Govt meets taint with show of defiance
George scalp or Mamata exit
Advani gets his own back in party
Laxman in hall of fame
Calcutta Weather

 
 
GOVT MEETS TAINT WITH SHOW OF DEFIANCE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 14: 
Hours after a downcast Prime Minister sat through Opposition catcalls, his coalition managers this evening marshalled the support of all but one ally and decided to brazen out the hurricane unleashed by the Tehelka tapes.

The alliance ruled out the resignation of defence minister George Fernandes, whose department and party is at the centre of the scandal, while a disunited Opposition tried to mount pressure by disrupting parliamentary proceedings.

After a solidarity meeting of the coalition this evening, the Centre dubbed the Tehelka operation “a sinister conspiracy” aimed at “damaging not only the government, but also the vital economic interests of the country”. Asked whether there was a conspiracy, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was greeted with shouts of “chor” in the Lok Sabha, said: “Dal mein kuch kaala hai (there is something fishy).”

However, the government suspended a Major-General and three defence officials named in the tapes, prompting the Opposition to wonder why action was not being taken against politicians featured in the expose.

Another ominous note was struck for the government with one of two Tehelka reporters who had carried out the eight-month-long investigation indicating that more bombshells were round the corner.

Mathew Samuel told reporters in Kerala that the portal had proof against the home ministry in a communications system contract and “conclusive evidence on the involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office in a shady defence deal” . He said the next set of tapes would be made public shortly. The other reporter, Aniruddha Bahal, said in New Delhi he would not talk on the subject.

Samuel said the deal linked to the home ministry, headed by L.K. Advani, was worth Rs 1,300 crore and 25 per cent of the amount had already changed hands as commission. Samuel said senior officials in Advani’s office and a retired major who was a classmate of former army chief V.P. Malik had brokered the deal.

Samuel said the deal could not have been sanctioned without the approval of the PMO. The home ministry later put out a rejoinder saying that the “allegations were mischievous”.

Samuel, who said he and his wife were facing threats to life, indicated that a hidden camera was taken even inside the high-security PMO. UNI quoted Samuel as saying that Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the Prime Minister, had direct involvement with the West End — the fictitious company floated by Tehelka — deal. “He was basically a bureaucrat who took money for himself, politicians and the ruling party,” the reporter said.

The government focused on contending that none of the Tehelka deals was actually carried out and neither was Fernandes involved. The BJP officially played down the expose as “fictitious”, but the party could not counter a perception that Vajpayee’s image had taken a beating.

But the drooping shoulders of the government started regaining part of the posture after the TINA (there is no alternative) factor came to the fore during the day.

The Congress and the Left were unanimous in their stand that they would not accept any government offer for a joint parliamentary committee probe or a prolonged debate. Both want the Vajpayee government to resign.

But cracks began to surface when the Left, along with former Prime Ministers V.P. Singh and H.D. Deve Gowda, stepped up its effort to resurrect the Third Front. The front will be relaunched tomorrow in a new incarnation to launch an offensive similar to the Bofors campaign.

Since the Left courted Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Yadav, a known Sonia Gandhi baiter, the Congress was not willing to appear too friendly with the rest of the Opposition constituents.

   

 
 
GEORGE SCALP OR MAMATA EXIT 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, March 14: 
Mamata Banerjee boycotted this evening’s meeting of the ruling National Democratic Alliance as speculation grew that she might quit the coalition if defence minister George Fernandes’ offer to resign was not accepted.

Mamata today wrote a three-page letter to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee demanding acceptance of Fernandes’ resignation and a probe by a joint parliamentary committee, or by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, or by the Central Bureau of Investigation into the revelations made in the Tehelka tapes.

She said unless these were done, the Trinamul Congress “will be left with no alternative but to reconsider continuing its support to the NDA government”.

“The nature of inquiry and the inquiry agency should be finalised only after consultation with NDA partners and the main Opposition party,” she added.

