Speculation is running rife yet again about an impending cabinet reshuffle with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh losing two ministers during the just ended monsoon session and the re-entry of former foreign minister K Natwar Singh being ruled out following his indictment in the Pathak inquiry report.
According to some Congress sources, a cabinet reshuffle is likely to take place before Sept 11 when he leaves for his weeklong visit to Brazil and Cuba. They said Manmohan Singh was waiting to see through the Indo-US nuclear deal that is likely to be passed by the US Senate in the third week of September.
Party leaders also pointed out that a foreign minister has to be appointed before the UN General Assembly (UNGA) session—which will be held from the third week of September.
An internal note in the external affairs ministry says that 'a cabinet minister' will lead the Indian delegation to UNGA. No names were mentioned.
At a dinner he hosted for his United Progressive Alliance (UPA) allies and supporting parties earlier this week, Manmohan Singh hinted at an imminent cabinet reshuffle. When asked who would represent the country at the UNGA in September, he reportedly said, 'the new foreign minister'.
Manmohan Singh had told reporters on his way back from St Petersburg after attending the G8 summit in mid-July that there would be a foreign minister soon.
Besides, two Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) leaders—its chief K Chandrashekhara Rao (labour minister) and A Narendra (minister of state for rural development)—quit the government last week protesting the delay in the creation of a separate Telangana state.
There were strong rumours that Home Minister Shivraj Patil, who has been severely criticised for his handling of the internal security issue, would be replaced at North Block and would be appointed the defence minister.
Although a section of party leaders suggested that Patil could succeed Natwar Singh—who had to quit after his name figured in the UN's Volcker report that probed corruption in the oil-for-food programme in Iraq—sources indicated that the Prime Minister was not very keen to have him in charge of the foreign affairs portfolio.
Maharashtra governor SM Krishna and Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee continued to head the list of names doing the rounds for leading the external affairs ministry. While Mukherjee, the leader of the Lok Sabha, is the most experienced of all ministers and was external affairs minister under former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao, Krishna—a former chief minister of Karnataka—appears to enjoy the support of both Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.
Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal and Finance Minister P Chidambaram are other possible contenders for the coveted ministerial office in South Block where the foreign ministry is housed.
The external affairs portfolio has been handled by the Prime Minister since Natwar Singh quit in December 2005. His work in the external affairs ministry was being shared between the two ministers of state—Anand Sharma and E Ahamed.
Although Natwar Singh had nursed dreams of returning to his ministry, the Justice Pathak Committee's finding that the former foreign minister had misused his post as the chairman of Congress party's external affairs cell, killed them.
Congress party sources also said the party leadership wanted the long-awaited cabinet reshuffle to take place as soon as possible, after which it would go for an organisational revamp and new governors' appointment.