Samajwadi seeks Surjeet support
Sonia wary of Mulayam
BJP pays for non-performance
Jaya stakes govt claim after Andipatti victory
Manipur plays true to form
Tough test ahead for Gujarat CM
Governor springs stability card
No miracles for Rajnath
Master back doing what he does best
Landslide win for Scindia at Guna

 
 
SAMAJWADI SEEKS SURJEET SUPPORT 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 24: 
On its way to emerging as the single largest party in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party today got into top gear to arrange the 202 seats required to stake claim to the government in Lucknow.

Samajwadi chief Mulayam Singh Yadav requisitioned the services of the Chanakya of secular politics H.S. Surjeet — who has a personal rapport with Sonia Gandhi — to solicit Congress support.

Surjeet flew down to Delhi from Calcutta and spoke to Sonia over phone, requesting her support to the Samajwadi. Sources said Sonia did not commit herself but assured the CPM general secretary she would do everything to stop the BJP from capturing power. She would have to consult Congress Working Committee colleagues, she said.

Earlier, Surjeet held talks with Mulayam at the latter’s residence for an hour. Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh and CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan also attended the strategy session, putting their heads together to instal a Samajwadi-led front in Lucknow.

Mulayam burnt his bridges with the Congress by making uncharitable comments about Sonia during electioneering. He had also scuttled Sonia’s bid to form a government at the Centre in 1999.

A section of the Congress feels that by backing the Samajwadi, it will not be able to recapture political space in the state. But in the present scenario, it appears to have no option.

Sources said the Congress would commit itself only if it is convinced that the Samajwadi had managed to cobble together the magic figure.

Assuming that the Samajwadi would bag 170-85 seats, Mulayam was to have flown to Lucknow this afternoon. But he stayed back to win over the Congress after his party’s tally did not meet expectations.

Samajwadi sources said Mulayam would approach the governor with his list of allies only if he gets the green signal from the Congress.

In Lucknow, Samajwadi leaders are keeping a watch on the Bahujan Samaj Party’s final tally. The BSP had given tickets to 93 Muslim candidates and Mulayam is eyeing them as potential defectors if Mayavati joins hands with the BJP.

Mulayam said he was waiting for the final tally and would take a decision about staking claim tomorrow. The Governor would have to invite him first as the Samajwadi was the single largest party, he added. Without naming the Congress, Mulayam said all secular parties should back his bid to form the government.

Surjeet said it was the responsibility of all secular forces to back the Samajwadi. “The verdict of the people in the state is against the communal forces. It is the duty of other parties to ensure a secular government is formed,” he said.

Asked if Sonia would “pardon” Mulayam for not backing her in 1999, Surjeet said that was now an old issue.

“If you want to stay in politics, one has to respect what the people want,” he said. Asked if he would take the initiative to hold talks with Sonia, Surjeet said: “It is the responsibility of all secular parties.” On whether he would take the first step, he said: “There will be no lack of people to do that.”

Mulayam said: “The Samajwadi has emerged as the single largest party and we have to fulfil the responsibility given to us by the people.” Asked if President’s rule would be imposed if no party was able to form government, he said: “How can you come to such a conclusion at this juncture?”

   

 
 
SONIA WARY OF MULAYAM 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 24: 
Wary of the VHP’s March 15 temple construction deadline, the Congress is veering round to the view that it should sit in the Opposition instead of backing a rag-tag coalition headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh.

Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Working Committee (CWC) is of the view that, in the event of a confrontation with the VHP, the Samajwadi Party would gain but the main Opposition party would stand to lose in states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi.

Many CWC members also feel sharing power with Mulayam would undo Sonia’s bid to woo the majority community on the Ayodhya issue. On Friday, Sonia paid her respects to the three Sankaracharyas at Dighauri. The Sankaracharyas have promised to break the VHP’s monopoly and construct the Ram temple in the event of getting a legal mandate at the disputed area.

