Smiles and sulks in 15-minute ceremony

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

NEW DELHI - Fifteen weeks of speculation, and in fifteen minutes it was all over.

The much-awaited oath-taking ceremony of six ministers started at 5 p.m. sharp in the chandeliered Ashoka Hall of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the sandstone presidential palace located in the heart of Lutyen’s Delhi.

The names were read out, the national anthem was played by the red-and-gold uniformed Presidential Body Guards, and the ministers took their solemn oath to discharge their ministerial duties without fear or favour. The monotone of ministerial oath-taking was punctuated by ‘I’ from President Pratibha Patil in her thin female voice.

In the front row sat half a dozen people who between them decide the fate of the country. Sonia Gandhi, the powerful Congress president and chairperson of the ruling coalition, glowed in a green brocaded sari and smiled serenely as the ministers took oath one by one.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the benign economist-turned-politician, was his usual reticent self. The patriarchs and veterans of the grand old party, including Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Defence Minister A.K. Antony, and Home Minister P. Chidambaram, were all there to see this minor shuffle orchestrated to bring in a whiff of freshness in the government that has come to reek of corruption and scams.

Salman Khursheed beamed and quietly soaked in his elevation to the cabinet rank. But when quizzed, he did not appear too enthusiastic about his new portfolio: water resources.

Praful Patel, the high-flying minister of Congress’ ally Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), tried to sound nonchalant about his new portfolio, heavy industries and enterprises, but one could see that he was a bit miffed with having to jettison his old fiefdom — the civil aviation ministry, which he lorded over for nearly seven years. “Portfolios don’t matter,” he told hacks over tea, gulab jamun and malai chicken tikka that were served after the swearing-in ceremony.

If some tried to put on a brave face, many looked distinctly crestfallen. Murli Deora, for one, sported a sulk when asked about giving up the petroleum portfolio. M.S. Gill was in no mood to be a sport after being shifted to the ministry of statistics and programme implementation.

There were many young MPs and ministerial hopefuls. But they will have to wait for the next round of shuffle and expansion, which the prime minister has promised after the budget session of parliament.

Was there a larger message in the reshuffle? You will find out, said Sonia Gandhi enigmatically as she left with the prime minister in just half an hour after the ceremony.

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