Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cabinet rejig with eye on polls

NEW DELHI: Congress seized the reshuffle window to rev up its election machine in Uttar Pradesh and Kerala by broadbasing participation from these states in the Union ministry.

The elevation of Salman Khurshid and Sriprakash Jaiswal and induction of Beni Prasad Verma as steel minister have upped the share of UP in the Cabinet to put it on a par with its political heft. (Read: PM inducts 3 new ministers, drops none )

K V Thomas's surprise elevation as food and consumer affairs minister and the filling of Shashi Tharoor's slot is another leg-up for the party in Kerala which takes on the Left Front in May polls. Giving temporary charge of civil aviation to Vyalar Ravi and making K C Venugopal junior minister for power fits the 'K C Venugopal' pattern.

Sources said the focus on short-term political battles in the reshuffle, which was expected to be a performance appraisal of UPA-2, underlined the importance of the coming polls in the party matrix.

Congress is banking heavily on victories in Kerala and Assam where it is the main player to turn the tide after the negativity of scams.

Victories on ally turfs such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu would supplement party strategy. UP polls would also decide the fate of the party's revival attempt in the 80-seat state and give a peep into the possibilities of 2014 Lok Sabha battle.

The rejig seeks to broadbase Congress's UP outreach. A position to Verma can renew the party's appeal among OBCs. Verma's entry in the power echelons is a snub to Samajwadi Party, his home before the high-voltage rebellion against Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2007.

Verma's gain compounds Mulayam's woes because he too is eyeing a power perch at the Centre to rival the clout of an imperious Mayawati. His PMO visit on Monday evening had set tongues wagging in the Congress camp.

A cabinet rank for Khurshid aims to neutralise SP's bid to dent Congress among Muslims. SP's Azam Khan has accused Congress of denying the community its due share in power with only Kashmir's Congress among Muslimshaving Cabinet status. Khurshid's elevation sets right the balance.

Congress has lent weight of key portfolios to Kerala leaders to add to its momentum in the Left-held state. Autonomous charge of food and consumer affairs to Thomas and civil aviation to Ravi are steps in that direction.

The criticality of Kerala in Congress matrix stems from the prospect of double whammy for Left in Bengal and Kerala. A defeat-induced disarray in Left camp can soften the Red resistance in Delhi which will be big relief for the cornered Congress.

The political subtext of the rejig in UP follows a realisation in Congress that the waning of post-2009 mood after scams and price rise will test its bare cupboard of leaders and appeal among caste groups. Though Rahul Gandhi leads a campaign among dalits who are loyal to Mayawati, the key to party success in the state lies with Muslims, OBCs and upper castes.

Also read: PM will now keep a sharper eye on key economic ministries


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