The CWC met informally to discuss the poll outcome. About Uttar Pradesh, it has decided to hold the cards close to its chest instead of rushing to the formation of “a secular government” to keep the “communal forces” at bay. Sonia Gandhi and a majority of the CWC members felt that the party should not get “charmed” by the persuasive skills of Harkishan Singh Surjeet and Somnath Chatterjee to back the Samjawadi Party. Thus, Surjeet’s task of getting the Congress around is becoming more difficult as it goes beyond the realms of ministerial berths and power sharing.

Officially, Congress leaders are citing Mualyam’s refusal to back a Sonia-led government in May 1999 as reason for not backing the Samajwadi. But informally, senior leaders said a majority of CWC leaders were wary of backing Mulayam. The Samajwadi chief is seen as a maverick, an ambitious politician who has scant regard for the Congress leadership. As one Uttar Pradesh Congressman said, “Let him reciprocate. Does he have a chief ministerial candidate other than himself? If he is so pro-Muslim, he should name some Muslim chief minister.”

Congress leaders acknowledged that MLAs from Uttar Pradesh were keen to join hands with Mulayam, but asserted that the party would not suffer a division on the contentious issue of supporting the Samajwadi. “Unlike the past, (a) split in the Congress would not help Mulayam. He needs all 24-25 MLAs,” a party functionary said, pointing out that Mulayam would first have to get around a figure of 170 before seeking Congress support.

The CWC was disappointed with the Congress performance in Uttar Pradesh, particularly in Amethi, Sultanpur and Rai Bareilly regions. Though no member raised the issue of the party’s dismal performance before Sonia, they said unless the party gets its act together in Uttar Pradesh, it will be difficult forming a government at the Centre on its own.

Hunt for CMs

Sonia Gandhi is sending AICC teams to ascertain the views of party MLAs in Punjab and Uttranchal for the selection of new chief ministers with Captain Amrinder Singh and Harish Rawat emerging as frontrunners for the coveted posts in their respective states.

AICC general secretaries Ambika Soni and Ghulam Nabi Azad will be in Dehra Dun tomorrow while Ahmad Patel, Motilal Vora and B.K. Hariprasad will be in Chandigarh on Tuesday to oversee the selection of the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) leader for Punjab.

Sonia’s first preference for Punjab is Captain Amrinder Singh, who has been told to carry everyone along. “He has led the party successfully in election,” she said.

The Punjab Congress chief hosted a lunch for party nominees on Friday at Moti Mahal, Patiala, where arch rival Rajinder Kaul Bhattal failed to turn up. Bhattal, who had a disastrous tenure as chief minister, has been saying she would back anyone but the former Maharaja of Patiala. She had floated Soni’s name, but the AICC general secretary vehemently denied she was in the race.

   

 
 
BJP PAYS FOR NON-PERFORMANCE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 24: 
It will now be the Congress’ turn to perform. The BJP could not, and the people of Uttaranchal, in the state’s first election, punished the ruling party by pushing it out of power.

For a party that boasted only one seat in the outgoing Assembly, the Congress has done remarkably well — it has managed enough seats to form the government without having to seek a third party’s help. The Congress got 35 seats while the BJP 19 in Uttaranchal’s 70-member Assembly.

The third front, which included the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal, fell far short of expectations. It was hoping to play the kingmaker’s role, but could not manage enough seats to be in the reckoning.

The people, it is clear, voted with a vengeance against the BJP for leading them up the garden path, backing to the hilt the movement for a separate state but not fulfilling a single promise it had made to the people of the new state. They struck back by pushing out of power most of the BJP ministers. Barring chief minister Bhagat Singh Koshiari and two of his cabinet colleagues, ministers in charge of health and urban development, all the others, including Koshiari’s predecessor Nityanand Swami, failed to hold on to their seats.

