Cabinet changes could give hint on reform

NEW DELHI Tue Jan 11, 2011 3:59pm IST

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks during a joint news conference with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev in New Delhi December 21, 2010. Singh may reshuffle his cabinet this month, government sources said on Tuesday, in a move that may reveal how much support he is giving to some reformist ministers. REUTERS/B Mathur/Files

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks during a joint news conference with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev in New Delhi December 21, 2010. Singh may reshuffle his cabinet this month, government sources said on Tuesday, in a move that may reveal how much support he is giving to some reformist ministers.

Credit: Reuters/B Mathur/Files

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may reshuffle his cabinet this month, government sources said on Tuesday, in a move that may reveal how much support he is giving to some reformist ministers.

Singh, facing the toughest time of his second term in office amid accelerating food inflation and corruption scandals, needs to fill several vacancies, some which came about as a result of the departure of ministers over graft accusations.

Singh could just make cosmetic changes to fill vacancies or he could reshuffle some controversial ministers, such as Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.

Ramesh is seen as a reformist who has been criticised in business and political circles for blocking major industrial projects over green concerns.

The reshuffle could show the direction the government will take, either to back reformist ministers or bow to political expediency and industry pressures, in the run-up to important state elections this year and a general election due by 2014.

"You could expect something by January 26," said a senior government source who is not authorised to speak to the media and declined to be identified.

Singh held a meeting on Saturday to discuss cabinet changes and more meetings were likely in coming days, said another government official.

Ruling Congress party spokesman Manish Tewari declined to comment on the possibility of a reshuffle, except to say: "Reshuffle is in the domain of the prime minister, he can do it any time."

Any ministerial reshuffle will also need the nod of Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, seen as the power behind the government and regarded as further to the left than the prime minister.

Ministerial vacancies have been created by the resignations of Sashi Tharoor as junior foreign minister and Andimuthu Raja as telecommunications minister, the latter over a link to a $39 billion telecoms scam.

Several elderly and powerful ministers have been criticised for scuttling new thinking in government, frustrating efforts toward faster reform, such as opening up the retail sector to foreign investors after a resounding election victory in 2009.

Singh also needs to take into account the demands for government jobs from an important ally, the DMK party, which held the telecommunications ministry.

Media have reported Environment Minister Ramesh might lose his job, as also could Roads Minister Kamal Nath's. Moving Ramesh, however, could raise question over whether the government was succumbing to pressure from industry.

"I don't think he will be touched because he is very close to Sonia Gandhi," D.H. Pai Panandikar, head of private think tank RPG Foundation, said.

In September, Singh said he would like to reduce the average age of his cabinet, which is more than 64. Many ministers, including Singh, are older than 70.

(Editing by Alistair Scrutton)

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