New Delhi: In an attempt to refurbish its image and signal action to tackle growing accusations of crony capitalism, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government moved out some ministers from key departments, even as it stopped short of making wholesale changes.
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The reshuffle on Wednesday, which marked the first significant change in the council of ministers in the UPA’s second term since it returned to power in 2009, also saw allies being rebuffed, with the portfolio of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) supremo Sharad Pawar being clipped, although he still retains control of the farm ministry. There were no changes at the big four ministries—home, finance, defence and external affairs.
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“This is a minor reshuffle,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said. “After the budget session of Parliament (concluding in May), we will do a more expansive exercise.”
The government, in recent months, has come under attack over irregularities in the allocation of telecom spectrum and the organization of the Commonwealth Games (CWG), among others.
“Some people against whom there were doubts, whose probity was in question, have been moved. Portfolios such as petroleum and civil aviation have been given to party loyalists who are seen as clean,” said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan. “There is some amount of damage control after the scams surfacing and an effort to inject dynamism into some ministries like rural development.”
None of the ministers concerned has been charged with corruption.
Ahead of crucial assembly elections in key states this year, including West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam, Murli Deora was removed as minister for petroleum and natural gas, which went to Jaipal Reddy. Salman Khursheed was elevated to cabinet rank as minister for water resources, with additional charge of minority affairs. Deora, Reddy and Khursheed are all from the Congress party.
Deora was publicly targeted by Anil Ambani, chairman of the Reliance Group, in advertisements during the course of his battle with Reliance Industries Ltd, owned by elder brother Mukesh Ambani, over gas pricing and allocation. The proposed acquisition of Cairn India Ltd’s oil assets by the Vedanta Group has been stalled for almost six months after the deal was announced.
M.S. Gill has been divested of the ministry of sports and youth affairs, three months after CWG.
NCP leader Praful Patel was stripped of the key civil aviation portfolio, even as he was elevated to cabinet minister in charge of heavy industries and public enterprises. NCP is a key constituent of the UPA with nine members of Parliament. Veteran Kerala Congress leader Vayalar Ravi has been given additional charge of the civil aviation ministry.
Patel was credited with liberalizing the airline market, allowing passengers more choice and cheaper fares, besides pushing for airport modernization. But he’s not escaped blame for the continued poor performance of state-run Air India.
In a sign that the Congress is consolidating its position vis-à-vis its allies, NCP chief Pawar was relieved of the key portfolios of food and public distribution as well as consumer affairs, both of which have been given to Kerala’s K.V. Thomas.
Pawar was the focus of veiled attacks by the Congress recently as it sought to deflect criticism over double-digit food inflation.
No new members of key allies the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Trinamool Congress were inducted.
“I think the priority is to show the Congress is in control, ahead of crucial state elections. However, I believe such changes would have been made in consultation with the allies,” said Balveer Arora, former head of the political science department at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Significantly, first-time Union minister C.P. Joshi, hand-picked as minister for rural development and panchayati raj by the Congress leadership, has been shifted to road transport and highways, which in turn was taken away from senior Congress leader Kamal Nath.
Nath has been made urban development minister.
Kapil Sibal retained the telecom and human resource development ministries, while being relieved of science and technology. Sibal has been credited with a series of reforms in the education sector, including the Right to Education Act.
E. Ahamed, minister of state for railways, returns to the ministry of external affairs in place of Shashi Tharoor, who had to quit in the wake of the Indian Premier League controversy in May. Ahamed held the same position in UPA-I.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, said the changes were “disappointing”. “This reshuffle was meant to send a signal that the government is now getting serious about governance. Because the government is in the midst of such a crisis, it needed to send a credible signal, but this reshuffle does not seem to give any fresh direction,” he said.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) criticized the reshuffle. “The reshuffle has failed to show the government’s resolve to fight corruption,” BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain said.
Shauvik Ghosh and Tarun Shukla from Mint and PTI also contributed to this story.