NEW DELHI, India, June 25, Reuter: Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reshuffled his Cabinet on Saturday with an eye to the general elections; shedding some responsibilities to allow him time to tone up his party after recent electoral reverses.
The reshuffle and losses in this month’s byelections ended speculation that Gandhi might call snap polls although general elections are not due before December, 1989.
His most important move was shifting Finance Minister Narain Dutt Tiwari, recalled from a visit to London, to Uttar Pradesh state in the north where Gandhi’s party lost a prestigious byelection in Allahabad, his ancestral hometown.
The victor was Vishwanath Pratap Singh, former defence and finance minister, who has emerged. As the top corruption fighter and wrested the “Mr. Clean” mantle from the Prime Minister.
Tiwari, a veteran of the rough and tumble of Uttar Pradesh politics, was sworn in as the new Chief Minister and his job will be to lead the country’s largest state to the next elections.
Gandhi freed himself of his responsibilities as External Affairs Minister. He gave the post to P.V. Narasimha Rao and appointed Shankarrao Bhaurao Chavan, Finance Minister, expanding his Cabinet from 16 to 26.
“I wanted to divest myself of all major portfolios to give myself more time for political work’, Gandhi said in an apparent reference to a plan to supervise personally the toning up of his Congress (I) Party for general elections.
The appointment of 67yearold Rao, who was External Affairs Minister before being shifted to Human Resources, will help Gandhi reduce a hectic schedule of foreign tours.
Chavan distinguished himself as Planning Minister in Delhi before moving to Bombay, India’s financial hub, as Chief Minister of Maharashtra State.
He pledged to create a congenial climate in India for foreign investment in his first comment on his new job.
“I will also take steps to improve confidence in the capital markets,” said Chavan, 68.
Gandhi made clear on Friday his intention to shake up the party by replacing Chief Minister in two key states — Chayan in Maharashtra and Vir Bahadur Singh in Uttar Pradesh.
Sharad Pawar, who was sworn in as Chief Minister in Bombay on Saturday morning, was inducted to stem growing dissension within the Maharashtra Congress (I) Party against Chavan.
However, Tiwari filled the most important job. Uttar Pradesh elects 85 of the 544 members of Parliament.
All but one of India’s six Prime Ministers own constituency is in the backward agricultural state.
Maharashtra dominates politics in Western India with 48 seats in the Lower House of Parliament, the largest number after Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
“This means that two of our major states have got experienced. People as Chief Ministers and it will give a new thrust (to party work),” Gandhi said.
He brought back B. Shankaranand as Law Minister, the post he held before quitting last week heading a Parliamentary probe into Opposition charges that Sweden’s Bofors company had paid bribes to secure an Indian artillery contract.
Shortly before Shankaranand’s appointment was announced the independent Hindu newspaper published purported new evidence it said proved Bofors paid a commission into secret bank accounts of Indians. Bofors denied the charge.
Gandhi repeated his denials of government corruption.
“Everything that is coming in the Hindu just goes to show that there is no involvement at the political level at all,” Gandhi said. He said government investigators were probing all the newspaper’s charges.
“Anytime we find somebody is guilty, we will take whatever action is required by law whether high, low connected, unconnected, including members of my family,” Gandhi said.
The issue is an embarrassment to Gandhi’s party and contributed to its defeat in the June 16 byelections where V.P. Singh as a possible candidate to unite the fragmented opposition.
Singh, campaigning on a platform of corruption in Gandhi’s government, called on the Prime Minister to resign after his Allahabad win.
Replied Gandhi: “The opposition has the right to demand whatever they like. We have an elected mandate and there is no need for either resignations or midterm polls”.
The New Cabinet Is:
Prime Minister; Rajiv Gandhi (also Science and Technology, Atomic Energy, Space and Personnel); External Affairs: P.V. Narasimha Rao; Finance: S.B. Chavan; Commerce: Dinesh Singh; Human Resources Development: P. Shiv Shankar; Home Affairs: Buta Singh; Steel and Mines: MLL. Fotedar; Defence: Krishna Chandra Pant; Planning: Madhavsinh Solanki (also in charge of Ministry of Programme Implementation); Ur ban Development: Mrs. Mohsina Kidwai; Industry: J. Vengal Rao; Agriculture: Bhajan Lal; Parliamentary Affairs: H.K.L. Bhagat (also in charge of Information & Broadcasting); Energy: Vasant Sathe; Communications: Vir Bahadur Singh; Law and Justice: B. Shankaranand (also in charge of Water Resources); Labor: Bindeshwari Dubey; Textiles: Ram Nivas Mirdha; Health And Family Welfare; Moti Lal Vora; and Environment and Forest: Z.R. Ansari.