New Delhi: The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is readying for a mini-reshuffle of the Union cabinet that is likely to see the induction of Rajya Sabha member Kanimozhi as India’s new telecom minister and Shibu Soren as the coal minister, reassigning two key ministries with significant business implications.
People familiar with the matter said Andimuthu Raja, the current telecom minister, will stay in the cabinet as Union minister for environment and forests.
Ringing in change: Rajya Sabha member Kanimozhi. Photograph:Subhav Shukla/ PTI
According to a senior government official, who did not wish to be identified, the government is readying for a big burst of announcements on Thursday, when the cabinet is scheduled to meet to discuss an unusually long list of 26 items on the agenda.
Presaging some of the announcements, finance minister P. Chidambaram signalled that the government was poised to move forward with a fresh round of financial sector reforms that could see more li-beral foreign direct investment norms for the insurance sector.
Wednesday also saw rapid political developments, with several parliamentarians meted out swift retribution for going against their party’s wishes in the Tuesday trust vote that the UPA won. This included the high-profile expulsion of Somnath Chatterjee, Lok Sabha Speaker and member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), from his party. And a new alignment—centred on the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati — met in New Delhi to reaffirm their commitment to a non-BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and non-Congress political force.
Meanwhile, if the reshuffle happens on expected lines, Kanimozhi, daughter of M. Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) will be the third minister of telecom in less than a year.
Kanimozhi’s likely elevation as the new telecom minister comes amid significant policy changes and turmoil in India’s booming telecom sector, which has long been seen as very politicized because of the interfering clout of ministers who headed the portfolio. The portfolio has generally been seen as “reserved” for the DMK.
Policies awaited by the telecom industry include a decision on getting existing telecom operators to vacate their unutilized spectrum, or airwaves that carry voice signals. This issue was voiced volubly by the UPA government’s new ally, the Samajwadi Party, which is widely seen as being close to Anil Ambani, the promoter of Reliance Communications Ltd, India’s second largest telecom company by subscribers. Ambani had made a similar demand earlier this year.
Other telecom policy issues awaiting the new minister include the so-called 3G (third generation) and Wimax guidelines. Though the draft guidelines for the 3G services, which enable high-speed voice, video and data communication over the mobile phone, are ready, an announcement was deferred in the wake of the political turmoil.
If Soren, who is the leader of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, is sworn in, he will be getting back his old ministry after a lapse of 20 months.
Karunanidhi, who along with Kanimozhi, met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday, declined to comment on the proposed cabinet reshuffle.
But a senior cabinet minister from the Congress, who didn’t want to be named, confirmed the government’s intent to go in for a cabinet reshuffle that would lead to the appointment of a new telecom and coal minister. “It would happen in a day or two,” he added.
The UPA government also signalled a go-slow on projects promoted by Mayawati that require Union government concurrence — including the proposal for a new international airport at Jewar, a two-hour drive east from Delhi, which would serve as the second airport for the National Capital Region. Though the aviation ministry had cleared the project, which would cost an estimated Rs3,505 crore, excluding the cost of the land, the proposal has been pending with the Union law ministry for three months.
Meanwhile, leaders of 11 political parties that have come together to provide a non-Congress, non-BJP coalition met on Wednesday and announced a joint campaign against the government’s failure to contain inflationary pressures, resolve the spate of farmer suicides, misuse of the office of the Central Bureau of Investigation and against the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal.
The new formation includes BSP, the Left Front, the United National Progressive Alliance, Rashtriya Lok Dal, Janata Dal (Secular) and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti.
Ashish Sharma, Ruhi Tewari, R. Jai Krishna and Tarun Shukla contributed to this story.