The Vajpayee establishment tried to put up a show of “solidarity” among allies by convening an NDA meeting this evening, but the exercise was marred by another jarring note when an angry Fernandes cancelled the invitation to Ramakrishna Hegde after the defence minister’s former fellow traveller in the Janata Dal publicly demanded his resignation.

Hegde, who was sore at Fernandes for being instrumental in his exclusion from the Vajpayee government in 1999, had said that after the “incontrovertible evidences, the defence minister has no right to continue in office”.

Vajpayee’s trouble-shooters were desperately trying to sort things out with Mamata. Sources said the Prime Minister will get in touch with her shortly.

Placating Mamata has acquired all the more urgency with the Congress scenting an opportunity to win her away from the BJP.

Mamata evaded the media, nominating Sudip Bandopadhyay as her spokesman. He said Trinamul would quit the NDA if all their demands were not met by the Prime Minister. Bandopadhyay added that this time the party was “serious”, but was waiting for a response from Vajpayee.

Mamata, more than anyone else because of her high stakes in the coming Bengal elections, is unlikely to take any step in a hurry, preferring to see first how the government tackles the crisis and the public response.

What she is looking for are measures which will signal that this government will not tolerate corruption and is sincere about bringing the guilty to book.

“The question of reconsideration (of support to the NDA) is a political decision and it will take time. But we are serious about our demands and there will be no compromise with corruption,” Bandopadhyay said.

Asked why Mamata stayed away from the NDA meeting, he said: “We wanted the letter to be discussed in her absence.”

   

 
 
ADVANI GETS HIS OWN BACK IN PARTY 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, March 14: 
The BJP today appointed Jana Krishnamurthi its acting president, reflecting renewed attempts to realign equations in the party.

Krishnamurthi, known for his proximity to home minister L.K. Advani, takes over from Bangaru Laxman, who resigned yesterday after he was shown in the Tehelka tapes as accepting a lakh of rupees. Laxman had made it to the top post with the blessings of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

BJP sources clarified Krishnamurthi will function as the party chief and that the tag “acting president” was notional. Announcing Krishnamurthi’s anointment, BJP spokesman Narendra Modi said: “His appointment will be a permanent arrangement and will be ratified as per provisions of the party’s constitution.”

Krishnamurthi was the favourite to succeed Kushabhau Thakre as party chief last year because of his ability to articulate the BJP’s views on a range of issues. His southern roots were also an advantage; but Krishnamurthi’s biggest plus was his proximity to Advani, who was still thought to have the party in his grip.

The myth was broken when Vajpayee managed to push through Laxman’s candidacy with a double-barrelled commendation: he was a Dalit and a southerner who spoke Hindi fluently, unlike Krishnamurthi.

Though the Advani camp accepted Laxman, his Nagpur message, with its pro-minority overtones, made sections of the BJP uncomfortable because they felt he was trying to market himself as a “liberal” in a party of Hindutva hardliners.

“He turned the BJP headquarters upside down and made sweeping architectural changes,” sources said, referring to Laxman taking over an entire portion of the office and redesigning it according to Vaastu Shastra. “And look what happened after all the Vaastu, he lost his job,” they said.

Little wonder then that not a single BJP leader stood up for Laxman after the Tehelka revelations. Instead, within hours of the video-screening, a huge painted poster, showing Laxman with Vajpayee and Advani, was pulled down.

BJP sources admitted that the speed with which Laxman was persuaded by the Prime Minister to quit and Krishnamurthi was appointed reflected a shift in the balance of power in the party and Advani’s attempts to regain control after lying low for over a year.

Since yesterday, Advani loyalists were seen in the party headquarters, and today, two of them — Union ministers Venkaiah Naidu and Ananth Kumar — took over the office administration.

Sources said the allegations against the PMO and Vajpayee’s son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya had “considerably undermined” the Prime Minister’s position.

After ensuring Krishnamurthi’s ascendancy, sources said, Advani put in a few words for Laxman at a parliamentary party meeting. Advani likened the tapes to the hawala scam and said that like him, Laxman, too, will be cleared.

