Paswan falls in line after Atal whip
Cong grapples with Laloo dilemma
Jethmalani backs ban lift
Mulayam, CPI add to ammo on RSS
Saudi vow to keep off J&K
BJP says no to Chautala
Ally split over Orissa berths
Old flames fire new love in Ayodhya

New Delhi, Feb. 28 
The National Democratic Alliance’s bid to form a government in Bihar began on a sour note with Janata Dal (United) leader Ram Vilas Paswan trying to stall the selection of Samata Party leader Nitish Kumar as chief minister designate.

Paswan caved in after the intervention of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Dal(U) president Sharad Yadav’s decision to throw in his lot with Kumar, a fellow Mandalite.

The squabbling began in right earnest even as the NDA bloc was grappling with the problem of “arranging” the numbers to satisfy Governor Vinod Pandey.

According to sources, Paswan said on Saturday that he could not back Kumar and that BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi or Lok Sabha member Jainarain Nishad — who has moved from the Rashtriya Janata Dal to the Samata Party to Dal(U) in the past few months — could lead the government.

It took two days and Vajpayee’s intervention to make a sulking Paswan fall in line. Paswan, who was banking on Sharad Yadav, found himself isolated as the Dal(U) chief supported Kumar. The party has 21 members in the new Assembly, of whom a majority are with Sharad Yadav.

After the BJP dropped out of the race and told its partners to select a candidate for chief minister, Samata leader George Fernandes approached Sharad Yadav, seeking his support for Kumar.

Yadav, who had been backing Paswan before the elections, assured Fernandes that he had no objection to Kumar becoming chief minister. However, he asked Fernandes to “tackle” Paswan.

Fernandes met Paswan late on Saturday but failed to obtain an endorsement for Kumar’s candidature. A worried L.K. Advani stepped in and held a breakfast meeting with Paswan, Fernandes, Yadav and Kumar. But Advani, too, failed to persuade an adamant Paswan.

Another meeting was scheduled at 1.30 pm on Sunday but Paswan did not turn up. For four hours, he was untraceable. The panicky leaders then contacted the Prime Minister in Lucknow. Vajpayee cut short his visit and rushed to Delhi.

On Sunday night, the leaders met at Vajpayee’s residence, where Paswan grudgingly accepted Kumar.

Fernandes, however, denied any dispute. In a statement here today, he said Kumar was unanimously chosen as leader of the NDA bloc in Bihar after his name was proposed by Paswan.

The Samata leader said there was “no dispute of any kind while deciding the leadership issue”. The defence minister claimed that when Paswan’s name was proposed by Vajpayee, he declined to accept and proposed Kumar’s name instead.

The BJP top brass, which had been backing Paswan, decided to prop up Kumar as it believed only he could manage the numbers needed for an NDA government. Kumar, who belongs to the backward Kurmi caste, was considered a better bet against RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav.    

New Delhi, Feb. 28 
Caught between conflicting pulls and pressures from its own leaders, the Congress high command continued to be in a dilemma whether to back a Rashtriya Janata Dal-led government in Bihar or allow the National Democratic Alliance to upstage Laloo Yadav.

The Bihar unit is divided over supporting the RJD as the party had fought the elections on an anti-Laloo plank.

A section of leaders believes the Congress is slowly, but steadily, regaining its support among the upper castes and it could squander the goodwill by supporting Laloo.

However, the pro-Laloo faction in the party argues that by not supporting the RJD, the Congress would be seen as allowing the NDA to be in the saddle, which could anger the minorities, Dalits and a section of the backwards.

The party scoffed at reports that the NDA would try and split the Bihar unit, saying most of the newly-elected MLAs are unlikely to back the alliance. Of the 23 legislators, nine are tribals, five Muslims, two Brahmins, three Bhumihars, two backwards and two Dalits. Two of the Bhumihars are said to be close to Laloo.

Refusing to spell out the Congress’ stand, spokesman Ajit Jogi said: “The process of consultations is on. The party would like to elicit the views of the newly-elected MLAs. The party president has been consulting CWC members and other senior leaders. We will let our stand known once these consultations are over.”

Mohsina Kidwai, AICC general secretary in charge of Bihar, is in touch with state leaders to work out a solution.

Sources said the party wants to consult all the 23 MLAs to send the message that the high command was not imposing its views on them.

As the Congress grappled with its dilemma, a sulking BJP hoped for a rerun of the situation in Uttar Pradesh after the 1996 elections. Following a fractured verdict, the state was brought under President’s rule and the Assembly kept under suspended animation for nearly six months.

The BJP wants the Bihar standoff to extend to wear out MLAs from parties perceived as vulnerable — the Congress, CPI and the JMM.

BJP spokesman Venkaiah Naidu said the RJD had no right to stake claim.

“Its government was so unpopular that every party launched an agitation against its rule and almost all parties pledged to liberate Bihar from jungle raj. The Congress not only promised to liberate the state but even pledged to appoint a panel to probe corruption charges of the past 10 years. The ruling party was outright rejected by the people,” he added.

