PM allocates top six portfolios, rest in ph II

Written by Political Bureau | New Delhi | Updated: May 24 2009, 07:59am hrs
Manmohan Singh
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Saturday allocated key portfolios to six out of 19 ministers with Pranab Mukherjee getting finance, P Chidambaram and AK Antony retaining home and defence, respectively, and Mamata Banerjee expectedly given charge of railways. NCP leader Sharad Pawar also retained his portfolios of agriculture, food, supplies and consumer affairs. The surprise was SM Krishna getting external affairs portfolio.

The limited allocation of portfolios, party leaders said, was made on the advice of the Prime Minister who preferred to get down to business and distribute portfolios for which there were no scope of second claimants. UPA managers hinted that the announcement of the remaining portfolios could take a couple of days as it was linked to negotiations over ministerial berths with the DMK. UPA negotiators are hopeful that a settlement with the southern ally will be reached by Monday and that they could be sworn in in the second phase on Tuesday. Dayanidhi Maran, TR Baalu and A Raja are the contenders for Cabinet berths while A Azhagiri and Kanimozi are likely to be made ministers with independent charge.

Senior minister Pranab Mukherjees shift from the external affairs ministry at South Block across the road to North Block is seen as a continuation of sorts as he has been handling the finance ministry for some time now and had even presented the interim Budget before the elections. In his first remarks, Mukherjee on Saturday hoped that the government would be able to present the Budget in due time to avoid uncertainties. However, he parried questions on whether the government would go for a vote-on-account now.

Indian economy is resilient, strong and we shall have to build up and come back to the growth track as early as possible he added.

The choice of Krishna for external affairs has come as a surprise to many, given that Kamal Nath was tipped to be frontrunner for the post. The choice signals that the 77-year old former Karnataka chief minister continues to be well regarded by the Congress leadership and is fit to become Indias face internationally.

The announcement of the portfolios came barely hours after Prime Minister Singh convened the first meeting of his Cabinet, where it was decided to hold the first session of the 15th Lok Sabha from June 1 to 9. In the first two days, new members of the Lok Sabha would take oath, Cabinet minister Vyalar Ravi told FE. President Pratibha Patil will address a joint session of Parliament on June 4 following which there will be a motion of thanks to the Presidents address on June 8 and 9.

Briefing the media after the Cabinet meeting, Ravi said the government would also strive to pass the Budget for 2009-10 by July 31 and try to restore the growth momentum of the economy reeling under the impact of the global financial meltdown. In case the government is unable to get the Budget passed by Parliament by July 31, it may be necessary to take another vote-on-account for a very short period, he added.


CABINET PORTFOLIOS

P Chidambaram Minister of home affairs
With the UPA back in power, P Chidambaram returns to serve a second term as the home minister. It may have been just a touch-and-go for the minister from his Lok Sabha constituency of Sivaganga, but the tough taskmaster is all set to crack the whip in another five-year term at the Cabinet. Chidambarams pro-reform outlook at the finance ministry and his competent handling of the home portfolio after the 26/11 attack has earned him praise even from the Opposition. A trade union activist in his early years, Chidambaram later became the minister of state during Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Raos era and is credited for ushering in full market reforms and liberalisation. Besides being the finance minister in the last government, he is also a part of the Planning Commission. However, as the home minister, Chidambarams primary task now is to eliminate the threat to internal security, including militancy, insurgency and terrorism. Post 26/11, the focus will also be on strengthening security infrastructure. The multi-purpose national identity card project has to be widened beyond the coastal areas. Also the Naxal-affected states of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra need attention. With the Commonwealth Games approaching, safety of the players and viewers coming down from all across the globe is a matter of great concern. The government cannot but ignore the setting up of an integrated national security database and a national intelligence grid (NATGRID).

