The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), buoyed by its unexpected election victory, got down to government formation even before the Election Commission had declared the final results.
This morning, a core committee meeting was called at Prime Minister’s residence to review the party’s performance and discuss the formation of the council of ministers with its members: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, A K Antony, P Chidambaram, Pranab Mukherjee, political advisor to Congress President Ahmad Patel and Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
A meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) followed in the evening, where backs were patted and congratulations exchanged. However, important matters of strategy were also discussed, specifically the role of the allies and the extent to which they should be included in the government (see accompanying report).
The CWC meeting opened with Sonia Gandhi making a brief opening statement and inviting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to address the meeting. Singh demurred: “You have said everything that needs to be said.” Gandhi insisted. “Doctor Sahib, everyone here wants to hear you, so you must say a few words.”
In his speech, Singh, apart from expressing his gratitude to the Gandhi family, reminded the party of enormous responsibility that lay ahead: “This government will assume office against the backdrop of the economic recession and serious trouble in India’s neighbourhood. We are pledged to continue the flagship social sector programmes of the UPA.”
No SP, RJD posts: Congress stalwarts
After passing two customary resolutions, Gandhi asked a few leaders to speak. Digvijay Singh, in charge of Uttar Pradesh, and Iqbal Singh, in charge of Bihar, both vehemently opposed the inclusion of either Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) or Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in the government. “We are now reviving our party. Giving ministerial berths to these allies will represent a setback to that process,” they said.
They also shot down the argument that both allies had come to the aid of the government on the crucial trust vote when the four Left parties withdrew their support to the UPA over the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement last year. The leaders argued that these allies had dumped the Congress at its most crucial time, the elections. Iqbal Singh also referred to Lalu Prasad’s reported remarks during his election campaign that the Congress was responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid. “This was unforgivable,” he said.
Against this backdrop, it is not difficult to understand the Congress’ position. With 205 seats in the kitty this time, the Congress has resolved that it will keep the four most important ministries: home, finance, external affairs and defence. It has also resolved that ministerial berths will be shared only with pre-poll allies: Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Trinamool Congress, Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) and National Conference (NC). “We will consult our pre-poll allies about the formation of the government and sharing of portfolios,” said Janardhana Dwivedi, Congress general secretary, after the meeting.
However, a final call will be taken by Gandhi and Singh.
Rahul Gandhi listened to the speeches but did not speak. One of the first things that Manmohan Singh said when he addressed reporters briefly was that he would persuade Rahul Gandhi to join the government. However, although Gandhi hosted a tea party for the campaign team headed by Jairam Ramesh, and also interacted with his Youth Congress supporters, there was no clarity on whether he would join the government or stay with the organisation.
Meanwhile, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy briefed the meeting about his plans following his victory in Andhra Pradesh.
Montek for FM?
Since External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee was given charge of finance after incumbent P Chidambaram was shifted to home following the November 26 terror attacks in Mumbai, the government needs a new finance minister. The name most in circulation was Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia.
Ahluwalia, a former finance secretary in the “dream team” in the early nineties when Manmohan Singh was finance minister, will need to get elected to either House within six months of being appointed.
The Left parties, on which the UPA had relied for support in the previous Lok Sabha, had vigorously opposed his appointment in 2004 when it was first mooted because of his association with the World Bank. At the time Sonia Gandhi had bowed to pressure. This time, Left pressure is absent.
Two Congress ministers likely to be replaced are HRD Minister Arjun Singh and Law Minister H R Bharadwaj. Commerce Minister Kamal Nath’s portfolio is also likely to be changed.
Mukul Wasnik and Sushilkumar Shinde (both Maharashtra) are likely to be inducted. The Congress is likely to keep the Speaker’s post and will suggest Jaipal Reddy or Kishore Chandra Deo (both Andhra Pradesh).
If the alliance with the RJD does work out, the post could also go to Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, minister for rural development in the outgoing government.
The party also intended to acknowledge the role of young blood in the party and as an incentive to drawing younger people, will appoint half-a-dozen young ministers. Among the names being discussed were Sachin Pilot, who was moved from his Dausa constituency to Ajmer but still won his seat; Jitin Prasada, who was minister of state for steel and has won from Shahjahanpur; Jyotiraditya Scindia, who has won from Guna and was minister of state for telecommunications in the last government; and Deepinder Singh Hooda, who has won with a record margin 4,45,700 votes from Rohtak, Haryana.
Negotiations are likely to go on all evening and all night. The swearing-in ceremony is likely only after 21 May.