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Punjab cabinet expansion: Eight slots, many questions

Congress will have to balance youth versus seniority, Majha vs Malwa vs Doaba, Jat Sikh vs Hindu vs Dalit, and urban vs rural as Captain says slots will be filled after the civic polls.

punjab Updated: Dec 09, 2017 17:01 IST
Sukhdeep Kaur
Sukhdeep Kaur
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Punjab,Amarinder Singh,Cabinet
(clockwise from left) Raja Warring is part of Rahul Gandhi’s youth brigade, Sukhjinder Randhawa had key role in Gurdaspur LS bypoll win, 5-time MLA OP Soni, a Hindu contender from urban seat, and as few options among Dalits, Raj Kumar Verka a probable.(HT Photos)

It is not the first time that Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh has set the clock ticking for a cabinet expansion. The Congress government was sworn in on March 16 with CM and a team of nine ministers.

Now, Amarinder has declared to induct more ministers after the municipal elections. It may well go beyond January as elections to the Ludhiana municipal corporation are on hold until delimitation of wards is completed.

As one of the biggest districts which gave Congress a clear edge in Malwa, Ludhiana has gone grossly unrepresented in the cabinet so far. In the three municipal corporations, and nagar councils and panchayats, whose terms have lapsed, the polls are scheduled for December 17.

The constitutional cap allows Punjab to have 18 ministers, including the CM. For every one he takes in, he leaves many more disgruntled. So, Amarinder had kept them all at bay. It also helped ensure loyalty.

But deferring an expansion is no more an option for the CM. The working of important departments has apparently been affected with him holding more than two dozen portfolios, all plum ones.

Wannabe ministers are restless and the generational shift to a younger Congress chief, Rahul Gandhi, would need to reflect in Punjab as well. Not only are there many contenders for eight slots, the party will also have to strike a balance among the many criteria of urban versus rural, Malwa versus Majha versus Doaba, urban versus rural, and, not to miss, youth versus seniority.

The party’s clean sweep in Majha has already been rewarded with three berths — Navjot Singh Sidhu, Tript Rajinder Bajwa and Aruna Chaudhary. The last two are from Gurdaspur district. The party may opt for a Hindu and another Dalit minister (in addition to Chaudhary) from the belt, as it has few options among Dalit leaders in Malwa and Doaba. This also brings Raj Kumar Verka among probables.

Here, the party will also have to decide between rural or urban, Hindu or Jat Sikh, Amritsar or Gurdaspur. Five-time MLA Om Prakash Soni is a Hindu contender from an urban seat of Amritsar, and Sukhbinder Singh Sarkaria, a Jat Sikh, is a contender from the rural Rajasansi.

But the claim of three-time MLA Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, a firebrand, too cannot be ignored. He was instrumental in securing the party’s win in the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha bypoll and has the potential to return fire. He has been gunning for former Akali minister Bikram Singh Majithia, something that goes against Captain’s ‘no political vendetta’ line. But a cabinet berth can prove handy to placate him.

In Malwa, it is Patiala that has an overpowering presence in the cabinet. The CM, Brahm Mohindra and Sadhu Singh Dharamsot are from Patiala and fulfil the criteria of Jat Sikh, Hindu and Dalit respectively. Ludhiana poses the classic dilemma for the party — between old-timers such as Rakesh Pandey and Surinder Dawar, and two-time MLA Bharat Bhushan Ashu who qualifies on youth factor too.

It is old versus young guard in other parts of Malwa as well.

Indian Youth Congress president and Gidderbaha legislator Amrinder Singh Raja Warring, Sangrur MLA Vijay Inder Singla, and Fatehgarh Sahib MLA Kuljit Nagra are all part of Rahul’s youth brigade. Singla also fits the bill of being a Hindu. But Amloh MLA Randeep Singh Nabha, a three-time legislator, is also in the reckoning from Fatehgarh Sahib district. Other three-time MLAs such as Rana Gurmeet Sodhi, Amrik Singh Dhillon and Balbir Sidhu too are among hopefuls.

Dalit-dominated Doaba too will take a slot but the party’s options are restricted here when it comes to Dalit faces who are mostly first-timers. It can choose between an OBC such as Urmar MLA Sangat Singh Gilzian, a youth Jat Sikh face in Navtej Cheema, or a Hindu leader such as Hoshiarpur MLA Sunder Sham Arora. As it decides, the Congress will also keep in mind to pick those without stakes in the state’s businesses, to avoid courting controversy once it brings the conflict of interest bill for ministers; if it intends to, that is.