New Delhi: With Pranab Mukherjee being named the UPA's candidate for president, speculation on who would replace him began almost immediately in the Congress on Friday.

Mukherjee's possible elevation to the high office would mean the party would have to find two people who could replace him as finance minister and leader of the house in the Lok Sabha. The redoubtable number two for decades, Mukherjee has been the chief trouble-shooter for the United Progressive Alliance government through many a crisis.

According to party insiders, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may like to appoint Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia or C. Rangarajan, who heads the prime minister's Economic Advisory Council, as the next finance minister, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi would prefer a party veteran for the key cabinet post.

Ahluwalia's controversial remarks over the new poverty line at Rs.32 per day have already ruffled a lot of feathers in the party as well as among the allies.

Among the names being discussed in the party circles are those of senior leaders like Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, Human Resource Development and Communications Minister Kapil Sibal and Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh.

Sharma had recently taken a potshot at Ramesh for his "new found love for economic reforms" by suggesting that fertiliser, fuel and food subsidies, which target the Congress's key constituency of farmers and the common man, be done away with to reduce fiscal deficit.

Though Home Minister P. Chidambaram may also like to throw in his hat in the race to fill up the vacancy in the neighbouring North Block office, which he once occupied, the Congress leadership may not like to move him, given his track record in controlling terrorism, said some sources.

A third view is that the prime minister, a well known economist, may keep the finance portfolio with him till the party finalises its plan for an extensive reshuffle. For the post of the leader of the Lok Sabha, the name of Power Minister Sushil Shinde, along with Kamal Nath, is doing the rounds. Though Home Minister Chidambaram can shoulder the responsibility, sources said the Congress would need a more acceptable face as leader of the lower house keeping in mind an aggressive opposition, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party's dislike for him.

Sources said both Nath and Shinde are veteran parliamentarians and have administrative experience, have a good rapport across the political divide and are in the good books of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.

The sources further said that in case Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, who is opposed to Mukherjee's candidature for the high office, decides to pull out of the UPA, there could be a vacancy in Rail Bhavan, headed by Banerjee's confidant Mukul Roy."There is no dearth of talent in the party... new faces will emerge to face new challenges," said a senior Congress leader on condition of anonymity indicating that finding a replacement for both Mukherjee and Roy would not be much of a problem.


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