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Last Updated: Monday, 24 May, 2004, 11:28 GMT 12:28 UK
Congress loyalists fill India cabinet

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online correspondent in Delhi

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Singh cabinet: 'Old wine in a new bottle'
India's new government is a mix of ageing Gandhi family loyalists and powerful regional strongmen who are also Congress party allies.

A number of diehard supporters of the Gandhi family, who served under both Indira and Rajiv, have come in from the cold and found a place in the 68-member cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Analysts are disappointed by the return of the old guard and lack of fresh blood in the cabinet.

Inner circle

One loyalist making his way back is the new education minister, Arjun Singh, 74, who joined the party in 1960, and has been a state governor and federal minister in Congress governments in the past.

A tough career politician, Mr Singh is considered to be part of Congress leader Sonia Gandhi's inner circle.

Manmohan Singh (left) and Pranab Mukherjee (seated, right)
Mr Mukherjee (seated, right) is a survivor
The other prominent Gandhi family loyalist is Pranab Mukherjee, 69, who has been given the defence portfolio.

Mr Mukherjee won his first popular election in his over three-decade-long association with the Congress party only this year.

But lack of electoral success has never come in the way of Mr Mukherjee securing at least half a dozen plum portfolios in past Congress governments, including finance and external affairs.

He is a number-crunching politician with a phenomenal memory and an unerring survival instinct.

What is abundantly clear is that the Congress party prefers to reward its old loyalists, who many feel keep the young blood out of the party
Natwar Singh, 73, a former career diplomat who studied history in Cambridge, is another loyalist to have gained a cabinet position.

The new external affairs minister - a former ambassador to Pakistan and junior minister in Rajiv Gandhi's cabinet - is a prolific writer who has written a book on EM Forster.

The Congress loyalists dominate so much that even two senior party leaders who lost the elections have been given crucial cabinet posts.

They are Shivraj Patil, a former speaker of the lower house, and PM Sayeed, a senior politician from tiny Lakshwadeep island.

Mr Patil, quite unexpectedly, has been given the prestigious interior ministry, while Mr Sayeed is the new electricity minister.

'Disappointing'

One commentator described the cabinet as a lot of "old wine in a new bottle".

Shekhar Gupta, editor of the Indian Express newspaper, agreed.

LALOO PRASAD YADAV
Laloo Prasad Yadav
He is colourful and vocal. He has defied logic in many ways, but he has done nothing for Bihar
Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta
"It is rather disappointing. I don't see sufficient regeneration, not enough new faces," he told BBC News Online.

"There's no sufficient newness in terms of faces or ideas. And in an era of reforms, you need newness."

The new cabinet also has some powerful regional satraps, who have been key allies of the Congress party in the recent elections.

One of them is the controversial former chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, who is widely believed to rule by proxy - his wife is the present chief minister in India's lawless northern state of Bihar.

Mr Yadav, who heads the RJD party, is the new railway minister.

Analysts find his appointment a bit of an irony, as ticketless railway travel is a way of life in Mr Yadav's state.

"He is colourful and vocal. He has defied logic in many ways. He has done nothing for Bihar, but he gets re-elected because he has worked out the caste equations in his state, and his rivals have played into his hands," says Mr Gupta.

The other powerful regional politician in the cabinet is Sharad Pawar, who broke away from the Congress party a few years ago, but agreed to ally with it during the recent elections.

A former federal defence minister, Mr Pawar has a reputation for being an efficient administrator.

Mr Pawar will now be looking after the crucial food and agriculture ministry, one of the areas in which the new government really hopes to make a difference.

The markets are cheering the appointment of P Chidambaram's comeback as the finance minister.

The articulate Harvard-educated Mr Chidambaram is widely regarded as an advocate of economic reforms with a "human face".

Film star

The other relatively young minister who will be keenly watched is Dayanidhi Maran, who has the information technology portfolio.

Mr Maran - from the southern DMK party, a key Congress ally - is also Harvard-educated and runs a flourishing cable network business in Tamil Nadu state.

Unlike in the previous Bharatiya Janata Party-led federal cabinet which boasted two former Bollywood stars, the new government has just one face from the world's most prolific film industry.

He is Sunil Dutt, the sports minister.

A tenacious Congress politician who has won five elections in a row from Bombay (also known as Mumbai), Mr Dutt was a star in Bollywood in the 1960s and 1970s.

What is abundantly clear is that the Congress party prefers to reward its old loyalists, who many feel keep the young blood out of the party.

Analysts feel this is ironic, considering that a clutch of young and bright leaders have emerged in the party and had won seats in the recent elections.

But reports suggest that Mrs Gandhi would prefer to groom the young parliamentarians in party work, before giving them cabinet portfolios.



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