A cabinet of new faces in Congress party shake-up

India's prime minister gets rid of scandal-tainted politicians to be able to take advantage of early elections. Samanth Subramanian reports

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NEW DELHI // The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, reshuffled his cabinet yesterday, partly to fill some vacancies but also to prepare the Congress party for next year's general elections.

Four senior ministers and four junior ministers were sworn in to the Congress-led coalition government yesterday evening by the president, Pranab Mukherjee.

The exercise, said Chintamani Mahapatra, a political scientist with New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, was aimed at projecting a positive image of the government and Congress party, which has been damaged through four scandal-ridden years.

"Given the history of Indian elections, I'd say that the voters' memories are short," Mr Mahapatra said. "If the government can put in place some popular programmes and show the people a cabinet full of new, uncontroversial faces, its chances will be strengthened during the elections."

The new senior ministers are Oscar Fernandes, an old Congress hand; Girija Vyas; KS Rao; and Sis Ram Ola. Mr Fernandes will head the ministry for surface transport and highways, while Ms Vyas will be the minister for housing, urban development and poverty alleviation.

Mr Rao will head the textiles ministry, while Mr Ola will hold the labour and employment portfolio.

Some of the ministerial vacancies in the government had come about because two Congress allies - the Trinamool Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam - quit the coalition in September last year and in March this year, respectively.

In addition, the law minister, Ashwani Kumar, resigned in early May in wake of allegations that he had tampered with a corruption investigation. At the same time, Pawan Kumar Bansal resigned as the railway minister following allegations that he had accepted bribes.

On Sunday, two of the government's senior ministers resigned to focus on working within the Congress party. Ajay Maken had held the housing, urban development and poverty alleviation portfolio, while CP Joshi had temporarily headed the railway ministry in addition to his longer-term position with the ministry for surface transport and highways.

Mr Maken will now head the party's communications cell, while Mr Joshi will tend to the party's affairs in the states of West Bengal and Assam, the Congress spokesman, Janardan Dwivedi, said on Sunday.

Mr Dwivedi also announced a host of new appointments and responsibilities, including 12 new general secretaries, 42 secretaries and other key Congress leaders who would be in charge of the party in various states.

Many of the new appointments are of party leaders seen as close to Rahul Gandhi, the vice president of the Congress and the son of the party president, Sonia Gandhi.

"Led by Rahul Gandhi, this is a young team the Congress has given to the country," Mr Maken said yesterday.

Mr Mahapatra said the restructuring was intended to make the Congress more effective in its election campaign, but also to satisfy as many party leaders as possible.

He noted that the party wished to have its internal structures in place in case it decided to call elections earlier than next May, when they are scheduled.

The government might choose to capitalise on the disarray in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the main opposition coalition. An important NDA member quit the coalition over the weekend because the Bharatiya Janata Party chose Narendra Modi to head its campaign committee.

Mr Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, is widely considered to be a right-wing Hindu nationalist who allowed - and perhaps even encouraged - anti-Muslim riots to break out in his state in 2002.

"Manmohan Singh has said many times that he wants to complete his term," Mr Mahapatra said. "But looking at the recent turmoil in the NDA, I think that if further problems occur in the opposition, then the government may indeed go for early elections."

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