The Congress, however, will have a tough job ahead. It will inherit all the failings of the 14-month-old BJP government that gave two chief ministers, neither of whom could draw a word of praise from the people of the state. The first incumbent, Nityanand Swami, was dismissed as a “cipher” while his successor, Bhagat Singh Koshiari, only managed to save his own seat in Kapkot but not his party.

If it is any comfort to the BJP, the party has bagged more seats in Kumaon than in Garhwal. But the fact that it has been wiped out in a region which was considered its preserve couldn’t bring any cheer to the leadership, both in the state and the Centre. The BJP had used its bigwigs in Delhi to campaign in the state, but the people of Uttaranchal were not about to forgive them for their mistakes and betrayal. The main reason behind such widespread resentment was the failure of the BJP government to give jobs to the people, open up the state to investors and improve the state’s tourism prospects.

Government employees, the backbone of the BJP and the Uttarakhand movement, had turned decisively against the ruling dispensation. They were not getting salaries on time and the administrative hitches with Uttar Pradesh had not been sorted out. Moreover, government jobs, one of the main sources of livelihood for the people of Uttaranchal, were in short supply.

There was anger against the BJP cutting across all sections. It’s not that people had any great faith in the Congress’ ability to “change”, but their disaffection with the BJP was too strong and the lack of a third alternative too apparent for them to explore any other option.

   

 
 
JAYA STAKES GOVT CLAIM AFTER ANDIPATTI VICTORY 
 
 
FROM M.R. VENKATESH
 
Chennai, Feb. 24: 
ADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa staked claim to form her own government, following the resignation of chief minister O. Panneerselvam and his council of ministers this evening after the legislature party elected her as the new leader, crowning her victory in the Andipatti byelection.

Jayalalithaa’s new ministry, it is learnt, would be sworn in either on Monday or Wednesday and Governor P.S. Ramamohan Rao requested Panneerselvam and his council of ministers to continue till alternative arrangements were made.

The ADMK leader staged a dramatic political comeback on her 54th birthday today barely five months after the Supreme Court struck down her appointment and forced her to evacuate the office.

“The final results from Andipatti has been announced and I have been declared as winner,” a jubilant Jayalalithaa told the media, minutes after chief electoral officer Mrutunjay Sarangi announced the result around noon today.

The ADMK chief, who polled 78,437 votes, beat her nearest DMK rival, Vaigai Sekar, by a margin of 41,201 votes. MDMK candidate V. Jeyachandran came third, polling just 8,421 votes while Dalit leader and Puthiya Tamizhagam president K. Krishnasamy was placed a distant fourth, polling 5,126 votes. There were 20 other independents in the fray.

“This victory is the best birthday present I have received in my life,” Jayalalithaa said, nearly choking on her emotions, as she expressed her “sincere and heartfelt gratitude” to the voters of Andipatti.

There was an air of celebration from early morning at her Poes Garden residence where Jayalalithaa had been accepting birthday greetings and bouquets from a stream of ADMK ministers, party members and government officials. As the trends of the Andipatti bypoll kept pouring in, hundreds of partymen and women, in a celebratory mood, swarmed to her residence.

Women broke coconuts to the cries of “Puratchi Thalaivi, engal nirandhara mudalvar (The revolutionary leader, our permanent chief minister)” and crackers were burst as Jayalalithaa kept increasing her margin. Cakes and sweets were distributed to mark both her birthday and her electoral victory.

The ADMK Legislature Party met this afternoon at its headquarters and unanimously elected her as the leader. Panneerselvam then left for Raj Bhavan to tender the resignation of his council of ministers.

Jayalalithaa left nobody in doubt about the ADMK government completing its five-year term. “I am here to stay,” she said, while acknowledging the “unstinted support of my party cadres who remained united”.

Jayalalithaa used the occasion to declare she “will not rest” until she turned Andipatti into a model constituency in the state and “Tamil Nadu the Number One state in the country”.

   

 
 
MANIPUR PLAYS TRUE TO FORM 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Imphal, Feb. 24: 
True to its electoral tradition, Manipur voted out 19 sitting legislators as results trickled in from counting centres across the state.