   

 
 
LAXMAN IN HALL OF FAME 
 
 
BY LOKENDRA PRATAP SAHI
 
Calcutta, March 14: 
For very good reasons, the World Cup win in 1983 is regarded as a defining moment in Indian cricket.

For good reasons, Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman and Rahul Sharad Dravid’s 24-carat effort at the Eden today, too, will be somewhat similarly bracketed.

Besides giving India an outside chance of levelling this three-Test series against Australia (and taking to Chennai 1-1), it has restored the fans’ faith in a sport which, till recently, was an overwhelming national passion.

With a day remaining, India are 315 ahead, at 589 for four (after being in arrears by 274), and captain Sourav Ganguly may only set a target after 30-40 minutes on the fifth morning.

Having got thus far, from a position of no hope, Sourav is expected to exercise the least-risk option. The moral victory, in any case, is already India’s. After days of torment, the captain did smile this evening.

He appeared excited, as well, touched by the electric ambience at and around the Eden.

“We’re very much in business and I’m not just happy for Laxman and Dravid, but the entire team. This isn’t a side which doesn’t know how to fight back,” Sourav insisted, speaking exclusively.

With Laxman clearly being the toast, the captain opined his unbeaten 275 was the “finest” Test innings he had himself seen after Sachin Tendulkar’s 114 in Perth, on the 1991-92 tour.

For once, of course, the top statistics themselves reveal much: The pair remained unseparated throughout Day-IV (only the fifth instance for India); Laxman overtook Sunil Gavaskar as the highest run-getter in a single innings and the pair is within sight of the all-time best (413) Indian partnership for any wicket.

The manner in which Laxman and Dravid blunted an otherwise famed attack (Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, for instance, have collectively taken 691 wickets) is evident from Steve Waugh’s use of nine bowlers!

Steve only kept himself and wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist away from the firing line.

Being together for a shade under seven hours (the partnership began last evening) did take its toll, though, and both Laxman and Dravid were given the drip-treatment within minutes of stumps. It continued for 45 minutes.

Laxman, in fact, has already batted without a blemish for over 10 hours: The second innings for him began soon after lunch yesterday. It’s been an epic, no less, and the reward couldn’t have been greater.

After all, around 3.05 in the afternoon, Gavaskar’s unbeaten 236 versus the West Indies (Chepauk, late 1983) got relegated to the No. 2 spot. “Yes, having overtaken a legend will remain most satisfying,” Laxman remarked.

Asked by The Telegraph whether life itself would change, Laxman replied smiling: “Actually, I haven’t thought of what could happen... Right now, I’m focused on tomorrow morning.”

Candidly, Laxman accepted he did have the triple century in mind but, being the exceptional team man he is, added: “The team’s interest will come first and I’ll tailor my play to suit the collective gameplan.”

[Laxman already has two first-class triple centuries, for Hyderabad, against Karnataka and Bihar. So, he does have an appetite for big runs.]

It’s this attitude and his demeanour that, over the years, has endeared Laxman to many. Which explains a most warm congratulatory message from Gavaskar: “This will be the first of many such knocks.”

Laxman, by the way, was conscious on the field itself of having got past Gavaskar and will take to the last day with an Indian record of 44 boundaries. Dravid resumes on 155, an innings of immense character under pressure.

And, in a new position: No. 6. Typically, Dravid emotionally declared his position in the line-up wouldn’t ever be an issue. “If the captain and coach desire I carry the drinks tray, I’ll gladly do so.”

For his part, Laxman pointed out that more than the individual achievements, the focus ought to be on the “strong comeback.”

He explained the priority for both Dravid and him (they are South Zone mates, too) was to take it session by session.

They hit the bulls-eye even as the Australians struggled like they haven’t for over a year now.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 34.3°C (0)
Minimum: 23.1°C (+2)

Rainfall

Nil

Relative Humidity

Max: 96%
Min: 31%

Today

Partly cloudy sky. Maximum temperature likely to be around 34°C
Sunrise: 5.50 am
Sunset: 5.41 pm
   
 

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