Sonia sets up television test for Vajpayee
PM smells power-grab plot
Mamata, Cong break ice
Succession struggle in BJP
Clinton date with city
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, March 20: 
Before the Vajpayee government could live down the humiliating images of the Tehelka tapes, Sonia Gandhi has sought to take the battle to the nation’s drawing rooms by demanding the right to speak up on Doordarshan like George Fernandes.

The Opposition leader wrote to Vajpayee today, demanding a slot on Doordarshan to air her party’s views on the Tehelka exposé in response to Fernandes’ “address to the nation”.

Vajpayee immediately forwarded Sonia’s letter to information & broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj. “I am sending the letter to the I&B minister to look into the matter,” Vajpayee said in his reply. The Sonia camp said this was the Prime Minister’s quickest-ever response to the leader of Opposition.

Sonia said under the best traditions of multi-party democracy, an “authorised representative” of the principal Opposition party should get an “equivalent” slot on Doordarshan to articulate views.

She also questioned the government’s “unprecedented” step of allowing Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the Prime Minister, and N.K. Singh, officer on special duty in the PMO, to address a press conference organised by I&B ministry’s Press Information Bureau yesterday.

This is the second time in quick succession that Sonia, known for her reticence, has taken an aggressive stance. At her party’s plenum in Bangalore, she accused Vajpayee of condoning “traitors and betrayers of the nation”.

Opposition parties also turned on the heat at a parliamentary standing committee meeting of the I&B ministry. They accused Fernandes of “misusing” official media. Prasar Bharati officials tried to play down the charges, saying Fernandes had not resigned when he began speaking.

PMO sources said Laloo Prasad Yadav, too, had used Doordarshan to speak to his electorate.

Referring to Sonia’s letter, sources close to Vajpayee said the ball was now in Sushma’s court. She may tell Sonia that had the Congress-led Opposition not stalled Parliament, there would have been no need for either Vajpayee or Fernandes to address the nation on Doordarshan.

They said the government was in two minds on letting Sonia address the nation. Some of them want her to speak because they believe she will not be able to argue with conviction.

Sonia has decided on “total opposition” to the Vajpayee regime. She will kickstart her second round of campaign against Vajpayee from her constituency — Amethi — this weekend. The party is preparing videotapes of the exposé to circulate to its district committees for local screening.

The spin doctors met today to provide fresh impetus to the campaign against Vajpayee. The party is planning to mount flat-screen TV sets on jeeps to create “Tehelka awareness” among rural masses. It is working on a number of slogans such as “sena jan gawati hai, sarkar commission khati hai (soldiers sacrifice life, government receives kickbacks)”.

The party today demanded legal action against those who figured in the Tehelka exposé. “Parliament can resume functioning tomorrow if law is allowed to take its course,” AICC general secretary Ambika Soni said.


New Delhi, March 20: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has decided to meet the Opposition’s challenge head-on and charged it with whipping up the defencegate controversy as a “bogey” to get rid of his government and manoeuvre itself to power.

Countering Sonia Gandhi’s allegation that the BJP-led government had compromised with the country’s security for a “fistful of riches”, Vajpayee told a meeting of the BJP parliamentary party: “I do not need a certificate of patriotism from one and all because all my life I have fought against corruption. But efforts are on by the Opposition to grab power in the name of corruption.”

Jaswant Singh, who has been given charge of defence after George Fernandes’ resignation, said anybody who questioned defence deals was an “anti-national”.

BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra quoted Vajpayee as expressing concern at the Opposition stalling Parliament. “India is the world’s biggest democracy but what message does the Opposition want to send? That governments here are toppled by disrupting and stalling parliamentary proceedings?” the Prime Minister asked.

According to Malhotra, Vajpayee sought to make a distinction between why the BJP had paralysed Parliament’s working when it was in the Opposition and why the Congress was doing it now. “There is a difference. We had demanded a discussion and a probe but the Congress had rejected both,” Vajpayee said.

He picked up the gauntlet thrown by the Opposition and said the people will decide who is innocent and who is not. “People will give their verdict after the Lok Sabha’s five-year term ends and the truth will be out before that. The Opposition is making efforts to defame us but we will not allow them to succeed,” the Prime Minister was quoted as saying.

Vajpayee picked on the Congress as a potential saboteur. “The Congress never allows a non-Congress government to function. It has been the party’s history. It wants to show that the Congress alone can run a government for five years. It has pulled down governments which it had propped up. But the Congress has been unsuccessful in bringing down this government because our coalition is intact and we have a majority in the House,” he said.

Vajpayee urged his MPs to tackle the Congress’ public campaign on Tehelka with “confidence”. “Go and tell the truth to the people, tell them there was no corruption in any deal and no minister was involved. Tell them we have ordered a judicial probe and this will establish the truth.”

Jaswant, said Malhotra, explained the “factual” position on the defence deals involving the NDA government. He pointed out that the Sukhoi deal was initiated during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s regime and Mulayam Singh Yadav, the defence minister in the United Front government, had signed on the dotted line.


