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A balancing act

Print edition : Jun 08, 2002 T+T-

Ashok Gehlot recasts his ministerial team without upsetting inner-party and caste equations.

THE much-awaited expansion of the Council of Ministers and the reshuffle in portfolios in Rajasthan went off well for both Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and the Congress. The exercise, carried out on May 13 with an eye on the Assembly elections due by the end of 2003, was such a thorough balancing act that none complained in the end, except the four dropped Ministers and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main Opposition in the State.

Gehlot inducted four Cabinet Ministers and 11 Ministers of State, promoted two Ministers of State to Cabinet rank and dramatically shuffled most portfolios. Barring a few, the Ministers were divested of major portfolios or given departments that were less important than those held by them earlier. Two categories of Ministers were affected - those who had faced the threat of being dropped and Gehlot's close associates who had detractors within the party. But what won all-round appreciation for the Chief Minister was his decision to induct in the Cabinet leaders with whom it had seemed he did not have good equations and allot them important portfolios. Thus Janardhan Singh Gehlot, Madho Singh Dewan and Ram Narain Chowdhury were given Food and Civil Supplies, Medical and Health and Energy respectively.

The Congress High Command seems to be happy with the way Gehlot went about making changes in the Ministry and with the overall governance of the State. An indication of this is the All India Congress Committee's recent decision to hold a Pachmarhi-type introspection camp in Rajasthan. The party has already planned to hold in the State a conclave of Congress Chief Ministers.

Gehlot had been under pressure to expand his Ministry, which took office on December 1, 1998, although the issue did not prompt any major dissidence in the party unlike in the past. The Chief Minister himself had been talking about expansion from time to time. The expansion did not take place last year as promised by him on different occasions. While some political observers attributed the delay to the High Command not giving the green signal, others thought that Gehlot wanted to time it well. Gehlot announced that he would expand the Cabinet before the end of the Budget session this year. This too did not happen.

There were many reasons for the expansion. At least some Ministers looked overburdened. Two Ministers resigned and one died after prolonged illness. Chandanmal Baid, the septuagenarian leader from Churu district, resigned two years ago as Finance Minister following differences with Gehlot. Ram Singh Vishnoi quit in April last after the Customs Department allegedly found an illegal drug unit functioning in his son's closed cement factory in Bilara town in Jodhpur. Kishen Motwani, who was Revenue Minister before he suffered a paralytic attack, died last year.

Many important departments were concentrated in the hands of a few Ministers in a 29-member Council. There was also a tactical need to accommodate more persons as the party has 153 MLAs in the 200-member Assembly.

"I believe that a change is always better. It helps to revitalise the system," Gehlot told mediapersons after the Ministers took oath. "The stress has been on representation to all divisions in the State besides the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, the minorities, women and youth," he said.

What Gehlot did not say was that every community in the State was given a place in the Council in the latest exercise. Those who could not be inducted were accommodated elsewhere. For instance, Dr. Karan Singh Yadav was made vice-chairman of the 20 Point Programme Implementation Committee soon after the Cabinet expansion. Similarly, Mamta Sharma and Vijaylaxmi Vishnoi, who lost the chance because of a policy decision not to appoint first-time MLAs as Ministers, were sworn in as Parliamentary Secretaries. Vijaylaxmi Vishnoi, daughter of veteran Bishnoi leader and former Speaker Poonam Chand Vishnoi, and the newly-inducted Minister of State K.C. Vishnoi, fill the space created by the exit of Ram Singh Vishnoi. Interestingly, three former presidents of the Youth Congress in the State - Janardhan Gehlot, Raghuveer Meena and K.C. Vishnoi - have been made Ministers.

The Congress' keenness to keep the Jat community on its side was reflected in the expansion of the Ministry as well as the allocation of portfolios. The careful handling of this aspect of the expansion is believed to be at the instance of the High Command although by and large Gehlot had a free hand in making the changes. Another possible explanation is that Gehlot himself would have wanted to humour the Jats. (The Jats are said to hold a grudge against him that one of them could not become Chief Minister.) There are two Jats among the new Ministers - Ramnarain Chowdhury, a former president of the Pradesh Congress Committee, holds Cabinet rank and Hemaram Chowdhury is a Minister of State. Gehlot did not drop any Jat from the Ministry although he dropped two Muslims, one of them a Cabinet-rank Minister. In fact, the portfolios of Jat Ministers such as Kamla and Harendra Mirdha were not touched during the re-allocation exercise. Home Minister Gulab Singh Shaktawat, Finance Minister Pradhyumna Singh and Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Khet Singh Rathore were the only non-Jats who could retain their portfolios.

Among the old-timers, Banwarilal Bairwa, a Dalit leader who lost the Lok Sabha byelection from Tonk last year, was shifted from Social Welfare to Transport. The one who emerged the strongest after the reshuffle is B.D.Kalla, a Pushkarna Brahmin from Bikaner, who was in charge of the Indira Gandhi Canal and General Administration. He now holds the portfolios of Tourism, Art and Culture, Urban Development and Local Administration. Bina Kak, the high-profile Tourism Minister who drew wide media attention two years ago after playing host to U.S. President Bill Clinton, has been shifted to Forest. She replaced Bhajraj Chowdhury, who allegedly worked at cross purposes with his staff.

All the Ministers from the Jat community were not given the same treatment under the "package deal" prepared by Gehlot. His close associates such as Dr. Chandra Bhan and Rajendra Chowdhury were asked to give up important portfolios in order to appease leaders who had been targeting the Chief Minister's men.

Dr. Chandra Bhan, who held the vital portfolios of Industry and Energy, was asked to forgo the latter and Rajendra Chowdhury was shifted from the Medical and Health Department to Labour.

Interestingly, all the dropped Ministers - Zakia Inam, Indira Mayaram, Abdul Aziz and Bhajraj Chowdhury - were considered to be Gehlot loyalists. "Dropping them from the Council of Ministers does not mean that they were incompetent or corrupt. They were part of a team that showed results in the past three years. Their services could be made use of elsewhere," Gehlot noted. "At times one has to go by popular perceptions as well," he said, referring to the campaign against the Ministers - mostly orchestrated by Congressmen themselves - that they were enriching themselves.

The other Gehlot loyalists among the Ministers too had to give up their portfolios. Dr. C.P. Joshi was shifted from Education and Rural Development to Public Health Engineering, Policy Planning and Information Technology. Shanti Dhariwal, the all-powerful Urban Development Minister, was shifted to Panchayati Raj.

While Ministers who were dropped fell silent after raving and ranting initially, those who were given minor portfolios were grateful to Gehlot for at least retaining them in the Council. Cabinet Ministers such as Ram Kishen Verma and Tayyab Hussein too did not protest when they were given portfolios earlier held by Ministers of State.

The octogenarian Bhika Bhai, whose name was in the list of Ministers to be dropped, is said to have escaped the axe because of the favourable response of the High Command and the Chief Minister to his repeated pleas to retain him. He was made a Minister without portfolio. Gehlot's decision is said to have been influenced by considerations such as his age and his standing among the Bheel tribe in southern Rajasthan.

Among the new Ministers, Govind Singh Gujjar, a protege of the late Rajesh Pilot, has been given the Agriculture portfolio. Ministers of State Heeralal Indora and Prasadi Lal Meena were given Cabinet rank to hold Mining and Cooperatives respectively.

Among the new Ministers of State, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes have two representatives each. In place of the outgoing Muslim Ministers, Habibur Rehman from Nagaur district and Taquiudhin Ahmed from Jaipur City were appointed.