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A false start?

A false start?
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First Published: Sat, May 23 2009. 12 48 AM IST

Updated: Sat, May 23 2009. 12 48 AM IST
New Delhi: Manmohan Singh formally took charge as the country’s next prime minister, the first since Jawaharlal Nehru to be re-elected after serving out a full five-year term, along with 19 ministers, but did not announce their portfolios because it was unable to resolve the differences with its key ally in time.
The Congress has been locked in a dispute over ministerial berths with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the third largest constituent in the ruling coalition, and many of whose leaders skipped the swearing-in ceremony. The token DMK presence was former telecom minister A. Raja.
Immediately after taking oath, Singh told journalists outside Rashtrapati Bhawan that the key priority of the government would be to “revamp the economy”.
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According to an official in the finance ministry, secretaries of different departments are working on Saturday, which is otherwise a holiday, as they might have to brief the as-yet-unnamed minister on the the making of the forthcoming Union budget. The Congress, in its manifeto, had promised to present a budget within 45 days of coming to power.
The mini-Cabinet of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) included party veterans such as Pranab Mukherjee, P. Chidambaram and A.K. Antony, alongside key allies such as Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress (TC) and Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). More ministers are expected to be sworn in on Tuesday.
However, the much-awaited entry of Rahul Gandhi into the cabinet did not happen after he expressed his preference to continue to work for the party. Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi endorsed her son’s stand and said, “Strengthening (the) party is part of Rahul’s responsibility.”
Analysts had expected the new cabinet to sport several young faces, but the the team that took charge on Friday was made up entirely of experienced politicians, eight of whom are from the Rajya Sabha and, therefore, haven’t been elected by the people.
The new faces include Ghulam Nabi Azad, M. Veerappa Moily and S.M. Krishna (former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir and Karnataka, respectively). C.P. Joshi, president of Rajasthan state Congress, also found place in the cabinet, while B.K. Handique and Anand Sharma, both ministers of state in the previous government, have been elevated to cabinet rank.
Arun Jaitley, general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main Opposition party in Parliament, said, “This is a cabinet comprising senior leaders of Congress and two from the allies. We can only hope that the (new) UPA government will be more decisive than its first tenure.”
Admitting that the differences with the DMK and the absence of that party’s key leaders from the swearing-in ceremony had dampened the excitement of the Congress’ return to power, Singh and other party leaders expressed hope that the differences would be sorted out through discussions.
“They (DMK) are our valued colleagues. They will come back,” Singh said.
Arguing similarly, Vayalar Ravi, one of the ministers sworn in, said: “The problem can be solved after discussions...it is our coalition partner after all.”
DMK leaders, who held several rounds of discussions with Mukherjee, Azad and Congress president Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel over portfolios, said the Congress’ formula was not acceptable to them. The DMK, which has 18 members in the Lok Sabha, also announced on Thursday that it would support the government, but not be part of it. Congress leaders, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the DMK wanted three cabinet berths and four ministers of state positions. They also added that the prime minister had some reservations against the re-induction of DMK’s T.R. Baalu and Raja into his cabinet. Both ministers have had controversial stints in power. However, Prime Minister Singh denied this was the case. “They are our honoured colleagues. There is no question about having any reservation (about their inclusion)”.
With DMK chief and Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi returning to Chennai, other top leaders, including former minister and Karunanidhi’s nephew Dayanidhi Maran, continued the discussions on Friday in the National Capital.
The Congress won only 145 seats in 2004; in 2009, it has managed to win 206 seats, the first time it had crossed the 200-mark since 1991. This has translated into greater leverage in cabinet formation. The Congress has even rejected the induction of the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal into the government, although these parties still support it.
Analysts expect the dispute to be resolved soon and ministers from the DMK and a few other allies to be inducted into the cabinet on Tuesday. A release from the Prime Minister’s Office said that Singh would expand his cabinet in “next few days”, including other cabinet ministers, ministers of state with independent charge and ministers of state. “This expansion will give due representation to allied parties,” the release added.
Analysts and Congressmen list young party leaders such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Jitin Prasada; Mukul Wasnik and Jairam Ramesh; and National Conference’s Farooq Abudllah among those who may be inducted into the cabinet on Tuesday.
Santosh K. Joy and Sanjiv Shankaran of Mint, and PTI also contributed to this story.
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First Published: Sat, May 23 2009. 12 48 AM IST