New Delhi: Speculation over an imminent cabinet reshuffle resurfaced on Tuesday following an unscheduled meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pranab Mukherjee.
The meeting, which lasted for nearly an hour, as confirmed by the President’s office, came in the midst of a series of political setbacks to the ruling Congress, now desperate for a second wind.
Not only has the party faced a fresh round of charges of corruption, it was also embarrassed by the recent by-election results; while in Tehri, Uttarakhand, its candidate suffered a heavy defeat, the party barely scraped through in Jangipur, West Bengal, by a little over 2,000 votes.
At least two Congress leaders said Singh may have discussed the reshuffle, which is likely to take place on 19 October. “It will happen either this week or later this month. If it does not happen this month, the cabinet reshuffle will take place only in January,” said a person familiar with the development.
The reshuffle has been on cards since three cabinet ministers—A. Raja, Dayanidhi Maran and Virbhadra Singh—had to step down following accusations of wrongdoing. Apart from that, former finance minister Mukherjee was elected President and cabinet minister Vilasrao Deshmukh died.
Further, six posts including that of a cabinet minister fell vacant after Trinamool Congress withdrew its support and pulled out its ministers protesting the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s decision to increase the diesel price by Rs.5, cap subsidized cooking gas cylinders to six a year, and allow foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail.
Among the names doing the rounds for possible inclusion in the cabinet are Congress leaders Vilas Muttemwar, Rahman Khan (a former Rajya Sabha deputy chairman) and Deepa Dasmunsi, a lawmaker from West Bengal. According to a Congress leader familiar with the development, either T.R. Baalu or T.K.S. Elangovan of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Tariq Anwar from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) may also be inducted. Chiranjeevi, the filmstar-turned-politician from Andhra Pradesh, is also likely to be given a slot, according to a person familiar with the situation.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had tried to revived investment sentiment, which had been adversely hit by the corruption charges against its leaders and so-called policy paralysis, through a slew of reform initiatives. However, this momentum has been derailed after the latest round of political reverse.
N. Bhaskara Rao, a political analyst who has been closely observing the Congress party for nearly four decades, said the cabinet reshuffle has the potential to “further damage” the situation or “improve” it depending on the nature of the rejig.
“The cabinet reshuffle, if it’s happening, because it is the sixth time a date is fixed, if we go by reports, can send a message that both the Prime Minister and the Congress president (Sonia Gandhi) are keen to revive the party only if they choose clean people who stood for the party and its voters and who come from a rural background. If the same old people who do not have any mass support are going to be inducted, it will further damage the image,” Rao said.
In the latest round of charges levelled against the Congress, law minister Salman Khurshid has been caught in a controversy with allegations of misappropriation of government funds by a charity run by his wife Louise for disabled people. Khurshid has denied the charges.
Also, activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal has accused Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, of serious irregularities in buying land in Haryana. He had also alleged that the Congress government in Haryana favoured property developer DLF Ltd as a quid pro quo for the “unsecured interest free loans” given to Vadra. Both the Congress and DLF have denied the charges.
The controversy over land deals involving Vadra has taken a new turn with Haryana Indian Administrative Service officer Ashok Khemka cancelling the sale of over three-acre land to realty major DLF after he was shunted out from his post. Khemka, who was removed as Inspector General of Registration in the wake of his ordering a probe into all the land dealings of Vadra in four districts of Haryana, has hit back at the government, saying it was “grossly unfair to punish him for being upright and exposing the scams”. The ruling party dismissed Khemka’s charges as “baseless”.
“The allegations are baseless. There is no witch hunt. We do not question the integrity of the officer. It is prerogative of the government to transfer any bureaucrat. The chief secretary will be able to brief about the reasons behind the transfer” party general secretary B.K. Hariprasad said.
PTI contributed to this story.