Lalu, Paswan skip cabinet meeting but stay within UPA


New Delhi/Kolkata : Railway Minister Lalu Prasad and Steel Minister Ram Vilas Paswan will skip a meeting of the union cabinet called by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh here Friday evening. However, Paswan clarified that he was staying away because of a prior commitment in Kolkata and that his Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) would remain within the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

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Paswan and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad, key members of the UPA, seem to be miffed over Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s praise of their chief political rival Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, said sources.

At a press conference in the capital earlier this week, Rahul Gandhi had antagonised Lalu Prasad and Paswan by praising Janata Dal-United’s (JD-U) chief minister Nitish Kumar’s developmental work in Bihar.

“I am not saying that only Congress has leaders (who have done good work), there are leaders in the opposition…. Nitish (Kumar), for example,” Rahul Gandhi said.

In Patna, Lalu Prasad was closeted with key party workers after elections for the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar ended Thursday in the fourth round of polling.

“There is no programme to go to Delhi. He is busy meeting party workers,” said his close aide.

“I have not skipped the cabinet meeting. I am not able to attend as a previous meeting was fixed in Kolkata,” Paswan said, responding to speculation that he was skipping the cabinet meeting called by Manmohan Singh because he was miffed.

There are elections in Kolkata and Himachal Pradesh in the fifth round May 13, the steel minister pointed out.

“Morever, there was no agenda of my ministry (in the cabinet meeting),” he added.

“The Congress has already clarified what Rahulji wants to say. I am with the UPA. LJP, RJD is with the UPA. And we will remain with the UPA,” Paswan asserted.

Pollsters expect Nitish Kumar to put up a good performance and with a splintered verdict looming ahead, the Congress has kept its doors open to potential new allies. It was perhaps for this reason Rahul Gandhi has reached out to not just the estranged Left but also rivals JD-U and the Telegu Desam Party.

The JD-U leader, however, has denied any move to join the UPA and asserted he would never leave the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance.

The cabinet meeting is expected to review president’s rule in Meghalaya and also examine certain international agreements, said Prithviraj Chavan, minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office.

“It is a routine cabinet meeting. One should not read much if they (Lalu and Paswan) do not come. I have not heard anything,” Chavan told IANS.

The central government imposed president’s rule in Meghalaya on March 19, a day after the state government narrowly survived a trust vote with the help of the assembly speaker.