Calcutta, March 20: 
A new configuration against the Left Front began crystallising today as Sonia Gandhi took a personal initiative for an electoral alliance with Mamata Banerjee after putting Congress state bosses on the backburner.

In a simultaneous development, Mamata worked herself into a fury at the tone of Monday’s missive from the Prime Minister’s Office, thought to be a prelude to dumping the three-year-old alliance with the BJP and thrashing out a new deal.

Arriving from Delhi late in the evening, state Congress president Pranab Mukherjee said he would hold talks with Mamata tomorrow. But sources said back-channel discussions were already being held directly by Sonia and Kamal Nath, AICC general secretary in charge of Bengal.

The sources said Sonia overruled Mukherjee when he suggested that the Congress take a cautious stand and drive a hard bargain. “The situation calls for a strategic electoral adjustment with Mamata. We shall, in the next few days, try and work out the modalities,” Kamal Nath said. He spoke with Mamata twice today to convince her to part ways with the BJP.

The sources said Sonia and her aides were happy with the progress of the talks, but it was now up to Mamata to reciprocate. “The success or failure of the talks will hinge on how she responds to us,” a Congress leader said.

The fax message from the PMO sought a public statement from Mamata within 24 hours, reaffirming Trinamul’s “full faith in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee”. The fax also asked her to state that like the Telugu Desam, Trinamul would lend outside support to the NDA government.

“This is unparliamentary and uncivilised. There is no question of rejoining the NDA,” Trinamul MP Sudip Bandopadhyay said. He added that the party regarded the fax not as a threat, but “it certainly is an ultimatum to us”.

Bandopadhyay made it clear that Trinamul would not have any joint manifesto with the state BJP. Nor will Trinamul exchange any of the 15 seats the BJP has been demanding.

However, state BJP president Asim Ghosh reiterated that all the 15 seats have to be exchanged as “all of them are losing ones”. In a last-gasp attempt to keep alive the pact, Vajpayee has despatched BJP vice-president Kailashpati Mishra to hold talks with Mamata tomorrow.


New Delhi, March 20: 
Cracks have appeared in the BJP over Jana Krishnamurthi’s appointment as “acting” party president, prompting the leadership to reconsider the decision.

Krishnamurthi, believed to be close to home minister L.K. Advani, was put in the hot seat vacated by Bangaru Laxman, who resigned after he was shown in the Tehelka tapes as accepting a lakh of rupees.

The decision has upset a section in the party and the high command appears to be reconsidering its decision, going by what former party president Kushabhau Thakre told a delegation of SC/ST leaders yesterday.

Rajya Sabha MP Ram Nath Kovind, who heads the BJP’s SC/ST morcha, said Thakre told the leaders that Krishnamurthi’s appointment is a temporary one. “If the judicial probe into the Tehelka tapes proves that Laxman is innocent, Thakre said we could even consider reinstating him as the party president,” Kovind added.

Although Thakre no longer holds a formal position, he is considered an “extra-constitutional authority” because of his proximity to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Sources said while Vajpayee himself was not against rehabilitating Laxman, Advani has put his foot down. “The image of the party comes before anything else,” Advani is believed to have said.

To this, the Dalit lobby retorted that when Advani was implicated in the hawala scam, he “merely” quit his Lok Sabha seat, but “clung on” to the BJP president’s post. “He went public protesting his innocence in his Su-rajya yatra and the party threw its weight behind him. Why is Laxman being discriminated against, is it because he’s a Dalit?” asked a member.

The subterranean protests have triggered a fresh round of power struggle. Sources said that unhappy with Krishnamurthi’s appointment, Vajpayee pitched for his candidate, former Rajasthan chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Advani is believed to have countered the move by proposing I&B minister Sushma Swaraj’s name. Thakre hoped to emerge as the “consensus” candidate, as did Central minister Venkaiah Naidu.

The BJP, sources said, found itself in a spot after its Dalit MPs and activists started drumming up support in Laxman’s favour.

Sources said in a training camp organised by the SC/ST morcha at Bhopal on March 16, 17 and 18, central leaders such as Om Prakash Kohli and Vinay Sahasthrabudhe were not allowed to speak as delegates hurled one question after another on why Laxman was “victimised” and “forced” to quit.

The delegates wanted to know why Vajpayee, Advani and law minister Arun Jaitley, who defended George Fernandes to the hilt and even promised his reinstatement if he was exonerated, did not utter a word in Laxman’s defence.


New Delhi, March 20: 
Former US President Bill Clinton is likely to visit Calcutta on April 6 as part of his tour of India.

Clinton’s tentative programme in India starts on April 3. Besides Calcutta, he is expected to visit Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow and earthquake-affected Gujarat.

The former President’s main objective of coming to Calcutta is to visit the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa.

South Block also announced today that foreign minister Jaswant Singh will leave for the US next month for talks with secretary of state Colin Powell.




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