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Ajit Singh quits on Cabinet expansion-eve

Our Bureau

NEW DELHI, May 23

THE cloud of uncertainty that was hanging over the continuation of the Agriculture Minister, Mr Ajit Singh, and the Union Minister of State for Finance, Mr Gingee Ramachandran, in the Union Council of Ministers was cleared late tonight with both the Ministers "voluntarily" putting in their papers.

During the week, running up to the reshuffle and expansion of his Cabinet on Saturday evening, there was talk within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) about Mr Ajit Singh and the Civil Aviation Minister, Mr Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, being dropped by the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A third candidate was added to the list in the form of Mr Gingee Ramachandran, the Minister in North Block in charge of the Revenue Department whose personal assistant, Mr Perumalswamy was arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) yesterday for allegedly accepting a Rs 4-lakh bribe from an I-T officer for facilitating his transfer to Mumbai. Bowing to pressure from within the NDA coalition, Mr Ramachandran had no other option but to resign although he had earlier during the day voiced his opinion that there was no moral ground for him to quit.

With his exit and the resignation by Mr Ajit Singh, Mr Vajpayee task appears to have become much simpler. The re-entry of the Trinamool Congress leader, Ms Mamata Bannerjee, which was a certainty from day one is likely to be inducted as a Cabinet Minister for Coal and Mines.

In place of Mr Ajit Singh, informed sources say that the Agriculture portfolio is likely to go to Mr Rajnath Singh, who was earlier the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Mr Shahnawaz Hussain who has been holding the Civil Aviation portfolio for quite some time despite doubts being raised before every reshuffle is finally likely to be moved to either Textiles or, to accommodate him, a Minorities Welfare Ministry is likely to be constituted. However, sources say that the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr L.K. Advani, as well as the BJP President, Mr Venkiah Naidu, are opposed to such a move. In which case, Mr Hussain's future remains uncertain.

For the time, the Civil Aviation portfolio is likely to be taken care of by either the Petroleum Minister, Mr Ram Naik, or Mr Advani himself.

Among the Ministers likely to benefit is Major B.C. Khanduri, Minister for State for Surface Transport, who is likely to be elevated to Cabinet rank.

Sources say that to give adequate representation to Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, two Ministers of State from the two States are likely to be inducted.

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