Of the 30 seats decided till 11.45 pm, the Congress had won 11 seats and the Federal Party of Manipur seven. The biggest upset was the defeat of former chief minister Radhabinod Koijam of the Samata Party. He lost the Thangmeiband seat to Meinam Bhorot Singh of the BJP.

Other prominent losers include former Speaker H. Borababu Singh of the BJP in Wangkhei, Paonam Achao of the FPM in Uripok, Haokholet Kipgen of the Samata Party in Saitu and Thounaojam Bira Singh (brother of of the Manipur State Congress Party president and former Union minister T. Chaoba Singh) in Nambol.

In 1995, only 15 sitting legislators were re-elected. The number rose to 26 — the highest ever in the electoral history of the state — five years later.

Those who retained their seats this time include former chief minister R.K. Dorendra Singh of the BJP, who won from Yaiskul. Manipur People’s Party president O. Joy Singh (Langhthabal), FPM candidates N. Bihari Singh (Khurai) and L. Tomba Singh (Thoubal) are some of the other winners.

BJP heavyweight Dorendra Singh defeated his nearest rival E.K. Singh of the Congress by over 1,000 votes.

   

 
 
TOUGH TEST AHEAD FOR GUJARAT CM 
 
 
FROM BASANT RAWAT
 
Ahmedabad, Feb. 24: 
Chief minister Narendra Modi has won the Rajkot-II Assembly seat, defeating Ashwin Mehta of the Congress by 14,721 votes. But while the ruling BJP has managed to retain one seat, it lost two others to the Congress.

The BJP’s margin in Rajkot has been considerably reduced from 28,000 to 14,721, but it is a significant first-time electoral victory for Modi as all Congress factions had joined hands to defeat the chief minister.

In Sayajiganj (Vadodara), Congress candidate Dhansukh Prajapati, who got 77, 229 votes, defeated Jitendra Sukhadia of the BJP by 22,543 votes. Former jails and housing minister Jaspal Singh of the Samajwadi Party, suffered a humiliating defeat. Singh, an IPS officer-turned-politician, got only 6,980 votes and lost his deposit.

Congress candidate Ishwar Vahia defeated Manu Patel of the BJP by 12,695 votes in the tribal-dominated Mahuva (Surat) seat.

   

 
 
GOVERNOR SPRINGS STABILITY CARD 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Lucknow, Feb. 24: 
Governor Vishnukant Shastri has never appeared more uncomfortable. Suddenly, all eyes are focused on the reticent, low profile and quiet Shastri. He knows he is the key that will open the doors to the next government in Uttar Pradesh.

Unfortunately for Shastri, his background as a Sanghi is not helping matters at all.

In the severely fractured mandate that voters devoid of any hope in this state struggling with crime, corruption and unemployment have thrown up, Shastri’s role as Governor will be crucial. He is the man who will now decide the fate of the Samajwadi Party – which has come up as the single largest party – and the BJP, which is desperately looking at ways to remain in power, albeit with the help of Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayavati.

Shastri has, however, quietly opened the door for the BJP by saying it is not necessary to call the single largest party for government formation. Addressing a crowded news conference, Shastri said he would first consider who was in a position to offer a “stable government”.

“I will listen to everybody,” he said, adding “my first priority is to look for stability in the state. I will have to see on what grounds the party expecting to form the next government is offering stability.”

Though he refused to categorically state how long it would take for the next government to be in place, Shastri said he would wait till March 26. “There is no time frame for government formation,” he said, giving the BJP enough scope to strike a deal with Mayavati.

Maintaining that he was not in a position to say how long it would take for matters to clear up, the Governor emphasised that no decision would be taken in haste, nor would the decision be unfair to anyone. “I will go into the whole thing in detail,” he said, adding he would also take the opinion of Constitutional experts.