SM Krishna Minister of external affairs
As he prepares to take over the crucial ministry, SM Krishna, the 77-year-old suave western-educated leader, has immediate challenges waiting in the form of dealing with neighbourhood problems, particularly Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, and push for strengthening bilateral ties to ensure peace and stability in the subcontinent. With India having arrived as a key player in the global fora, Krishna will have the task of pushing the momentum to ensure that the country gets its rightful place in the expanded UN Security Council. Krishna returns to Union Cabinet after 14 years. He was minister of state for finance in 1984-85, before which he had held the post of minister of state for industry during 1983-84. Krishna has had a roller coaster ride in politics that has seen him occupy positions of power as minister, Speaker in Karnataka assembly, chief minister of the state and governor of Maharashtra. In his first interaction with media after his appointment, Krishna said India wanted to have friendly and peaceful relations with its neighbours as it was essential for its main goal of achieving the economic growth rate of 9-10%. He also talked about strengthening the existing strategic partnership with major powers like the US, Russia, Japan, China and EU. Dealing with Pakistan and cross-border terror will be one of the immediate challenges for Krishna. The ministry should also push Colombo into working out a serious rehabilitation programme and look towards bringing stability in Nepal. It also has to work towards re-engaging the Obama administration to bring India as a focus area and take up issues like H1-B visa.

A K Anthony Minister of defence
A K Anthony has been reinstated as the defence minister. Widely appreciated for having done a good job in his first stint, the Rajya Sabha member from Kerala has to pick up from where he left off. The primary task for the minister now would be to enhance the coastal security network in the light of the 26/11 attacks. The government should endeavour to raise the FDI capital to at least 49%. It also needs to appoint a chief of defence staff (CDS) so as to ensure single-point military advice to the government, unify the three wings of the Army and also manage the nuclear arsenal. Besides, it should focus on creating a full-fledged tri-service aerospace command as a replacement to the space cells to match with the ASAT (antisatellite) weapons that China has adopted in the recent times. Anthony has been the chief minister of Kerala thrice and was elected as the youngest CM in 1977. He has also served as the minister for consumer affairs and public distribution.

Sharad Pawar Minister of agriculture, and consumer affairs, food and public distribution
After vying for the Prime Ministers post prior to the Lok Sabha elections, a much-mellowed Sharad Pawar is now lending unconditional support to the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government. Instrumental in the Congress-NCP sweep of the six seats in Mumbai, particularly after the terror attacks, Pawar will serve his second term in the government as the minister of agriculture, and consumer affairs, food and public distribution. The minister must give attention to lowering food prices in the country keeping in mind the dip in the global food prices. It is likely that the long-standing debate on expanding futures trade in commodities would get more attention. Besides, food subsidies and distribution has to be taken up keeping in mind the needs of the common man. These apart, it is mandatory that the government invests more on research and development in order to rejuvenate the agricultural research institutes. It also needs to revamp the krishi vigyan kendra in the districts. The ministry also needs to have constructive role in formulation and implementation of national policies on procurement, movement, storage and distribution of wheat, rice and coarse grains. Less storage space for wheat, rice, potato and onion will result in massive export, which would in turn lead to surge in domestic prices. The government must keep a check on sugar prices besides lifting the ban on export of non-basmati rice and wheat to avoid wastage of grains.

Mamata Banerjee Minister of railways
Mamata Banerjees second term at the Rail Bhawan is going to be vastly different from the priorities that occupied her the first time around. Lalu Prasad held passenger fares constant for successive years, so there is no other way for her but to develop new efficiency parameters to show her mettle. On the investment front, the railways needs to fast-track the implementation of the dedicated freight corridor, progress on which is lying virtually standstill for the last four years. Another area in which the railways needs to chug ahead is the improvement in passenger facilities, safety and bracing up to deal with terror attacks. It immediately needs to put on track the modernisation of New Delhi railway station into a world-class railway station, a plan which has seen delays in bidding due to controversy over cross ownership issue. Apart from this, the plan to develop 26 world-class railways stations across the country also needs serious attention. The railways have lined up a number of greenfield projects like locomotive factory at Madhepura, wheel manufacturing plant at Chhapra, rail coach factory at Rae Bareilly, and diesel manufacturing facility at Marhowra, in PPP partnership. These mega projects need to be implemented fast to avoid cost escalation.