A cabinet reshuffle is on everyone's mind as Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh met President Pranab Mukherjee separately yesterday, but upstaging them both could be today's upcoming meeting of Rahul Gandhi with Mukherjee.
As someone whose formal position in the party hierarchy is still to be upgraded — Rahul himself has expressed a willingness to take up a bigger role either in party or government — the heir apparent's solo meeting with the President appears to be a promise of more radical changes than earlier suspected.
A change in Mukherjee's departure schedule from 19 October to the following day to take part in Durga Puja celebrations at his ancestral home in West Bengal has led to speculation that the cabinet reshuffle could take place on 19 October.
Apart from the logistical need to fill up ministerial vacancies left behind by the exit of the Trinamool Congress and the reluctance of the DMK to nominate other party people to the cabinet posts vacated by A Raja and Dayanidhi Maran, there is also an urgent need to shore up the image of the UPA government and halt the slide in public perceptions. Despite a flurry of recent action on so-called reforms, the various corruption cases continue to dominate media coverage — the latest ones involving Robert Vadra and Law Minister Salman Khurshid.
The UPA realises that this could be the last occasion before the next general elections to send out a message that it is in command and is doing its job by presenting a new-look team. However, no one knows whether the cabinet will get a complete overhaul or just a minor makeover. All previous cabinet reshuffles failed to set the Yamuna on fire.
It is in this context that the fate of Law Minister Salman Khurshid, Tourism Minister Subodh Kant Sahay and Coal Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal will be keenly watched. Khurshid has been in the eye of a storm for alleged misappropriation of funds and use of forged documents by the Dr Zakir Hussain Memorial Trust, a trust run by him and his wife Louise. Sahay and Jaiswal have been accused of impropriety and favouring their kin in the coal block allocations.
Agatha Sangma of the NCP is also set to get the axe after the exit of her father from the party in the wake the presidential elections. She could be replaced by Tariq Anwar, who is expected to be allocated a minister of state portfolio with independent charge. Agatha had gone against her party chief Sharad Pawar’s diktat by supporting PA Sangma for President.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met the President for an hour yesterday morning before he left for Hyderabad on a day's visit, only to be followed by a separate round of extended meetings with Congress President Sonia Gandhi later in the evening. Incidentally, their meeting coincided with the end of the inauspicious Pitru Paksha period and the beginning of Navratra.
If Sonia and Manmohan separately had extensive discussions with President Mukherjee yesterday, it is Rahul Gandhi's turn today. Sources said Rahul had sought an appointment with the President a few days back and his time was fixed for Wednesday. While it would be a one-on-one meeting, the fact that the two have shared a unique relationship — with Pranab Mukherjee being the elder statesman and Rahul the Congress’ future leader — speculation is abuzz over the nature of today’s meeting.
Though Rahul has publicly declared his readiness to accept bigger responsibility, the puzzle around the exact nature of this responsibility continues to hover. Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh has dropped enough hints in the past that Rahul will not join the Union Cabinet; instead he would get a formal elevation to No 2 in the organisation. The organisational restructuring of the Congress party is expected to come after the proposed Cabinet reshuffle.
The exit of six Trinamool Congress ministers and four other clear vacancies has left the field wide open for aspirants from Congress ranks to slug it out. Though Surface Transport Minister CP Joshi has been given additional charge of Railways, there are still a good number of hopefuls for this portfolio. The Congress party will retain the ministry with it, which returns to it after a gap of 16 years.
The biggest beneficiaries of the cabinet reshuffle are expected to be Congress leaders from West Bengal, as the state now has no representation in the cabinet after the Trinamool’s exit and Pranab Mukherjee’s elevation. Deepa Das Munshi, Pradip Bhattacharjee and AH Khan Choudhary could be beneficiaries. Adhir Ranjan Cahudhary is also in contention.
The big four ministries — Home, Finance, External Affairs and Defence — are likely to be untouched. Though there have been reports of the leadership not being happy with SM Krishna's handling of the External Affairs portfolio, so far there has been no indication on his shifting.
Sources said DMK chief M Karunanidhi is still not keen to give names to fill the two vacancies in his quota, created due to the exit of Raja and Dayanidhi Maran. There is a feeling in the DMK that Jayalalithaa might use the Union government’s failings to hit out against the DMK if two senior party leaders join the government. But Karunanidhi is being persuaded by the Congress and a section of DMK to nominate two ministers.
Five ministers are currently holding dual charge. Kapil Sibal (Human Resource and Telecom), Veerappa Moily (Power and Corporate Affairs, Vayalar Ravi (Overseas Affairs and Science & Technology), CP Joshi (Surface Transport & Railways), and Salman Khurshid (Law and Minority Affairs). The vacancies were created due to the death of Vilasrao Deshmukh and the resignation of Gurudas Kamat (both from Maharashtra).
If the Cabinet reshuffle does not take place on Friday, 19 October, the next date could be 28-29 October, after the Durga Puja and Eid festivities are over.