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A messy exercise

WITH MAMATA BANERJEE and her Trinamool Congress choosing to stay out of the ministerial fold, the central purpose of the recent Cabinet reshuffle has fallen by the wayside. The messy character of the reshuffle was only heightened by the sudden and forced resignations of two Ministers (one with immediate political repercussions) and the induction of a few new faces into an already jumbo Cabinet, ostensibly only to reduce the workload of a few of the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee's overburdened colleagues, but also to satisfy lobbyists and placate interested political quarters. The manner in which the inclusion of the Trinamool Congress was mishandled was a result of the misgivings within a section of the top BJP leadership over the re-induction of Ms. Banerjee (who was offered portfolios she felt was beneath her status) and the peculiar move to have one of her party colleagues (a dissident of sorts) sworn in against her explicit wishes. Although Mr. Vajpayee has suggested that there will be another round of changes to include Ms. Banerjee, his willingness to allow other leaders of NDA parties (notably the Shiv Sena's Bal Thackeray) to nominate their own Ministers must have rankled the fiery Trinamool Congress leader and contributed to her impression that the BJP is attempting to interfere in the internal affairs of her party.

Politics has been the immediate result of the exit of the Rashtriya Lok Dal's Ajit Singh as Agriculture Minister, who has chosen to maintain the fiction that he resigned voluntarily but was axed because of his frequent and public criticisms of the Vajpayee Government's policies and decisions. Mr. Singh's support is irrelevant in the context of the Lok Sabha but the Rashtriya Lok Dal's 14 MLAs contribute a measure of stability to the BJP-backed Mayawati Government in Uttar Pradesh. In dropping Mr. Singh, the BJP seems to have, somewhat cynically, factored in at least two things. First, that Ms. Mayawati would still continue to enjoy a slim majority even in the worst case scenario of all the RLD MLAs withdrawing support. Second, that there is every likelihood of the RLD splitting and that some of these MLAs will prefer to remain a part of the ruling coalition. The inclusion of the former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Rajnath Singh, who has replaced the RLD leader in the Agriculture Ministry, was not unexpected. A trenchant critic of the BJP's decision to cohabit with the Bahujan Samaj Party, Mr. Rajnath Singh's induction is a move to suitably accommodate him outside Uttar Pradesh as well as to send out a positive signal to the influential Rajput lobby in the State, which has been restive and unhappy with the BJP in recent times.

In contrast, the dropping of the MDMK's Gingee Ramachandran has had no immediate political fallout, though the embarrassment of finding that the office of the former Minister of State for Finance was involved in an organised and well-oiled racket over transfer of Income Tax officers must overshadow the success in forcing his resignation before the reshuffle. It is significant that of the many changes, only two were based on performance — the elevation of Major General B.C. Khanduri to Cabinet rank and the transfer of the articulate Rajiv Pratap Rudy to the coveted Civil Aviation portfolio with independent charge. The induction of some new faces, which includes a couple of BJP hardliners, suggests that Mr. Vajpayee was also keen on using this reshuffle to give more representation to partymen from the northern States. With the present expansion, the Vajpayee Cabinet has reached the cap (10 per cent of the strength of the two Houses) set by a recent Bill that is now in Parliament. This will give the Prime Minister less room for manoeuvre in future reshuffles, in which new faces will have to come in at the cost of old ones.

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