India demotes sports minister in cabinet rejig

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a minor cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday, demoting his sports minister who was held partly responsible for the Delhi Commonwealth Games debacle.

Singh left all his senior ministers in place, choosing to make small changes to a team that has faced a hailstorm of criticism over multiple corruption scandals and soaring food prices.

"This is a minor reshuffle. After the budget session (in March), we will do a more expansive exercise," Singh told reporters afterwards.

Former sports minister MS Gill, among the public figures blamed for shoddy venues and the ballooning budget of the Commonwealth Games in October, was moved to the statistics ministry in the most noteworthy change.

The run-up to the Commonwealth Games was the start of a relentless period of pressure and criticism of the government from the opposition and media, which has left Singh struggling to regain momentum only 18 months into a second term.

As well as the Games, a telecom scandal in which second-generation mobile phone licences were sold off by the government for a fraction of their value has tarnished Singh's record and reputation as "Mr Clean."

The telecom sales could have cost the treasury up to $40 billion. Singh is not personally implicated in any wrong-doing but he has been accused of failing to act to prevent the loss.

"There is no strong message in the reshuffle. The government should have dropped all the ministers who were fighting corruption charges," said Sanjay Kumar, a political analyst with the Centre for the Study of Developing Studies.

Corruption and rising food prices -- up nearly 20 percent over 12 months in recent readings -- have become the biggest issues for the government.

Singh predicted the inflation was likely to be reined in by March.

"There are certain factors which are beyond our control (but) despite the problem, I am confident that we will be able to bring about price stability by March," he said.

However, both the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) dismissed the reshuffle as futile.

"This is a meaningless exercise because it does not address the problems which are agitating the country," BJP spokesman Prakash Javadekar told AFP.

"This reshuffle will also not divert public attention from the string of scandals the government is facing," he added.

"This is mere eyewash and an exercise to divert people's minds from the questions of corruption and price rises," CPI secretary Atul Kumar Anjaan told AFP.

On Tuesday, 14 prominent Indians, including business leaders, judges and economists, warned the government in an open letter that rampant corruption was damaging the country's social fabric.

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