New Delhi: As the deadline of 72 hours given by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) to the central government over last week’s reform measures ended on Monday night, all eyes are on the ruling Congress.
The party seems to be confident about its contingency plans in the event that the TMC withdraws ministers and is preparing a cabinet reshuffle, which is expected soon. The reforms include allowing foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail and an increase in diesel prices, among other moves.
Despite intensifying opposition from all corners, the UPA government is firm about sticking to its decisions. Ruling out a rollback, finance minister P. Chidambaram told television channels that, “We will convince our allies what we have done is necessary...the government does not face any threat, it is stable.”
Speculation is rife about a possible cabinet reshuffle, which according to two cabinet ministers, may take place this week itself. Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Monday met top party leaders to discuss the strategy to counter widespread protests against the recent reform initiatives. The cabinet reshuffle was also discussed. Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel, general secretary Rahul Gandhi and senior cabinet ministers Ghulam Nabi Azad, A.K. Antony and Vayalar Ravi, who is also the Congress in-charge for Andhra Pradesh, were among those present in the meeting at her official residence.
Among the names doing the rounds for possible inclusion in the cabinet are senior Congress leaders Oscar Fernandes, Renuka Chowdhury, Vilas Muttemwar, Rahman Khan (former Rajya Sabha deputy chairman), Pradip Bhattacharya (West Bengal Congress chief) and Deepa Dasmunsi. 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 Supriya Sule or 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 inducted into the cabinet, according to a person familiar with the situation.
The Congress leadership may also be considering a change in the Maharashtra government by replacing Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan with Narayan Rane, while bringing Chavan back to the central government.
The same leader said some of the Congress ministers who may be dropped include S.M. Krishna, S. Jaipal Reddy and controversial coal minister Sriprakash Jaiswal, apart from junior ministers.
However, there was no official confirmation of this from any of the parties. The reshuffle has been on cards since three cabinet ministers—A. Raja, Dayanidhi Maran, Virbhadra Singh—had to step down following accusations of wrongdoing. Apart from that, former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee was elected President of the country and cabinet minister Vilasrao Deshmukh died last month after a bout with ill health.
Another Congress leader said: “Both the Congress president and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, in discussion with the top leaders, proposed some names. But the Prime Minister is of the view that no parliamentarian without ministerial experience either at the state or at the Centre should be nominated to the council of ministers. However, the final list is yet to be readied.”
Meanwhile, the Congress leadership has been engaging in backroom talks with TMC leader and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who had laid down the 72-hour deadline for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to withdraw the government’s decisions on fuel and FDI. Banerjee’s party also indicated that it may withdraw its ministers from the UPA government, a move that could embarrass the beleaguered government further.
“There could be a pull-out of ministers from UPA, there could be withdrawal of support from the government or ministers will not attend office,” Union minister Sultan Ahmed told PTI in Kolkata.
Ahmed said there was no division in the party on the issue. “We all are with Mamata Banerjee,” he said. The TMC, which has 19 member of parliaments (MPs) in the Lok Sabha, has one cabinet minister and five ministers of state.
The Union cabinet on 14 September took a number of decisions, including allowing 51% FDI in multi-brand retail and relaxing a key condition on 100% FDI in single-brand retail, opening the aviation sector to foreign airlines and announcing a fresh round of sale of government shares in state-controlled companies. On Thursday, the government announced a Rs.5 increase in diesel prices and capped the number of subsidized cooking gas cylinders at six a year. TMC, along with some parties that usually support the government, and the opposition vehemently criticized the moves and announced protest demonstrations across the country.
The Congress party is confident that it would tide over the current crisis. Party spokesperson Renuka Chowdhury said: “It is the business of the government to have a conversation with the allies.” She, however, said that: “We will be looking at all—plan A, B and C.”