A reshuffle in Delhi

Published : Dec 22, 2002 00:00 IST

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit fails to carry out the reshuffle of her Council of Ministers according to her own script.

WHILE critics of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit would have liked it to be otherwise, the fact remains that the recent political whirlwind caused by the reshuffle of her Council of Ministers did not affect her chief ministership. The face-saver for her was the clean chit she got in the corruption case filed against her in the Lok Ayukta. Inspite of that, her advisers would no doubt counsel her to tread carefully and nurse some of the bruised egos if the party were to emerge victorious in the Municipal Corporation elections that are barely two months away.

Factionalism surfaced in the Delhi Congress with questions being raised about the leadership of Sheila Dixit. A Cabinet reshuffle was therefore on the cards for some time. However, what took Sheila Dixit by surprise after she was handed over the common resignation letter of her Ministers was the assertiveness shown by All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary in charge of the Delhi unit, Kamal Nath, in seeking a say in the formation of the new Ministry. By obtaining the mass resignation of her Ministers, Sheila Dixit had emerged as the consummate power player. But she soon realised that securing the resignations was one thing, and forming a new Cabinet was another.

In trying to ensure that the new Council of Ministers included her supporters, Sheila Dixit had to cross swords with Kamal Nath, who was backed by senior party leaders such as Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar. Tytler and Kumar, who have not been able to get their feet back in Delhi politics after their names got embroiled in the 1984 riots, saw the reshuffle as an opportunity to get their sympathisers into the Cabinet through Kamal Nath. Tytler is particularly close to Kamal Nath their association going back to the days when they dominated the Youth Congress under Sanjay Gandhi.

The new Cabinet was announced on December 4. In the tug of war that ensued between Kamal Nath and Sheila Dixit, the latter lost two of her trusted supporters - Power and Industry Minister Narendra Nath and Transport Minister Pervez Hashmi. She, however, managed to oust her opponents, Food and Civil Supplies Minister Yoganand Shastri and Social Welfare Minister Krishna Tirath. What sealed Shastri's fate was the corruption case filed against him in the Lok Ayukta; non-performance was the reason cited for Tirath's expulsion. Finance Minister Ma-hender Singh Saathi and Health Minister A.K. Walia were retained.

It is apparent that Sheila Dixit's position got weakened with the ouster of Narendra Nath and Pervez Hashmi. She initiated the reshuffle in order to drop Shastri and Tirath but ended up axing four Ministers. Narendra Nath and Hashmi expressed to the Chief Minister their resentment over the manner in which they were ousted.

The reshuffle disturbed the Punjabi-Vaishya ratio in the Cabinet, with the balance tilting heavily in favour of the former. The Vaishya community was earlier represented by Narendra Nath. The 25 lakh Vaishyas in Delhi, who have been given adequate representation by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the organisation and in the Central government, are reportedly unhappy with the Congress. Thus, even as the reconstituted Cabinet of Sheila Dixit satisfied many in the AICC establishment, it has caused serious doubts about the party's prospects in the Corporation polls.

Sheila Dixit, however, appears to be confident. She asserted: "My new team is a blend of youth and experience. I will train the new incumbents so that they are able to implement the programmes and policies of the Congress during the next two years in an effective manner."

THE new Cabinet was formed on the basis of guidelines set by party president Sonia Gandhi who, on her part, left it to the two leaders to hammer out a compromise. Senior Congress leader Arjun Singh was also instrumental in finalising the list of Ministers. Sonia Gandhi had made it clear that Jat leader Yoganand Shastri be replaced by another senior Jat leader. That sealed the fate of Deputy Speaker Kiran Chaudhury, whose name was being vigorously pushed by Tytler. Sheila Dixit, who was against Chaudhury's induction, agreed to take into the Ministry Deep Chand Bandhu who was earlier close to Tytler but is now considered a fence-sitter. Bandhu is an old-timer in Delhi politics; he was first elected to the Assembly in 1993. He became the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee (DPCC) president in 1996. However, Sajjan Kumar succeeded in getting a berth for Raj Kumar Chauhan, who represents backward communities, as a replacement for Krishna Tirath. He is also the only Minister representing Outer Delhi.

Sheila Dixit scored a victory by inducting her supporter and second-time MLA from Rajouri Garden, Ajay Maken, nephew of Lalit Maken, the assassinated Member of Parliament from South Delhi. The fourth Minister, Haroon Yusuf, the second-time MLA from Ballimaran, was the choice of both Arjun Singh and Sheila Dixit. Yusuf and Maken had left the party for a brief time when N.D. Tiwari formed his own party. They returned to the Congress(I) after Sonia Gandhi took control of the party in 1998.

Sheila Dixit's next task was to allocate portfolios. She ensured that the sensitive Transport portfolio went to Ajay Maken. Maken now has an arduous task ahead. The Supreme Court's January 2, 2002 deadline for Delhi Transport Corporation buses to switch to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) is not the only challenge before him. He has also to find a good business deal for the Delhi Vidyut Board, which is up for privatisation. Deep Chand Bandhu was allocated the industry portfolio. The test for him would come in September 2002, the deadline set by the Supreme Court for the relocation of Delhi's polluting industries. While Raj Kumar Chauhan was allotted Social Welfare and School and Technical Education, the Revenue portfolio, which was managed by Finance Minister Saathi, went to Yusuf. Yusuf was also allocated Food and Civil Supplies, Development, Irrigation and Flood Control.

Instead of giving important portfolios to one or two Ministers, the Chief Minister distributed them equally among all the Ministers. She split the education, power and industry portfolios, earlier held by Narender Nath, among different Ministers. A performance appraisal of her Ministers conducted by Sheila Dixit a few months ago had shown that Narendra Nath was finding it difficult to do justice to the three departments.

The discontent generated by the reshuffle was apparent at the swearing-in ceremony. Apart from senior leaders like Kamal Nath and Tytler, 31 of the 52 Congress members in the Delhi Assembly cutting across dissidents and loyalist camps stayed away. "Evidently, the Chief Minister's supporters chose to show their displeasure when they realised that some of her detractors had been favoured in the reshuffle," said a party source. A tense Chief Minister, when asked about the boycott by the MLAs, said: "I haven't noticed who has come and who hasn't. People may have had their own work. It is not indicative of anything. It would not be fair to read anything into it."

If the reshuffle weakened Sheila Dixit's position, the clean chit given to her by the Lok Ayukta in the Delhi Jal Board case strengthened her hands. Lokayukt R.N. Aggarwal, who conducted the probe into the irregularities in the award of the contract to a private firm to lay pipelines for a drinking water project, submitted his report to Lieutenant Governor Vijai Kapoor. The report held only two junior engineers guilty of misconduct. It cleared the names of Sheila Dixit, her family members and her Officer on Special Duty of accusations of complicity in the case. "Her detractors hoped to corner her in this case, especially after the way she pushed for Shastri's ouster on the basis of the corruption case filed to the Lok Ayukta," said an informed source.

While this may have given a breather to Sheila Dixit, she still faces the task of mollifying the Vaishya community. One way out is to accommodate the disgruntled elements in the DPCC. The constitution of the DPCC (with the exception of the president's post, held by Subhash Chopra) has been pending for two years. The hitherto rudderless organisation needs to be strengthened in view of the approaching polls. The Chief Minister has a great opportunity here to rehabilitate the few heavyweights dropped from the Ministry as also her other supporters who feel let down, according to a party source.

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