In what is probably the last expansion of the UPA-II Cabinet, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday (June 17) inducted eight new faces in his ministry - four Cabinet-level ministers and four new ministers of state. There was also a minor reshuffle with Mallikarjun Kharge, 70, who held the Labour and Employment portfolio, taking over the Railways ministry.
The four new Cabinet ministers were: Sis Ram Ola, 86, the veteran Jat leader from Rajasthan, who got Labour and Employment; Oscar Fernandes, 72, who took charge of the Road Transport and Highways; Girija Vyas, 67, who will hold the Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation portfolio and Kavuri Sambasiva Rao, 69, who gets the Textile Ministry. Textiles was an additional portfolio that Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma had been holding ever since the DMK pullout in March.
The four ministers of state were Manikrao H Gavit, who got Social Justice and Empowerment; Santosh Chowdhury, who will run the Health and Family Welfare ministry; Jesudasu Seelam, who will be Minister of State (Finance) and E.M.S. Natchiappan who enters Commerce and Industry.
Vacancies had arisen with the DMK having pulled out its five ministers in March this year over India's position on a proposed UN resolution against Sri Lanka. Pawan Kumar Bansal, Railways minister, and Ashwani Kumar, Law Minister, had to quit over alleged corruption and impropriety charges respectively. On Saturday (June 15), two Cabinet Ministers - C.P. Joshi, Minister for Road Transport and Highways as well as Minister for Railways (following Bansal's departure), and Ajay Maken, Minister for Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation-quit as well. The two had been inducted into the Congress Working Committee on Sunday to devote themselves full time to the party. Maken will be the new media face of the grand old party and Joshi has been given charge of important states such as Bihar, West Bengal and Assam.
The induction of Sis Ram Ola and Girija Vyas should be seen in the context of the Rajasthan Assembly election, scheduled towards the end of this year. Kharge and Siddaramiah were the leading contenders
for the chief minister's post after the Congress got a majority in the recent Karnataka Assembly elections. Congress sources had then indicated that a compromise deal was stuck wherein it was agreed that the high-profile Railways portfolio would be given to Kharge with Siddaramiah being made the chief minister. Kharge had denied such a formula then. However, the elevation of Fernandes, who was dropped from the AICC on Sunday, was apparently not part of any previously worked out formula.
Some questions arise. K.S. Rao is opposed to a divided Andhra Pradesh - the formation of Telangana - so is his elevation an indication the Congress's position on Telangana? Was this reshuffle just about rewarding veteran party loyalists? What about more reforms in the Railways, carrying on a process begun by Bansal? Industry has been demanding labour reforms for long. Will the veteran Ola surprise all, especially in an election year? Will Vyas push the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill
with the same gusto that Maken was doing?