It was the prime minister on the phone. His message was simple: the swearing-in is taking place at 11.30 am on Thursday, and you are requested to be there, as a minister. The phone then passed to the Congress president.
All the 59 ministers — cabinet and non-cabinet — received a similar message, ending an embarrassing delay in the formation of the government till 11 days after the results were announced on May 16, giving the UPA a clear mandate.
<b1>The first lot of 20 cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, took oath of office on May 22. Then there was this long delay as first UPA’s ally DMK sorted its internal problems and then the Congress fought its own devils.
It is all over, now. Almost. There is still the small matter of portfolios though.
Thirteen of the 19 ministers who took oath earlier still do not know what to do and the coming 59 will want to get their brief as quickly as possible.
It was celebration time in the UPA. Bouquets and boxes of sweets — invariably kaju barfis — emerged from nowhere to be passed around. And firecrackers and drums. And a new entrant in all this: SMSes.
Among the big guns getting the nod are former chief ministers Vilasrao Deshmukh, Virbhadra Singh and Farooq Abdullah, former ministers Prithviraj Chauhan, Salman Khursheed and Delhi’s Krishna Tirath and Ajay Maken.
But not all calls from the PM carried happy tidings. Hansraj Bhardwaj and Saifuddin Soz also got a call each. Singh was calling to convey to them his inability to accommodate them in his team.
Also out in the cold are veterans Arjun Singh and Sis Ram Ola. Ashwani Kumar and Vilas Muttemwar have also not been included.
And though Gandhi loyalist Oscar Fernandes (68) has also not made it, he is known to flit in and out of government.
With 59 members being sworn in on Thursday, the new council of ministers is now 78, besides the PM. Since the government can have a total of 81 ministers (including the PM), Singh can still make two more appointments. Pre-poll ally, the JMM, is yet to be brought on board.
For 11 days after the results, Singh and Gandhi literally burned the midnight oil to put together a team blending experience and youth, and to make it as socially diverse, with enough regional representation.
Certain themes of the new team:
Many junior ministers of the outgoing council of ministers have been promoted to cabinet rank on the basis of performance: Kumari Selja (46), Subodh Kant Sahay (58), GK Vasan (45), Pawan Kumar Bansal (61) and Kanti Lal Bhuria (59). And those who were promoted from MoS to MoS with independent charge are Prithviraj Chavan (63), Sri Prakash Jaiswal (64) Dinsha Patel (78) and Jairam Ramesh (54)
There is an infusion of young blood both in the Cabinet and the MoS slots. Of the 14 Cabinet ministers, half a dozen are less than 50 years old: Dayanidhi Maran, A Raja, Selja, Vasan and Mukul Wasnik, for instance.
Among the young are new faces and those continuing from the previous team: Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Jitin Prasada, Shashi Tharoor, Arun Yadav, RPN Singh, Bharatsinh Solanki and Tushar Chaudhary. And the baby among them is Agatha Sangma, who is just 28.
Former CMs Virbhadra Singh, Vilasrao Deshmukh and Farooq Abdullah bring state-level administrative and political experience with them that could be used for grooming their juniors in government. There are at least eight others in the list of 14 who have been part of the Union government before.
Lok Sabha matters
Twenty-three of the 33 Cabinet members are now from the Lok Sabha. Only nine are from the Upper House. And then, the problems. While an effort has been made to include all sections at one of the three levels, the Cabinet has no Muslim representative from the Hindi heartland where the community put the Congress on the comeback trail.
Also, there is no cabinet minister from UP where the party is trying to revive itself, though it has five in other slots — SP Jaiswal, Khursheed, Prasada (36), RPN Singh (45) and Pradeep Jain (46). But this is essentially because it doesn’t have a leader of stature from UP other than Sonia and Rahul Gandhi who are both staying out of government.