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Eight ministers inducted in union cabinet

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Monday inducted eight veterans into the union council of ministers, evidently with an eye to state assembly elections this year-end, but the exercise was seen as lacklustre with no new or young faces and a preponderance of senior citizens.

With general elections less than a year away, the prime minister evidently played safe and brought in only people with a proven track record in the party.

Of the eight ministers, the youngest was 59 years old, while the oldest was Sis Ram Ola at 85 - belying speculation that the Congress would induct new blood in the cabinet.

This is the fourth major reshuffle in UPA-II.

Those inducted as cabinet ministers are seen as Sonia loyalists, contrary to reports that some members of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi's core team would be included.

Those inducted as cabinet ministers are Sis Ram Ola (Labour), Oscar Fernandes (Road Transport and Highways), Girja Vyas (Housing and Poverty Alleviation) and K.S. Rao (Textiles). Those brought in as ministers of state are: Manik Rao Gavit (Social Justice and Empowerment, Santosh Chowdhary (Health), E.M.S. Natchiappan (Commerce and Industry) and J.D. Seelam (Finance).

Veteran Congressman Mallikarjun Kharge's portfolio was changed from labour to railways, after C.P. Joshi stepped down to join the party organization.

Ola and Vyas are heavyweights from Rajasthan, where elections are slated later this year. Andhra has two faces - Rao and Seelam, where the Congress is hoping to resolve the contentious Telangana separate statehood issue. Fernandes is from Karnataka, where the Congress came back to power last month.

After the oath-taking ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed hope that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would come back to power for the third term. "I have always believed that we will have a third go as UPA and the people will again repose their faith in us," he said.

The prime minister also reiterated what he has maintained for long, that he would be "happy" to see Rahul Gandhi "step into his shoes".

"I will very happy to see Rahul Gandhi step into my shoes," Singh said adding that he always believed that Rahul Gandhi had the qualities to lead the UPA.

The reshuffle comes a day after a Congress organizational revamp, which saw the infusion of younger blood into the powerful All India Congress Committee that had the stamp of Rahul Gandhi.

The age factor of the ministers seemed significant as it came on a day that newly-appointed party general secretary Ajay Maken said that the Congress was focusing on the demographics of a young India where more than 60 percent of the population is below 30 years.

Maken, addressing his first press conference, said that the AICC revamp Sunday had resulted in the average age of the office bearers being 52 years. "Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi have together put together the most youthful team of office bearers. Rahul is a youth leader, his stamp is clearly visible. The average age of the AICC is 52 years," he said.

"The party revamp was done keeping the average age of the youth of India," he said.

The BJP immediatly took a dig at the cabinet reshuffle.

"This is a dead reshuffle. This is the way the Congress would want to pay respect to elders," Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman said.

Communist Party of India's D. Raja said the rejig was a "necessity" for the Congress as many allies had quit.

Though Manmohan Singh had said during November's reshuffle that it would be the last one possibly before the general election, Monday's was necessitated due to the exit of erstwhile UPA allies - the DMK and the Trinamool Congress, as well as the resignations of ministers C.P. Joshi and Ajay Maken last week to join the party organization.

Tainted ministers Pawan Kumar Bansal and Ashwani Kumar had stepped down a month ago.