A reshuffle and ruffled feathers

Print edition : September 15, 2001

The smaller allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party bear the brunt of the reshuffle of the Union Council of Ministers, which is seen as an exercise in self-assertion by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

ON July 31, Atal Behari Vajpayee pleaded helplessness in running the ruling coalition and offered to quit the post of Prime Minister. But within a month he appeared to be a much transformed leader, asserting himself and sending clear signals to his allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that they did not matter much in his scheme of things.

President K.R. Narayanan and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee with the new Ministers (from left) M.K.A. Patil, Karia Munda, Ved Prakash Goyal, Vijay Goel, Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, Rajiv Pratap Rudi and Ravi Shankar Prasad. Vice-President Krishan Kant and Home Minister L.K. Advani are seen.-S. ARNEJA

Vajpayee shifted Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav out of the key portfolios of Communications and Civil Aviation to Coal and Mines and Labour respectively. The erstwhile socialists accepted the new portfolios, barely concealing their unhappiness. Paswan and Sharad Yadav are the leaders of the Lok Jan Shakti and the Janata Dal (United) respectively, the groups whose collective strength in the Lok Sabha can hardly pose a threat to Vajpayee's survival in office. Another Minister to be shifted was Maneka Gandhi - from the independent portfolio of Social Justice and Empowerment to the newly created portfolio of Culture and Animal Welfare. But she is a leader without a party. These instances perhaps explain the logic of Vajpayee's new-found "assertion".

It is significant that the Prime Minister did not dare to transfer Nitish Kumar, Railway Minister and leader of the Samata Party, the second biggest NDA constituent after the Bharatiya Janata Party. Shifting Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to a low-profile Ministry was also not a feasible option as he could not afford to alienate many allies at the same time. Nor did he bother to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of George Fernandes as Defence Minister following the Tehelka expose. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh continues to hold additional charge as Defence Minister, even though the propriety of a Minister holding two crucial portfolios has been widely questioned. The idea perhaps is to avoid giving the impression that the Prime Minister is no longer willing to wait for the return of Fernandes to his Ministry in the event of his being absolved of the charges in the Tehelka affair.

By shifting Paswan and Sharad Yadav to other Ministries, an impression was sought to be created that the reshuffle had something to do with economic reforms. The two leaders had reportedly resisted liberalisation measures in their Ministries. But both Paswan and Yadav have been entrusted with Ministries that have a key role in the economic reform process. As Labour Minister, Sharad Yadav may come under pressure to initiate anti-labour measures in line with the policy of liberalisation. His predecessor Satyanarayan Jatiya was eased out of the Ministry primarily because he resisted reforms on the labour front. If the speeding up of the reforms process was the objective of the exercise, it was not clear why Vajpayee excluded Paswan and Sharad Yadav from a meeting of the Ministers in charge of portfolios relating to the economy at his residence on September 5. The meeting decided to constitute a Group of Ministers to look after labour reforms. Apart from the elevation of Arun Shourie as Cabinet Minister in charge of Disinvestment, there is nothing in the reshuffle to show that the government really accords top priority to economic reforms.

It is not clear whether Vajpayee will eventually accommodate in his Cabinet representatives of the Trinamul Congress and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which returned to the NDA recently after a brief period of estrangement during the last round of Assembly elections. There is a feeling among the smaller constituents of the NDA that if they do not make their presence felt in the coalition they run the risk of being downgraded and isolated. The fear does not appear to be misplaced. As long as the allies do not come together and work out a common strategy to safeguard their status, Vajpayee has no cause for worry.

Congress(I) spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy's remark after the Cabinet reshuffle that every non-BJP constituent of the NDA is an item of cargo that can be jettisoned and every non-BJP Minister is a dispensable commodity might not be an exaggeration. He said that the NDA constituents were leading a parasitic existence, subsisting on ministerial alms doled out by the Prime Minister. Although the BJP claims that it treats all its allies with equal respect, there is no explanation why the prime ministerial prerogative of shifting Ministers to different portfolios was used selectively, against the smaller parties.

In fact, none in the Prime Minister's camp seems to take seriously the threat of withdrawal of support by an ally any longer. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah is a case in point. He threatened to pull his National Conference (N.C.) out of the NDA following the remark reportedly made by Vajpayee in the course of his Independence Day speech that he would ensure free and fair elections in the State in the future. (Home Minister L.K. Advani had said that the only time free and fair elections were held in the State was in 1977.) An angry Farooq Abdullah asked whether the previous elections were rigged. While clarifying his remarks, the Prime Minister said that Farooq Abdullah was free to leave the coalition if he wanted to, even though the NDA would like him to stay. Soon after, George Fernandes spoke to Farooq Abdullah in his capacity as NDA convener. After the meeting, the Chief Minister did not say anything further about his threat.

