal Pande, and the Foreign Secretary, Shashank.