Sleepless night after wild ride

New Delhi, Oct. 27: Law minister Salman Khurshid's name has found its way into a roulette wheel of front-runners for foreign minister, an unexpected inclusion that needs to survive a night of imponderables to bear fruition.

The capital was on such a head-spinning rollercoaster ride that by nightfall, the fortunes of at least four "top contenders" to the post vacated by S.M. Krishna had risen and then sunk. Anand Sharma, Shivraj Patil, Karan Singh, Kapil Sibal… the names kept bobbing up and down.

But late tonight, sources said Khurshid's name was being considered and if he left the law ministry, it would be given to Ashwini Kumar.

The development came as a surprise as Khurshid himself was convinced of his continuance in the law ministry and commerce minister Sharma was preparing for a shift to external affairs.

Khurshid expressed ignorance about any change in his portfolio and told The Telegraph: "I am happy being a law minister." But, the sources said, Khurshid is being preferred because of his stint as minister of state for external affairs when P.V. Narasimha Rao headed the government.

If Khurshid is promoted to the heavyweight-class foreign ministry, it will also be seen as an articulation of the Congress leadership's mind.

Khurshid is entangled in a high-octane controversy over alleged misuse of funds by a trust run by him and speculation was rife about his fate in the ministry. If Khurshid lands a ministry more important than law, it will be construed as a clear signal that Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have decided to stand by those who take on activists-turned-politicians like Arvind Kejriwal.

The sources said Sharma, who managed to squeeze past other contenders like Sibal and Patil, fell at the goalpost as the leadership decided to consider a more sophisticated and experienced Khurshid.

Ashwini Kumar, who may replace Khurshid as law minister, will also be a surprise pick, though he enjoys the confidence of the Prime Minister. A lawyer by profession, Kumar's induction as a minister of state in the last shuffle had raised eyebrows in the party as many leaders consider him of little electoral value. Sources said his elevation was final, though there was no official word till late tonight.

The shuffle may also see a new railway minister and the name of parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Bansal is being mentioned. There was an impression earlier that Rahul Gandhi wanted C.P. Joshi to continue in the ministry. Health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, too, is said to have turned his attention to the railways.

Another senior leader, urban development minister Kamal Nath, may be given additional charge of parliamentary affairs.

If Bansal does not get railways, he could be moved to information and broadcasting, vacated by Ambika Soni. Jaipal Reddy, who holds petroleum, is being considered for human resource development (HRD), the sources said. But they added that Rahul wanted a younger face in the ministry and the name of Pallam Raju was doing the rounds.

Sibal, who does not want to remain in telecom, will have to be adequately compensated if HRD goes out of his hands. Sources said Sibal was asked late in the night if he could continue in HRD if he was not ready to look after telecom alone.

If Sibal stays in HRD, Reddy, who is unhappy in petroleum, may be given science and technology, and corporate affairs minister Veerappa Moily could be moved to petroleum. Jyotiraditya Scindia may be promoted to look after corporate affairs as minister of state with independent charge.

Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari, who is certain to become a minister, may be given the charge of information and broadcasting as minister of state (independent).

The picture will be clear only after the swearing-in ceremony at 11.30am tomorrow but there was some clarity about those who would cease to be ministers. While Soni resigned to take up some important responsibility in the organisation, tourism minister Subodh Kant Sahay was nudged out for his involvement in the coal allocation controversy.

Mukul Wasnik, the cabinet minister for social justice and empowerment, and three ministers of state ' Mahadeo Singh Khandela, Vincent Pala and Agatha Sangma ' also resigned.

A surprise on the list of probables is Shashi Tharoor, who had resigned after the IPL controversy.

Among the new comers, the names of Deepa Das Munshi and Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury from Bengal, Rani Narah from Assam, Suresh Kodikunnil from Kerala and K. Rehman Khan from Karnataka are almost final.

There will be a heavy representation from Andhra Pradesh with Kotla Suryaprakash Reddy, Cheeranjeevi, Sarve Satyanarayan, Balram Nayak getting the call. However, there can be a change in this list as senior MP K.S. Rao has submitted his resignation in protest.

Among those who could be promoted from minister of state to cabinet are Harish Rawat, Ajay Maken, Srikant Jena and Dinsa Patel. Rahul brigade member Jitendra Singh could be given minister of state independent charge. There is no clarity about inductions from Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Sources said a lot can change in the next 15 to 20 hours as has happened during the past 24 hours.