Farooq Abdullah was unhappy that his critic Chaman Lal Gupta, a BJP leader from Jammu and Kashmir, had been elevated to the rank of a Minister of State with independent charge of Food Processing and Industries, and that his son and Minister of State for External Affairs Omar Abdullah was promoted to the Cabinet. The N.C. has only four MPs in the Lok Sabha. Another probable reason for Farooq Abdullah's pique was that Vajpayee chose to promote Minister of State Syed Shahnawaz Hussain to the Cabinet. The 32-year-old BJP MP from Bihar is the youngest Cabinet Minister since Independence and the only Muslim in the Cabinet. He got the Civil Aviation Ministry.

The Prime Minister was expected to replace Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, making him the scapegoat for the economic slowdown. Such a decision would have signalled that Vajpayee was serious about taking corrective measures to stimulate the economy. However Advani and the top leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) were believed to have counselled Vajpayee against dropping Yashwant Sinha as that would embarrass the government, especially in the context of the Prime Minister's defence of his Finance Minister in the monsoon session of Parliament, which concluded recently.

The shifting of Urban Development Minister Jagmohan to Tourism was widely disapproved within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. The Prime Minister was reportedly under pressure from senior party MPs from Delhi, Madan Lal Khurana, Sahib Singh Verma and V.K. Malhotra. There were also reports in the media that they might be espousing the cause of the builders' lobby, which was unhappy with Jagmohan's style of functioning, especially his campaign against unauthorised constructions and settlements. Upset by these reports and Vajpayee's decision to induct Vijay Goel, MP from the Chandni Chowk constituency in Delhi, as Minister of State for Planning in the Prime Minister's Office, overlooking their experience and claims to Cabinet berths, they threatened to quit their party posts. (Khurana and Verma are vice-presidents of the party and Malhotra is the spokesperson of the BJP Parliamentary Party). A rattled Vajpayee met them and offered to consider their grievances in return for their promise not to carry out their threat and to work for the party in the civic elections in Delhi. It is doubtful whether Vajpayee will be able to resist their pressure. He is likely to shift Goel to another Ministry or drop him. Goel is known for his political mobilisation skills, but there are doubts within the PMO about his ability to live up to his responsibilities, which include coordination with the States and the NDA constituents.

The RSS is bitter about the transfer of Jagmohan. Seshadri Chari, Editor of Organiser, the RSS weekly, said: "He might have been a little brash in his methods as a Minister. But he was very dedicated to the party and had the courage of his convictions. He would not succumb to the builders' mafia. If the BJP thinks it can get the votes of people living in resettlement colonies and unauthorised dwellings in the capital because of Jagmohan's exit from the Urban Development Ministry, it is far from the truth." A hurt Jagmohan initially wanted to quit the government and the party but was reportedly persuaded by senior leaders to take up the new assignment.

Another controversial appointment is that of Pratap Singh Rudy, a young BJP MP from Bihar. He was inducted as Minister of State for Commerce and Industry despite objections from the Opposition on the grounds of his alleged involvement in the Tehelka affair. The Venkataswami Commission, which is inquiring into the affair, has issued notice to Rudy.

Among the five Ministers who have been dropped, four belong to the BJP. Stung by media reports that he may be eased out in the reshuffle, senior BJP leader Sunderlal Patwa quit the Cabinet on health grounds. There were no serious complaints against the three BJP Ministers of State who were dropped. In fact, the general complaint about the Ministers of State was that they had very little work in Vajpayee's jumbo Ministry as their senior colleagues in the Cabinet did not share their work with them. If the Ministries concerned were found wanting in performance, it is not clear why the senior Ministers were spared.

All the new appointees - five new Ministers of State and one Cabinet Minister - are BJP members. Of them, three belong to Bihar and one to Uttar Pradesh.

In the race for power among the second-line leaders of the BJP, Pramod Mahajan has emerged the winner, bagging three portfolios - Information Technology, Communications and Parliamentary Affairs. Mahajan is said to have played a major role in the reshuffle. His sudden rise in the power structure is a matter of envy for Ministers such as Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and M. Venkaiah Naidu.

Perhaps tired of the pressures of coalition politics, Vajpayee has of late been speaking about the short tenures of Indian Prime Ministers. "Becoming a Prime Minister is not a big thing. Every two years the Prime Minister is changed and I am waiting for the change," he said recently.

With Vajpayee ruling out the possibility of his continuance as the leader of the coalition for another term, many in the NDA and the BJP are preparing for a post-Vajpayee phase. The general assumption is that he would be replaced by Advani, who is backed by the RSS.

The increasing intervention of the RSS in the governance of the country was evident from Jaswant Singh attending its training camps in Bangalore and the appointment of B.N. Agnihotri, an RSS activist, as adviser in the Indian Embassy in Washington with the rank of an Ambassador.

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