Kerala's ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) will meet on Wednesday evening to arrive at a final decision on the Muslim League's demand for a fifth berth in the cabinet - an issue that has created fissures in the Congress-led coalition.
Muslim League, with four ministers, is the second largest constituent of the UDF. The party has been demanding an additional cabinet berth ever since the UDF came to power almost a year ago with a narrow margin. But big brother Congress had ignored the demand fearing that it would disturb 'communal and caste equations' in the cabinet.
Ten members in the 19-member cabinet, including Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, belong to minority communities. Besides, another MLA from the minority community - Anoop Jacob of the Kerala Congress (J) - is all set to be sworn in as a minister soon. The Congress fears that there would major resentment among the majority community if another member from the minority community is inducted into the cabinet at this juncture.
The latest controversy started with Muslim League's state chief Panakkad Hyderali Shihab Thangal declaring unilaterally that his party would soon get its fifth minister. This was just a few days after the UDF tasted success in a crucial assembly bypoll in Piravom. The Congress, as usual, did not react to Mr Thangal's statement, putting the Muslim League in a fix. Finally, after intense pressure from its ally of four decades, the Congress started a series of discussions.
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and state Congress chief Ramesh Chennithala rushed to New Delhi to seek the party high command's advice. But the high command put the ball back in the state unit's court with an advice to ensure that the 'communal balance' in the cabinet is not altered. The Congress reportedly devised a formula to resolve the issue by offering the Speaker's post to the Muslim League and asking Assembly Speaker G Karthikeyan to join the cabinet. But Mr Karthikeyan said he would prefer to remain an ordinary MLA than become a minister.
Soon, another compromise formula emerged - offering the state Congress chief's post to Speaker G Karthikeyan and inducting Ramesh Chennithala, the present party chief, into the cabinet. Mr Chennithala enjoys the support of the NSS - an influential organisation of upper-caste Nairs. The Congress believes this would appease the majority community. But sources close to Mr Chennithala say he would settle for nothing less than the post of deputy chief minister if he joins the government.
The UDF meeting on Wednesday is also likely to be stormy with the Kerala Congress (J) vociferously demanding that their newly-elected MLA Anoop Jacob be sworn in as a minister soon. The Congress and other allies cannot ignore this demand for long as the UDF had fought the Piravom assembly polls with the promise that Mr Jacob, son of the late minister TM Jacob, would join the cabinet if he wins.
But the UDF will have to find a solution to the vexed 'fifth ministerial berth' issue sooner or later, knowing fully well that any wrong step will have an adverse impact on its prospects in the upcoming assembly bypoll in Neyyatinkara.