ON THE backfoot in Jammu province over a series of issues, the BJP has decided to go in for major changes in the much-anticipated Cabinet reshuffle of the J&K government. Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh will step down, trading places with Speaker Kavinder Gupta.
Earlier, the BJP had asked all its ministers in the Mehbooba Mufti government, except Nirmal Singh, to resign after two of its ministers, Chander Prakash Ganga and Choudhary Lal Singh, had to quit over their stand in the Kathua rape and murder case.
Nirmal Singh had backed CM Mufti’s decision to stick to a probe by the Crime Branch in the Kathua case, though many BJP leaders had backed the demand for a CBI inquiry. He is known to share a good equation with Mufti, and often acted as a bridge in the fraught relationship between the BJP and its ruling partner PDP.
Gupta, who replaces Singh, is a first-time MLA but an old BJP and RSS hand. He has served as Jammu mayor for three terms, between 2005 and 2010.
Late on Sunday evening, Nirmal Singh announced he was resigning as Deputy CM, saying “a fresh face from the BJP will be taking over”.
The PDP has 13 ministers at present following the ouster of Haseeb Drabu as finance minister. It will induct two more on Monday, Mohd Ashraf Mir and Mohammad Khalil Band, both with Cabinet rank.
Sources said from the BJP side, six ministers would take oath, at a ceremony to be held in Jammu, including five Cabinet ministers and one MoS. Apart from Gupta, the other new faces are said to be BJP state president and Jammu West MLA Sat Sharma and D K Manyal (Samba MLA). Sunil Sharma, who held the Minister of State for Transport (independent charge) portfolio, would be elevated to Cabinet rank.
The two new ministers would be Rajiv Jasrotia (Kathua MLA), who will get Cabinet rank, and Shakti Parihar (Doda MLA), as MoS, sources said.
The BJP decision to revamp the ministerial team comes amidst adverse reports by local RSS and BJP leaders that, in Jammu, the party is seen to have completely surrendered to the PDP, which is strong in Kashmir. There were complaints that party ministers had failed to safeguard “the interests of the Jammu region”, from where the BJP got 25 seats in the 2014 Assembly elections, its highest tally ever, taking it to power in the state.
Sources said Gupta’s name as Deputy CM was finalised at a meeting chaired by BJP president Amit Shah in Delhi, which was attended among others by party general secretary and J&K in-charge Ram Madhav, MP and also state in-charge Avinash Rai Khanna, Nirmal Singh and Sat Sharma. Gupta left for Delhi on Sunday morning.
Apart from Ganga, Lal Singh and Nirmal Singh, Bali Bhagat, who held the Health and Medical Education Minister, is set to go, and make way for Manyal. Sources said there were complaints of non-performance against Bali, including by BJP leaders. The Chief Minister had on many occasions expressed dissatisfaction over poor patient care at hospitals. Priya Sethi, the outgoing Minister of State for Education, is also being dropped.
With the induction of Sat Sharma in the Cabinet, the BJP would be looking for a new state president. Sources said Sharma would have lost the post anyway due to the party’s declining popularity in the Jammu region, but the BJP gave him a ministerial post to avoid the impression of an unceremonious ouster.
The BJP has been facing a backlash in Jammu over the state government stalling the demand for a CBI inquiry into the Kathua rape and murder, and over the failure to meet the demand for districts in Nowshera and Akhnoor.
Inducting the Samba and Kathua MLAs as ministers, the BJP hopes, would help it contain some losses in the region. By inducting Shakti Parihar as MoS and elevating Sunil Sharma, it wishes to retain its grip on the Chenab Valley region.