As a consolation, Shastri can fall back on the precedent set by former Governor Romesh Bhandari, who had refused to let the BJP, the single largest party with 176 seats after the 1996 Assembly elections, form the government.

“I will not call the single largest party to form the government,” Bhandari had said in his much-criticised and often-quoted statement. “I must have a stable government more than anything else. It is not just about numbers.”

After a six-month period of suspended animation, it was finally the BSP, aided by the BJP, which formed the Mayavati-led government that was installed on March 21, 1997.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, are not too sure Shastri would not do his best to save the BJP. Shastri’s appointment as governor itself was a controversial move. Governor Suraj Bhan was shifted to Himachal Pradesh to make way for Shastri, who was perceived to be friendlier towards the BJP. The BJP high command did not want to take any chances with Bhan, who had stepped up his criticism against certain “anti-poor and anti-Dalit” policies of the BJP.

Unlike Bhan, Shastri has been a quiet Governor. More at home debating the importance of yogic discipline in life than smiling to glittering flashbulbs at crowded ceremonies, Shastri has preferred the isolation of the library to anything else.

Will Shastri live up to his toughest test yet?

   

 
 
NO MIRACLES FOR RAJNATH 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Lucknow, Feb. 24: 
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Rajnath Singh was always aware that the BJP expected nothing short of magic from him to resurrect a party that was fast losing it’s sheen.

Mandir had stopped being a mudda (issue), an uninterested, weak predecessor in the form of the famously forgetful Ram Prakash Gupta did not help matters either.

To add to the mountain of problems confronting him, mafia elements were having a field run, corruption was at an unprecedented high, atrocities against the poor and the Dalits witnessed a never-before rise. To be fair to the man, he had inherited a legacy most others would have run miles away from.

A sorry-faced Rajnath Singh tendered his resignation immediately after he came to know that there was no chance of the BJP emerging as the single largest party, leave alone form the next government “on it’s own”.

But the battering his party received “shocked” even the stoic Rajnath. Defeated but graceful, Rajnath said: “I did my best, but I am indeed shocked by the results. It has gone totally against our expectations.”

The chief minister who has been asked by Governor Vishnukant Shastri to hold his chair till March 26, however, neither passed the buck nor blamed anybody else for the mandate.

“I take full responsibility for this defeat,” he said, adding that it was “good there are such huge obstacles against us, it will stop us from being complacent.”

Even as a cloud of gloom enveloped the BJP office — state BJP chief Kalraj Mishra, too, has offered his resignation — Dalits across the state have started celebrating BSP leader Mayavati’s staggering performance in the elections, hoping that their Behenji will become the next chief minister.

Chaggal Ram, a Dalit labourer, says his community is waiting for “some good work, real work to help the state’s Dalit population”.

With the BJP left with no option but to sit in the Opposition if they don’t extend their support to Mayavati — who is certain to insist on the chief minister’s chair — their wish might just be fulfilled.

   

 
 
MASTER BACK DOING WHAT HE DOES BEST 
 
 
FROM MONOBINA GUPTA
 
New Delhi, Feb. 24: 
Even H.S. Surjeet’s sworn enemies cannot charge him with being slow at times when backroom manipulation is the only way out. The CPM general secretary may be in his eighties but it was with the alacrity of a 20-year-old that he bounced into action the moment the Uttar Pradesh mandate became clear.

This is the moment Surjeet has been waiting for: his protégé and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has emerged from the battlefield unscathed, victorious and wearing the crown of “secularism”. All he needs is a friendly push from the Congress to sit on the throne of the mightiest of all Indian states. But the friendly hand may not be extended easily. So, Surjeet wants to be the “glue” that can stick the Samajwadi Party and the Congress together.

At present the parties are as alike as blood and water. Any mixing is going to be tough.

Sonia Gandhi and Mulayam have never been friends. Mulayam’s trusted lieutenant Amar Singh is forever badmouthing the Congress. Four years ago, Mulayam ditched Sonia at the eleventh hour, refusing her support to form a government in Delhi and leaving the BJP gloating over the botched up negotiations among the third front partners and the Congress.

