Not many people noticed Orissa’s Balasore MP Srikant Jena (59) was the first to take oath as Minister of State (MoS) despite being listed third in the original order of precedence for Thursday’s swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhawan.
The sole minister from the state that gave the Congress six MPs out of 21 was administered oath ahead of Indian Union Muslim League’s E. Ahamed and Congress’s V. Narayanasamy.
The last-minute change was caused by realisation that the MoS slot was a demotion for Jena who served as cabinet minister in the 1996-98 United Front regime under H.D. Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral.
By implication, the oversight was also a slight for BJD-ruled Orissa, where the Congress’s 30 per cent vote share is in excess of its national average. The induction of just one minister and that too in the junior category — when Jharkhand got a cabinet position in Subodh Kant Sahay despite sending one Congressman to the 15th House — did not augur well for the party. The Congress is jostling for opposition space with the BJP in the state it lost to Naveen Patnaik’s party named after his father, the charismatic Biju Patnaik.
Jena was reportedly disinclined to take oath but allowed himself to be persuaded by the Congress high command. His presence at the ceremony avoided a potentially embarrassing situation for PM Manmohan Singh — who had a word with him on the sidelines — and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Both are keen to address his grievance. But nobody knows how.
For the present, Jena has to report to DMK first-timer M.K. Alagiri in the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers.
“An MoS slot with Independent charge is the least he deserves,” said one Orissa MP who didn’t want to be quoted. He said the state hasn’t merely been under-represented but downgraded in the Council of Ministers.
Jena is a four-term MP. His first two stints in Lok Sabha were after defeating J.B. Patnaik’s wife Jayanti in 1989 and the former CM himself in 1991 from Cuttack. He returned to the House from Kendrapada in 1996.
This time, he defeated high-profile BJP leader Kharabela Swain. He was also the Congress’s campaign committee chairman in the state. “Given his political curriculum vitae, he needs to be upgraded without delay,” said a senior Congress leader from Orissa.