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Indian Prime Minister Reorganizes Cabinet - 2003-01-29

Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has reorganized his cabinet, with an eye to boosting the political fortunes of his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party as it prepares for elections in several states.

The reorganization of the BJP-led government is one of the most significant since it came to power 3.5 years ago. Eight new ministers were inducted, including two of Cabinet rank.

But the focus was not on those who joined Prime Minister Vajpayee's government, but was rather on the ones who resigned from their ministerial posts, earlier in the day.

At least four ministers have quit the government to play a key role in strengthening the BJP.

Among them is one of Mr. Vajpayee's closest aides, Pramod Mahajan, and another Cabinet rank minister, Uma Bharati. Mr. Mahajan has been assigned a senior party post. Ms. Bharati, a firebrand Hindu nationalist leader, will lead the party in Madhya Pradesh state.

Prime Minister Vajpayee says the main objective of the revamp is to strengthen the party and the government, to meet the new challenges ahead.

The move to draft senior leaders into the party comes in advance of key elections that take place in several states this year. The contests will set the stage for next year's national elections.

The BJP suffered a string of humiliating losses in four state elections early last year. But the party's morale was boosted by a handsome victory in its stronghold, Gujarat in December. It is anxious to keep up the momentum of victory.

Mr. Mahajan says it is important for top leaders to concentrate on the party to ensure the BJP's victory in next year's general elections. "I think the next 12 months are very important for the BJP if you have to think about a period 2004 to 2009," he said. "About half a dozen important states are going to the polls, and finally there will be final battle of general elections to Lok Sabha [Lower House of Parliament]. So I take it the next 12-months will be really a Mahabharata [epic battle] throughout the country, on elections, and at this time serving the party as the need arises, I think it is a challenge."

Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani says an important objective of the revamp is also to improve the government's functioning. Several portfolios changed hands. Ministers and party members reputed to be competent have been assigned important new posts.

The move to send charismatic leaders to the party began last July, when Prime Minister Vajpayee replaced older party leaders with younger and more dynamic ones. The BJP came to power in 1999 as head of a 20-member coalition government.