Ram Naik leaves office as BJP loses to Congress

Vol 8, PW 4 (19 May 04) People & Policy

It was the biggest ever upset in modern Indian politics.

As Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, president of Indias Congress party, came out to greet a raucous crowd of jubilant supporters outside her fortified Delhi bungalow on 13th May, not even the most optimistic Congress supporter could have predicted that Congress would so decisively beat Indias ruling Hindu nationalist BJP-led coalition in national elections and return to power after a gap of eight years. Former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who resigned office on 13th May after leading a 23-party coalition for five years, gambled by calling general elections eight months earlier than expected.

Twenty-five of the 62 members in Vajpayees council of ministers were defeated. Most significantly, oil minister Ram Naik lost his seat in Mumbai to a political novice.

As a Congress party-led coalition government prepares to take charge, speculation is mounting as to who will replace him. Expect Reliance to play a major role in that decision.

Shortly after the results became clear on 13th May, Reliance boss Anil Ambani called on Sonia Gandhi to offer his congratulations. Reliance has traditionally enjoyed good relations with the Congress party.

Reliance also enjoys excellent relations with the Samajwadi (Socialist) Party, a Congress ally, whose leaders have good personal ties with the Ambani brothers that control Reliance. Most impressive was the performance of Congress and its allies in Tamil Nadu, where it won all 39 constituencies.

If Tamil Nadus Congress ally DMK (with 16 MPs) joins the government and asks for the oil ministry, TR Baalu could be oil minister. Baalu was environment minister till December 2003 when his party quit the BJP-led coalition.

Before that he was junior oil minister for two years to 1998. Or it could be Ettiyan Ponnuswamy (also a Tamil Nadu MP) of the PMK, another Congress ally, which now has 5 MPs.

Ponnuswamy was junior oil minister for a year under Ram Naik.