Friday, May 29, 2009

Cabinet portfolios: Sonia, Rahul pick key men

NEW DELHI: It was at 9.30pm on Thursday that news finally came - the portfolios were 

out. At first look it seemed along expected lines, but 
then a few surprises surfaced: 
there was a new commerce minister in Anand Sharma with the previous one, Kamal Nath, being moved to surface transport. Veerappa Moily as law minister was also a surprise. 

The delay in announcing portfolios betrayed that allocation of jobs wasn't easy. As Sonia Gandhi said, it was a balancing act. Political considerations had to be married with merit to create a team that will deliver. And as Manmohan Singh said, people expected efficiency from the government; ``business as usual'' would not do. 

Will the team deliver? Well, here are its key players. For a government for which rural upliftment is a stated priority, the man on the spot is newcomer C P Joshi who has been given the rural development ministry. Another priority, infrastructure, has the effective Kamal Nath in charge of surface transport (although there were whispers about him being being removed from ``glamorous'' commerce), and Sushil K Shinde as power minister. 

Education is another high focus area for the government and it found Kapil Sibal - an educated and efficient minister - to man the HRD ministry. If infrastructure and the social sector are important for both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul, there was obvious thought and care in choosing the men in charge of these areas. To that extent, there appears to be a clear influence of the Gandhis in the ministry making. 

The other important choices were Ghulam Nabi Azad as health and family welfare minister, Ambika Soni as I&B mantri, and Jairam Ramesh as the minister for environment and forests. Pradeep Jain, said to be a Rahul aide, will assist C P Joshi as the junior minister in rural development. NCP's Agatha Sangma, at 28 the youngest ever minister, will be the other junior minister to Joshi, who will also hold the additional charge of panchayati raj. 

If Anand Sharma looked pleased after his elevation as cabinet minister, being named commerce and industry ministry should make him beam. He is now in the big league. Perhaps a background in international law and diplomacy weighed in his favour for a ministry where global trade talks are among top concerns. 

Shashi Tharoor, a first-time MP but a veteran diplomat, finds a place in the external affairs ministry as MoS. Jairam Ramesh, the man behind Congress's poll campaign, is expected to play a crucial role as environment minister as important negotiations on global warming are on the agenda later this year. 

Tamil Nadu leader G K Vasan's appointment as shipping minister is a signal to DMK which had wanted the ministry to pursue its Sethu Samudram project. Congress is wary of brinksmanship on the issue and will control its progress. It is also in keeping with the possibility the party sees in reclaiming its lost space in a state where had been the balancing factor. 

Ambika Soni's shift from the somewhat peripheral tourism ministry to information and broadcasting brings her back to centrestage as propaganda czar and gives her an important say in shaping media policies. She was tipped for health but should be more than pleased with her high visibility assignment. 

Ghulam Nabi Azad as health minister has been tasked with an important piece of the government's social sector agenda and the job of undoing the reign of PMK's Anbumani Ramadoss, who was seen to have engaged in endless confrontations during his term in the previous UPA regime. 

Maharashtra leader Mukul Wasnik's appointment to the social justice and empowerment ministry that oversees quotas, is yet another sign of Congress brass using ministry making to supplement its preparation for the polls in Maharashtra due later this year. Congress has to ward off a challenge from both BSP and RPI factions aligned with its rivals. Raising the profile of an articulate Dalit will help. 

Both Murli Deora and Sushil Shinde should be happy at having retained their charge of petroluem and power. Both Maharashtra leaders have proved to be doughty survivors not so much due to performance ratings but because the party leadership sees them as "safe" choices. 

UP leader Salman Khursheed, disappointed at not breaking into the Cabinet, has been given independent charge of coprorate affairs, besides having the additional responsibility of minority affairs, now seen as a success story. 
Prithviraj Chavan lived up to his billing as a trustworthy link between 10, Janpath and PMO. He has been elevated as MOS with independent charge of science and technology but will also continue to be MOS in PMO. He will be MOS, personnel, as well. 

Two ex-CMs Virbhadra Singh and Vilasrao Deshmukh have been given charge of steel and heavy industry respectively and the decision seems based on their seniority. Deshmukh serves the purpose of being a political counter-weight to the NCP as well. 

Some of the younger ministers have been given a chance to show some sparkle. Jyotiraditya Scindia in commerce, Sachin Pilot in communication and IT, RPN Singh in road transport, Ajay Maken in home and Jitin Prasada in petroleum are cases in point. 

The choices of Shashi Tharoor and Preneet Kaur as junior ministers in MEA may come in handy for the 77-year-old S M Krishna. 

Meira Kumar's shift from social justice to water resources may spell a novelty but not a leg up certainly for the sole representive from Bihar. Subodh Kant Sahay, who earned an elevation, has failed to move out of his previous food processing ministry. (TOI)

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