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Wait gets longer for Punjab’s ‘ministers-in-waiting’ 

By Jaideep Sarin

Returning to power after a decade-long political hiatus, the wait for many senior Congress legislators to get a real shot at power through ministerial berths has become longer.

With the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha seat by-election scheduled for next month followed by the festive season, Congress insiders say that the Amarinder Singh government’s cabinet expansion could be delayed for another couple of months.

Amarinder, who led the Congress to an emphatic win in the assembly polls in March — winning 77 seats in the 117-member assembly — had inducted nine ministers when he assumed office on March 16. Most of these ministers were his loyalists. The cabinet has two women ministers — Razia Sultana and Aruna Chaudhary.

With a ceiling of 18 ministers, the cabinet can accommodate eight more ministers.

Party insiders say that the Chief Minister may opt for inducting five or six ministers in the next expansion and leave two-three slots vacant for some more time.

The outcome of the by-election for the Gurdaspur parliamentary seat, which the Congress will try to wrest from the BJP, could also influence the selection of would-be ministers. The Lok Sabha seat fell vacant in April following the demise of four-time MP and veteran actor Vinod Khanna.

“It was being said earlier that the cabinet expansion would be held before the budget session in June. But it was delayed. Now, it has been delayed owing to the Gurdaspur bypoll. Our wait is getting longer,” a senior legislator, who is a strong contender to be a minister, told IANS here.

Congress sources say that there are 18-20 “strong contenders” for the eight remaining ministerial berths. The Chief Minister will have the final say in selecting his ministers, unlike the earlier practice of the Congress High Command in New Delhi — read party President Sonia Gandhi — dictating the choice.

Senior leaders among the contenders include legislators Om Prakash Soni, Raj Kumar Verka, Gurmeet Singh (Rana) Sodhi, Rakesh Pandey, Randeep Nabha and Balbir Singh Sidhu.

Cabinet minister, cricketer-turned-politician, Navjot Singh Sidhu, is pitching for former Olympian and ex-India hockey captain Pargat Singh. Sidhu and Pargat had joined the Congress just ahead of the assembly polls in February. Both are not considered part of the Amarinder camp.

Among the relatively younger Congress legislators, the names doing the rounds are of Amrinder Singh Raja Warring (Indian Youth Congress president), Vijay Inder Singla (former IYC president) and Kuljit Nagra. All three have the backing of the Congress High Command, though Singla is also considered an Amarinder loyalist.

Other contenders include Fatehjung Bajwa, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, Parminder Pinki, Bharat Bhushan Ashu, Surjit Dhiman, Sukhbinder Singh Sukh Sarkaria.

“Our party has a problem of plenty now. With 77 legislators, of course, not everyone can be given a ministerial berth,” said another Congress legislator, who told IANS that he is not in the fray to be a minister.

As usual, the caste, religious, regional and seniority parameters will dominate the final selection of ministers.

With uncertainty over the appointment of Chief Parliamentary Secretaries (CPS) due to a recent ruling of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, the Chief Minister will have to devise other ways to accommodate some legislators in the government set-up.

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