NEW DELHI Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave his cabinet an overdue facelift on Sunday, bringing in younger ministers in a bid to breathe new life into his aged, scandal-tainted government ahead of state and federal elections.
The reshuffle, which has been on the cards for six months, may be Singh's last chance to significantly change the direction of his government and convince voters the ruling Congress party deserves a third consecutive term in 2014.
He rejigged about a third of his 30-member cabinet, and reshuffled a number of key portfolios, including, oil, foreign policy, railways and justice. As part of the image makeover, he also brought in a raft of new, younger junior ministers who will not have cabinet-level posts.
Notably absent from the new names was Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has governed India for much of the 65 years since independence. Gandhi is expected to be the party's candidate for prime minister in the 2014 election but has so far shied away from a formal role in government.
Singh said after a swearing-in ceremony for the new ministers that he had wanted Gandhi in the cabinet but that the Congress party general-secretary wanted to work for the party. The party is headed by Rahul's mother Sonia Gandhi.
Several of the new junior ministers, however, are closely linked to the 42-year-old Gandhi, which could extend his influence in the council of ministers without directly exposing him to potential damage if the government's popularity fails to pick up.
Singh's shaky coalition has been paralyzed by infighting and policy drift for much of its second term, struggling to drive through major economic reforms long demanded by investors and business leaders even as economic growth has sharply slowed.
"The road ahead is full of challenges. But this is a team, which I hope will be able to meet those challenges," Singh said, according to a Tweet by his office.
Singh's elderly cabinet has also been seen as increasingly out of touch with the country's youthful electorate. Politicians in India generally reach senior positions late in life -- a reflection of a traditional respect for elders.
"MAKING WAY FOR YOUNGSTERS"
Despite the reshuffle, relatively few senior ministers in the cabinet led by 80-year-old Singh are under 65. Outgoing foreign minister, S.M. Krishna, 80, had stepped down ahead of the rejig, saying he was "making way for youngsters".
Krishna's replacement was the 59-year-old Salman Khurshid, who until the shakeup, was law minister. Khurshid has been battling allegations leveled by anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal that involve the misappropriation of funds in an NGO. Khurshid has strongly denied any wrongdoing.
Other key appointments are: Veerappa Moily (oil), Ashwani Kumar (law and justice), Dinsha Patel (mines) Jyotiraditya Scindia (power) and Sachin Pilot (corporate affairs). Scindia and Pilot are both seen as close to Rahul Gandhi.
The reshuffle follows a slew of economic reforms that improved investor sentiment about Asia's third-largest economy and restored some credibility to Singh's flagging leadership.
P. Chidambaram was reinstated as finance minister in August, his third stint in the post. He has been widely credited with helping to push through a number of politically tricky reforms to revive investor sentiment.
Corruption scandals have damaged the government's image over the last two years, and at times ministers seem more focused on fighting accusations of graft than running their portfolios.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) paralyzed the last session of parliament over a report by the auditor-general that raised questions about sweetheart coal deals.
A scandal over the sale of telecoms spectrum licenses triggered street protests last year and led to the jailing of the telecoms minister, Andimuthu Raja.
"You need to have people who are free from some of these issues, and who can give time to actual governance," said Subhash Agrawal, editor of India Focus. "There is a pressing need in the country for people who can just work."
(Writing by Frank Jack Daniel and Ross Colvin, additional reporting by Nigam Prusty, C.K. Nayak)