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Shuffle might be mild ruffle
KOTA NEELIMA  New Delhi | 10th Jul 2011

The trio of Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee(L), PM Manmohan Singh(M) and Party Chief Sonia Gandhi(R) REUTERS

he UPA Cabinet reshuffle, tentatively scheduled for Monday evening, is likely to maintain the status quo in the top portfolios of External Affairs, Home, Finance and Defence because Congress president Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were unable to agree on the extent of change. They have had three meetings and there may be a fourth on Sunday. While the PM is anxious to induct new faces, Mrs Gandhi is worried about the fallout on the party if the axe lops off senior Congress leaders from the Cabinet.

The Congress' focus is on repair and recovery, with no time left for experiments with new faces. Congress leaders believe that the face-off with the civil society has revived the Opposition and isolated the UPA on the corruption issue. Ministers who have been ineffective in handling the fallout, especially in media, may be changed.

The PM is especially keen to pre-empt a crisis by dropping those ministers who are likely to be tainted by future revelations of corruption, or whose names are already in the grey area. Murli Deora has become a premature casualty. This would have axed one of the "Big Four" and at least two in the tier just below the elite line. The PM is eager to bring in technocrats like Dr Ashok Ganguly into the Cabinet, who can be relied upon to perform. Dr Ganguly is a nominated MP, but he would resign and then be elected to the Rajya Sabha seat to conform to the rules.

Uncertainty has bred ambitions among old-timers like former Law Minister H.R. Bhardwaj and former Home Minister Shivraj Patil, both in palatial semi-retirement as governors.

Though the Congress has been saying that the aim of the reshuffle is to "drop anyone with the slightest allegation of corruption against them," it may end up being merely an exercise for survival. Congress cannot be confident of DMK's 18 MPs' support in the Lok Sabha and 11 of its MPs from Telangana have been forced to resign under public pressure.

It is trying to stabilise its relationship with Bihar's Rashtriya Janata Dal and Karnataka's Janata Dal (Secular) by offering them a seat in the Cabinet.

On Tuesday, RJD president Lalu Prasad Yadav met Congress president Sonia Gandhi to "discuss issues of the state and Centre". With four MPs, RJD is not one of the larger regional parties in the Lok Sabha, but for the UPA, it is seen as one of the most reliable. At present the party is offering outside support to the UPA.

"The relationship with the Congress has always been cordial," said RJD senior leader Ram Kripal Yadav. While he refused to confirm or deny the possibility of the RJD joining the UPA government, Yadav said, "Anything is possible in politics."

An active alliance with the RJD is being opposed by the state Congress unit in Bihar, which is seeking to strengthen its base without compromising with allies. RJD leaders believe that it is for the Congress to rein in its local leadership. "Owing to these differences, the secular vote against communal parties was fractured in the last elections. We will make sure this does not happen again," Yadav said.

In UPA I, the RJD held the crucial portfolios of Railways and Rural Development, the ministry which was instrumental in implementing NREGA and Bharat Nirman initiatives.

Another regional party offering outside support to the UPA is Karnataka's JD(S), which has three MPs in the Lok Sabha. Party leader and former Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy warns that such support cannot be taken for granted. "It is not a permanent structure, it is issue-based," he said.

Maintaining that "anything may happen" in the political scenario of the future, Kumaraswamy stressed for an alternative coalition of regional parties without the two main national parties.

Congress state leaders, however, believe that an alliance with the JD(S) would only buy trouble for the Congress in future. However, the numerical considerations of UPA 2 may outweigh the local concerns in Bihar and Karnataka.

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