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Critics rail at Rao reshuffle

THE INDIAN Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, reshuffled his cabinet yesterday in an attempt to restore the flagging credibility of his Congress government, damaged by religious fighting between Hindus and Muslims across the country and a stock-market scandal which stalled economic reforms.

Initial reactions to Mr Rao's cabinet changes were negative. Opposition parties fault the Prime Minister for refusing to sack the controversial ministers of home affairs, finance and defence, whose mishandling, they claim, have led to India's political and religious trauma. Even within the Congress party - which has governed India over the past 18 months with a fragile minority - the verdict was split.

Not many unfamiliar faces popped up in Mr Rao's new cabinet. His External Affairs Minister, Dinesh Singh, and the Commerce Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, had served under Indira Gandhi in the 1970s and have dangled in a netherworld of Congress politics ever since. Neither are MPs, and safe by-election seats are hastily being hunted for them. Two other entries are A K Anthony, a party boss from Kerala and close ally of Mr Rao's, who takes over the portfolio of Civil Supplies, and N K P Salve, who will head the power ministry. Twelve new ministers of state were also named.

Judging from the number of new Muslims promoted to ministerial level, Mr Rao is trying to woo back the minority community of 120 million Muslims, which lost faith in him after the government's failure to stop Hindu extremists from tearing down a mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya. That act of destruction led to widespread communal clashes, from which India is still reeling.

Congress politicians from the powerful north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar are gathering signatures to force Mr Rao to hold an emergency general party meeting where it is likely that he may be ousted as party chief. M J Akbar, a former Congress party spokesman, said that Mr Rao's cabinet overhaul failed to 'regenerate' the government. The 71-year-old Prime Minister is trying to shake off accusations that he remained paralysed by indecision while religious clashes blazed two weeks ago in the large cities of Bombay and Ahmadabad, where more than 600 people were killed.

Krishnalal Sharma, a spokesman for the main opposition group, the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, said that Mr Rao had lacked the courage to dismiss 'inconvenient colleagues' by axeing 'scapegoats' instead.