The new chain of command became evident at todays meeting of the union cabinet where Antony sat next to the Prime Minister in the seat vacated by Mukherjee ahead of Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar.
Sources in the cabinet secretariat confirmed that the new seating arrangement was made after Singh officially conveyed it to the secretariat,which organises cabinet meetings. The new order is also expected to be uploaded on the official website of the cabinet secretariat in a day or two,the sources said.
So far,the arrangement – approved by the Prime Minister in 2009 – was that Mukherjee used to sit next to him,followed by Pawar. Antony was next,followed by Home minister P. Chidambaram. The new order of precedence makes it clear that the Congress leadership wants to retain the No. 2 position and not assign it to Pawar,who belongs to the NCP.
At the last meeting of the union cabinet,an impression had gone out that Pawar may be the No. 2 after he sat next to the prime minister and was tasked to head the EGoM on telecom vacated by Mukherjee.
However,Antony was not present at that meeting as he was away in Cochin. Moreover,the cabinet secretariat website slotted Pawar after the Prime Minister in the official list,which led to further confusion. The PMO had sought to downplay the issue then and the list was not only pulled out but the link to it also stopped functioning.
Sources in the cabinet secretariat said there are no official guidelines about the pecking order in the union cabinet and the hierarchy is decided solely by the Prime Minister,based on political inputs and power equations within the ruling coalition. Obviously,the order is not changed often. The last such arrangement was conveyed by the Prime Minister in May 2009, a source said,adding that minor changes were made in the last few days.
Significantly,what remains to be seen now is whether Singh will also give Antony charge of the government when he travels out of the country. UPA sources indicated that while he could do so,such an order would come only a few days before a foreign tour. There was a general order that had been issued in 2009 that the then External Affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee will have to be present in Delhi in the absence of the Prime Minister. Now with Mukherjee no longer in government,presumably a new order can be expected, a senior minister said.
Such an order,however,is not sent to all ministers but only to a few ministers at the top. Mukherjee had also chaired a meeting of the cabinet in South Block once in 2009 when Singh was out of action for over a month after a heart surgery.