NEW DELHI: India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reshuffled his Cabinet on Sunday in a bid to overhaul his government's image ahead of state and national elections over the next 18 months.
Seven new ministers and 15 junior ministers took the oath of office at a brief ceremony to mark the changes aimed at bringing in younger faces into the Cabinet.
Former law minister Salman Khurshid, 59, was named as external affairs minister as a replacement for the 80-year-old foreign minister S.M. Krishna, while Ashwini Kumar, a ruling Congress party loyalist, was elevated to the Cabinet with the law and justice portfolio.
Five senior ministers had resigned over the weekend to allow the introduction of younger new faces in the ministerial lineup.
The other newcomers include Rahman Khan who was named as minority affairs minister, Ajay Maken who becomes housing minister and Dinsha Patel who is now mines minister.
They will be joined by Pallam Raju, who was promoted to human resources development minister. Harish Rawat was placed in charge of water resources and Chandresh Kumari was appointed culture minister.
Singh named parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Kumar Bansal as new railways minister, a post which became vacant following the pullout of a regional ally, Trinamool, from the ruling coalition in September.
The long-awaited Cabinet changes gained urgency after the Congress Party-led coalition government was hit by a wave of corruption scandals. The revamp also filled several vacancies after a key ally opposed to recent economic reforms quit the coalition.
Congress lawmakers said the government wanted to change its image as a group of old men and the induction of young men and women into the government was to dispel this impression.
''This reshuffle is to bring in fresh faces and is an important step keeping in view the general elections in 2014,'' Milind Deora, a junior minister said Sunday.
The induction of younger lawmakers and the shuffling of ministerial portfolios were being viewed as a major makeover for Singh's government that has been hit by charges of corruption and lethargy even as provincial elections are due in 11 states in the coming year.
Several ministers were facing corruption charges stemming from scandals over the hosting of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the sale of cellphone rights and allocation of coal fields that auditors said lost the country of billions of dollars.
Economic growth, which had been touching double figures at the beginning of Singh's second term, has now slowed down to around five percent.
Speaking to reporters after a swearing-in ceremony for the new ministers, Singh said he expected his new team to remain in office until the next elections.
“Probably this is the last reshuffle,” the prime minister said at the presidential palace in New Delhi. “I don't see early elections. Elections will be held in due course.”
The new foreign minister told reporters that he saw “great opportunities...but also great challenges to peace and prosperity in our world”.
Rahul Gandhi declined cabinet post
The 42-year-old Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-father all served as prime ministers, had decided to remain in his post as a secretary general of the main ruling Congress party, Singh said as he unveiled a cabinet reshuffle.
“I wanted Rahul Gandhi in government, but he wants to strengthen the party,” Singh told reporters after a ceremony at the presidential palace for the swearing-in of seven new cabinet ministers.
Gandhi has been under sustained pressure from party loyalists to take a higher public profile, including from his mother Sonia who is the head of Congress.
But his reputation suffered a setback in March when he headed Congress's dismal campaign in elections for the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Singh has asked Rahul Gandhi to join his cabinet on several occasions since his re-election in 2009.
New Cabinet Ministers:
K. Rahman Khan : Minority affairs
Dinsha J. Patel : Mines
Ajay Maken : Housing and urban poverty alleviation
M.M. Pallam Raju : Human resource development
Ashwani Kumar : Law and justice
Harish Rawat : Water resources
Chandresh Kumari Katoch : Culture
Changes in Portfolios of Cabinet Ministers
M. Veerappa Moily : Petroleum and natural gas
S. Jaipal Reddy : Science and technology and earth sciences
Kamal Nath : Urban development and parliamentary affairs
Vayalar Ravi : Overseas Indian affairs
Kapil Sibal : Communications and information technology
CP Joshi : Road transport and highways
Kumari Selja : Social justice and empowerment
Pawan Kumar Bansal : Railways
Jairam Ramesh : Rural development
New Ministers of State (Independent Charge)
Manish Tewari : Information and broadcasting
K. Chiranjeevi : Tourism
Changes in Portfolios of Ministers of State (Independent Charge)
Jyotiraditya Scindia: Power
K.H. Muniappa : Micro, small and medium enterprises
Bharatsinh Madhavsinh Solanki : Drinking water and sanitation
Sachin Pilot : Corporate affairs
Jitendra Singh : Youth affairs and sports
New Ministers of State
Shashi Tharoor : Human resources development
Kodikunnil Suresh : Labour and employment
Tariq Anwar : Agriculture and food processing industries
K.J. Surya Prakash Reddy : Railways
Ranee Narah : Tribal affairs
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury : Railways
A.H. Khan Choudhury : Health and family welfare
Sarve Sathyanarayana : Road transport and highways
Ninong Ering : Minority affairs
Deepa Dasmunsi : Urban development
Porika Balram Naik :Social justice and empowerment
Killi Kruparani : Communications and information technology
Lalchand Kataria : Defence
Changes of Portfolios of Ministers of State
E. Ahmed : External affairs
D. Purandeswari : Commerce and industry
Jitin Prasada : Defence and human resource development
S. Jagatharakshakan : New and renewable energy
RPN. Singh :Home
KC Venugopal : Civil aviation
Rajeev Shukla : Parliamentary affairs and planning
–The Times of India also contributed to the story.