Claiming that the NDA should form the government, Naidu said: “Only we can provide a clean, honest and transparent administration and free Bihar from casteist, criminal and communal forces. We will definitely be able to muster the numbers.”    

New Delhi, Feb. 28 
Union law minister Ram Jethmalani justified the Gujarat government order allowing government employees to join RSS activities and said the Centre could issue a similar directive if all the National Democratic Alliance constituents were unanimous.

Jethmalani questioned the Opposition’s protests against the Gujarat government move in the Rajya Sabha today. “In taking such a decision at the central level, the government must be satisfied that a substantial number of the people of India will approve of it. If a state is satisfied that the substantial majority of people will support (its decision), what is the problem?” he asked during a short-duration discussion.

Jethmalani insisted he was speaking as a Rajya Sabha member and not on behalf of the government when Opposition members protested against his statements. Home minister L.K. Advani is slated to reply on the questions tomorrow.

Jethmalani added: “The Centre has to go through a different test. We are a coalition government running on a fixed programme. Our agreed agenda does not enable us to take measures like this one. So the coalition government will hold its horses until such time when all the parties agree.”

Earlier, the Opposition declared that it would resist any move to permit government employees to join the RSS and warned this would amount to making the apolitical civil services partisan and erode the parliamentary system.

The Rajya Sabha took up the discussion after a two-day face-off between the treasury benches and the Opposition on the issue.    

New Delhi, Feb. 28 
Sinking their differences on the RSS controversy, the Samajwadi Party and CPI today returned to the Opposition fold, joining the cry for a censure motion.

The Opposition derailed proceedings in the Lok Sabha for the third consecutive day, demanding a discussion on the Gujarat government’s decision to lift the ban on employees joining the RSS.

Amid the bedlam, Samajwadi chief Mulayam Yadav and CPI leader Geeta Mukherjee said they had withdrawn their notice under Rule 193 and wanted the discussion to be held under Rule 184, which allows voting. The House had to be adjourned thrice.

The Congress said its parliamentary group will meet tomorrow morning to chalk out a floor strategy. Asked whether they will allow the government to present the budget, spokesperson Ajit Jogi said: “We will meet tomorrow morning and decide.”

The Opposition, which has been gunning for the government on the issue since the session began last Wednesday, continued firing verbal salvos this morning and demanded that Question Hour be suspended. The Speaker tried to pacify the members, saying a discussion was on the government’s agenda. But the leaders refused to relent, insisting on censoring the government under Rule 184. “We want 184,” they chanted.

The Centre, however, maintained the discussion would be held under Rule 193, which allows only a general debate without voting.

“It is not a general issue that can be talked out. It involves the country’s integrity,” said Somnath Chatterjee of the CPM.

He added that the Opposition had sought for suspension of Question Hour because the matter was serious.

“We do not understand why the government is running away from a discussion under the adjournment motion,” Chatterjee said.

The Congress led the charge, grilling the government on why it did not want the adjournment motion to be put to vote. Deputy leader in the Lok Sabha Madhavrao Scindia said: “The decision to allow only a general discussion was taken without consulting us.” Joining him, his colleague Kamal Nath added: “This issue belongs not just to one party but to the entire House.”

The Congress said while it had allowed the railway budget to be presented on Friday, the Speaker had not consulted the Opposition when he decided to allow only a general discussion under Rule 193 on the RSS issue. “We request you to reconsider the decision,” Scindia said.

With the Opposition determined to continue protesting, the Speaker adjourned the House within half-an-hour.

The verbal exchanges continued in the post-lunch session. Basudev Acharya (CPM), who chaired the discussion, urged the members to return to their seats but they stuck to their stand, forcing a second adjournment.

When the House re-assembled at 4 pm, the Speaker started the discussion amid pandemonium. BJP member Kirit Somaiyya began speaking but could not continue following an uproar from the Opposition. The House was then adjourned for the day.    

New Delhi, Feb. 28 
Saudi Arabia today assured India that it understood New Delhi’s sensitivity over Kashmir and had no plan to intervene in the dispute.

At a meeting with minister of state for foreign affairs Ajit Panja, visiting Saudi leader Nizar Obaid Madani said Riyadh was confident that the far-sightedness and maturity of the Indian leadership would resolve the matter “satisfactorily” with Pakistan.

The afternoon meeting covered bilateral, regional and international issues. Apart from agreeing to have a regular political exchange, the two sides also discussed economic co-operation.

India’s relations with Pakistan came up, predictably, and so did Kashmir. The Indian side explained the situation in Kashmir and how Delhi was coping with Islamabad-sponsored terrorism in the country.

The Saudis, Pakistan’s chief backer till recently, shared India’s concern over talibanisation of the region and the Afghan militia’s attempt to export Islamic fundamentalism. They felt the Kashmir issue should be sorted out without mediation.

