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PM, Sonia to meet allies on Tuesday

By A Special Correspondent in New Delhi
May 18, 2009 12:43 IST
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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who presided over the last meeting of his council of ministers on Monday, will now wrestle with the problems that confront the constitution of his next government.

One senior Union minister told that the Congress has 202 MPs, but no idea yet about how many ministers the next government will have. Should the total number of ministers be fixed at 82 and the allies given 32 berths, the Congress alone can have 60 ministers.

But to identify those 60 Congress ministers is a difficult task.

Dr Singh shook hands with every one of his ministers present at Monday's meeting. Only a handful of ministers could not attend. Many ministers met Palaniappan Chidambaram and Mani Shankar Aiyar to enquire about the tough electoral battle they faced in Tamil Nadu. While Chidambaram won after a recount, Aiyar was defeated.

The suspense over the new ministry and who gets what portfolio may continue till the new government is sworn in, possibly on Friday, the day after former Congress prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's 18th death anniversary.

The exercise to finalise names and portfolios will begin in earnest on Tuesday when Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sit down with their allies to discuss the agenda the new government should follow in its first 100 days in office.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham supremo Muthuvel Karunanidhi will arrive in New Delhi on Monday evening to attend the meeting.

The DMK wants seven ministerial berths, but intermediary Dayanidhi Maran, the former IT minister, has been told the party will get two Cabinet posts and two ministers of state positions.

In the outgoing government, the DMK had five ministers; ministers from Tamil Nadu numbered 13. The Congress wants to give four berths to its own leaders from Tamil Nadu: Chidambaram, G L Vasan, N S V Chittan and V Narayanasamy are mentioned in this regard.

Maran was told to tell Karunanidhi that as the DMK won 18 seats and Mamata Bannerjee's Trinamool Congress won 19 seats in Bengal, the DMK could not get more ministries than the Trinamool.

He has also been told that DMK should not press for the re-induction of T R Baalu and A Raja nor should it ask for the ministries of surface transport and communication because of the controversies those two ministers created.

Mamata Banerjee may be offered the post of railway minister that she craved for the last time she was in government. Maran is a strong contender for the post. The DMK wants the portfolios of railways, mines and coal.

Commerce Minister Kamal Nath is staking his claim to be made either finance minister or home minister on the ground that he is the senior-most Congress MP, elected to the Lok Sabha for the ninth time. Dr Singh would prefer Chidambaram to stay on as home minister and reportedly wants Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia to run the finance ministry.

Union Minister S Jaipal Reddy is said to be the favourite for the Lok Sabha Speaker's post.

The Samajwadi Party is making a desperate bid to get on board and its general secretary Amar Singh met the prime minister on Sunday evening in this connection. Dr Singh fobbed him off, saying the decision to include the Samajwadi Party in a UPA government will be taken by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.

Excited by a telephone call from Sonia Gandhi, Railways Minister Laloo Prasad, whose Rashtriya Janata Dal was vanquished in Bihar and won just four seats, rushed to Delhi on Sunday afternoon, saying it is for the Congress to decide whether the RJD will be part of the new government.

Two prominent Muslim faces expected to be part of the new Cabinet are former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and current Congress General Secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad and former Uttar Pradesh Pradesh Congress Committee chief Salman Khurshid.

Minority Affairs Minister A R Antulay's defeat means the Congress needs to fill that vacancy with a senior Muslim leader. The Congress hopes that National Conference leader Dr Farooq Abdullah will be persuaded to be India's next minority affairs minister.

Should Dr Abdullah decline, the position could go to current Minister of State for External Affairs E Ahamed, a leader of the Indian Union Muslim League.

Ahamed is expected in any case to make way for another Malayali at the external affairs ministry. Former United Nations under secretary general Shashi Tharoor, who won his first election from Thiruvananthapuram, is tipped to join the MEA, which cannot have two ministers from the same state.

Though Nationalist Congress Party supremo Sharad Pawar is expected to retain the agriculture portfolio, NCP General Secretary Praful Patel, currently the aviation minister, has made it known that his party will not insist on particular portfolios. Political observers say this is Patel's way of conveying that the NCP will not press for him continuing as aviation minister or Pawar as agriculture minister.

Sources say Dr Singh would like to shift both leaders after the controversies the Opposition raised about their ministries.

No controversy surrounds current Defence Minister A K Antony, who is expected to continue as the raksha mantri.

Several young Congress MPs, including Rahul Gandhi, are tipped to join the ministry as are Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule and Karunanidhi's youngest daughter Kanimozhi.

Dr Singh wants to have a balanced ministry right from the start. He does not want any reshuffles or expansions for a year at least, hence the selection of appropriate ministers may take some care and time.

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A Special Correspondent in New Delhi