Friday, March 18, 2011

Who’s Next On The Chopping Block?

Who’s Next On The Chopping Block?

by Ravi Srivastava on Monday, February 28, 2011 at 5:30pm

Intelligence » Who’s Next On The Chopping Block?

The biggest surprise in the latest cabinet reshuffle was the manner in which Murli Deora was bundled out of the petroleum ministry and sent to the low-profile Ministry of Corporate Affairs.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had played the reshuffle with his cards held close to his chest. The decision on Deora was taken in total secrecy: neither Deora nor his powerful benefactors had any inkling of the move until it was too late to undo.

But the change at the top seems to presage a shake-up in the ministry of petroleum and natural gas. The speculation has started to mount on who will now face the axe.

When two ministers have been shunted out, the reasoning goes that the next man in the firing line ought to be the secretary, S. Sundareshan. There is a move to shift him in the next reshuffle of secretaries.

Sundareshan became secretary only about a year ago. However, he was additional secretary in the same ministry for close to two years. He has played his cards well and doesn’t appear to have gone out of his way to favour any company. Among the senior bureaucrats at the Centre, he is the most knowledgeable about the petroleum sector.

But there is one episode that has rankled several influential people.

The bureaucrats in the petroleum ministry had embarrassed the Empowered Group of Ministers (E-GoM) on gas allocation by doctoring the minutes of the meeting by scrapping all references to Anil Ambani’s power company in Andhra Pradesh.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who presided over EGoM, was furious and ordered that the minutes be restored in full.

Cabinet secretary K. M Chandrashekhar, who could not attend the EGoM meeting, was also deeply upset with the development. Both the PMO and the cabinet secretariat were convinced that the shenanigans within the ministry of petroleum and natural gas pointed to a deeper malaise.

Both Chandrashekhar and Sundareshan belong to the Kerala cadre of the IAS. In fact, the cabinet secretary is believed to have played a key role in installing Sundareshan in Shastri Bhavan. Of late, there has been a growing perception that Sundareshan is closely identified with Murli Deora – and the chatter won’t die down in a hurry. He has his detractors within and outside the bureaucracy.

The cabinet secretary is also credited with the view that the petroleum ministry needs a new secretary. This throws up a raft of questions: Is Sundareshan more sinned against than sinning? Is he a victim of some conspiracy? Will Sundareshan be able to change the perceptions and stymie moves to transfer him?

These are tough questions and it is extremely difficult at this stage to predict the outcome.

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