Madani, the junior foreign minister in his country, also made it clear that his government was not trying to balance India and Pakistan.

He stressed that developing ties with Delhi had a “prominent position in the priority” of Riyadh. This was not only because of historical ties, but also because Saudi Arabia considered India to be a country with a crucial role in South Asia’s stability, the minister said. He later met foreign minister Jaswant Singh.

The comments made by Madani show that the two nations are now keen to lay the groundwork for better political and economic ties.    

Chandigarh, Feb. 28 
The Haryana unit of the BJP today turned down Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) president Om Prakash Chautala’s request to join his ministry.

At a meeting in Rohtak, the BJP state executive passed a resolution saying the party “appreciated the victory of the INLD in the polls and wanted only it to form the government”. The resolution also thanked Chautala for “extending the invitation”.

Observers say the BJP — which won only six of the 29 seats it contested — bit off more than it could chew. According to them, Chautala was forced to field “rebel” candidates in most of the seats where the BJP contested after the latter refused to scale down its demand.

Though Lok Dal leaders said that Chautala would ask Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to persuade the state unit to join his ministry, local BJP leaders claimed they had been stabbed in the back.

“Chautala ensured our defeat,” said a leader, adding there was no way the BJP would join his ministry.    

Bhubaneswar, Feb. 28 
As the poll results have belied its expectation, the BJP is now divided over claiming the deputy chief minister post in the Naveen Patnaik government.

Some BJP leaders feel that the party should stake claim to the number two position in the coalition government to keep Patnaik in check. But others argue that the party should seek more ministerial berths to keep its flock happy and make its presence felt.

With the party losing 25 of the 63 seats it contested, these leaders said the party should not press for the deputy chief minister’s post as it did not have enough numbers in its favour. They also want to avoid a face-off just before a new ministry takes oath.

Instead, the BJP leaders said, the party should use the leverage it had, as an ally with Patnaik, to bargain a better deal. The party should not only get a “respectable” number of berths, but also portfolios that matter, they feel.

Some leaders, however, felt that giving up the number two position would be a wrong move for both political and administrative reasons.

They said it would send a wrong signal to the public who would view the BJP as playing second fiddle to the regional party. The party also would not have any handle to keep its partner under pressure.

The BJP said though it lost 25 seats, it won 38 — a sharp increase from only 10 seats it won in 1995. “We are growing much faster in the state than the BJD,” a senior leader said.

The BJD chief has so far kept the BJP guessing on whether he would accept a deputy. He said he had not talked with the BJP on ministerial berths.    

Lucknow, Feb. 28 
If Ayodhya bred religious intolerance, it also bred a love that knew no bounds.

In the first century A.D., a starry-eyed young Indian princess, bored with life in land-locked Ayodhya, landed on Korean shores to marry a Korean prince. The east Asian nation is now eager to return the compliment.

A 15-member South Korean delegation arrived today in Ayodhya, the princess’ hometown — also the Sangh parivar’s Ram janmabhoomi — to renew the “old but immortal” ties. To “keep the flame of a symbolic union burning”, the Koreans want to develop Ayodhya as a sister city.

The cross-cultural marriage was more than a dream love story. It gave birth to the Kim Hae Kim clan, which has six million members today. Among its illustrious sons is South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.

The adventurer princess, who managed to hop into a ship, now brings to Ayodhya, which sparked the communal riots of 1992, a new identity and a much-needed human face.

The Koreans, who want to erect a monument honouring the princess, today visited a site at the Ram-ki-Pairi near the banks of the Saryu river, where the construction is scheduled to begin soon. The delegation also initiated a string of MoUs in local government services, health, education, tourism, sports, trade and cultural affairs. The projects will cost around Rs 200 crore.

Residents of the twin cities of Ayodhya and Faizabad, spruced up for the first-ever Korean visit, are thrilled that after a long time there is a “positive spotlight” on Ayodhya.

“We are all happy that such a thing is happening here. People should not associate Ayodhya with just the ’92 episode,” says Ram Achal, who works with the Faizabad municipal corporation.

Mayor of Kim Hae city Song Eun Bok, who is leading the delegation, was handed the “keys” to Ayodhya and Faizabad by the Faizabad Nagar Palika. Said an elated Bok, speaking through a translator: “We of the new age will ensure that our two millennia old ties remain as strong as ever.” He added: “Your culture is as beautiful as the stories we read about it.’’

The Korean team comprises industrialists, academics and artists and South Korean ambassador Choong Moo Lee, who was “as excited as anyone else” with the discovery of the Korea-Ayodhya ties by Korean historians three years ago. “It is amazing how ties across such distances are formed. But it is beautiful,” he said.

The South Korean government invited former raja of Ayodhya Bimalendra Mohan Misra to Kim Hae city last year. Misra proposed the renewal of ties.

Is Ram getting competition in his own land?    


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