Surjeet --- the high priest of all twisted negotiations and convoluted alliances --- was crestfallen when his “pupil” stabbed “secular” parties in the back and made it clear he would much rather have a “saffron” Prime Minister than help a “foreigner” climb the ladder of political glory.

It seemed, at that time, that Surjeet owned defeat at not being able to break Mulayam’s stubbornness. That he might give up umpiring in political matches that, for him, would never end on a successful note.

But that is like expecting Surjeet to retire as general secretary or even quit the CPM. The good “samaritan” that he is, Surjeet is once again at the job of bringing together two parties who have, of late, barely been civil to each other.

“Our main aim now is to see that a secular government is formed in Uttar Pradesh,” said Surjeet, evoking memories of 1998 when he committed the CPM’s support to a Sonia-led government in full media glare though the issue had not been really discussed in the party forum.

His comrades did not like it just like Mulayam did not fancy the CPM leader’s “hobnobbing” with Sonia. Surjeet has easy access to 10 Janpath as Sonia has publicly reposed faith in the veteran communist leader .If there is one person outside her party who can influence her decision on Uttar Pradesh, it could well be Surjeet. During the shaky tenure of the United Front government, it was Surjeet who rushed from one state Bhavan to another, mollifying one “hurt” partner or the other.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the CPM leader this afternoon rushed to Mulayam’s residence — after giving one interview after another to television channels — playing the “secularism” tune. It is believed that he is liaising with Sonia for a “deal” which will be honourable to both sides.

As the general secretary suggested in his interviews, anything is “honourable” than a BJP government.

   

 
 
LANDSLIDE WIN FOR SCINDIA AT GUNA 
 
 
FROM SUCHANDANA GUPTA
 
Guna, Feb. 24: 
Like father Madhavrao, Jyotiraditya Scindia today had his name registered in the record books of the region’s electoral history.

In the 1984 elections that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Madhavrao had defeated Atal Bihari Vajpayee from Gwalior by more than 1,75,000 votes. In the byelection to the Guna-Shivpuri seat — left vacant after his father’s death last year — Jyotiraditya defeated the BJP’s Deshraj Singh Yadav by a thumping 4,06,568 votes.

The BJP once again failed to make a dent in the Scindia charisma in north Madhya Pradesh. The party got 1,29,160 votes against the Congress’ 5,35,728. An Independent got 32,519 votes.

Less than 50 per cent of the voters had turned out on February 21 for the poll to the constituency with an electorate of 13 lakh. The results, however, have bettered Congress expectations. The party’s pre-poll calculation had been that if 70 to 75 per cent people cast their vote, Jyotiraditya would win by a 4-lakh margin.

Jyotiraditya rode high on the crest of sympathy after the twin family losses in one year — Rajmata Vijayaraje and Maharaja Madhavrao.

The Scindias have been part of national politics since the early 1950s. Guna-Shivpuri had been represented by Jyotiraditya’s father and grandmother since 1957 but neither had won by a margin like Jyotiraditya’s. Madhavrao’s best was in the 1996 elections, when former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao refused him a party ticket following the hawala scam. Madhavrao broke away from the Congress and formed the Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress.

Gwalior’s intrepid loyalties to the Maharaja secured him a record fourth consecutive victory from the constituency with a margin of over 2.23 lakh votes. Madhavrao’s second best was during his last election from Guna-Shivpuri in 1999. He won by 2.14 lakh votes then against Jyotiraditya’s opponent.

For Jyotiraditya, 31, an MBA from Stanford University, his first electoral battle was a cakewalk. The BJP had given up on a fight even before it had begun. Yadav, an MLA from the region, was the party’s best bet.

After the death of Vijayaraje, the BJP has two Scindia daughters in its fold. But neither Union minister Vasundhararaje nor MLA Yashodhararaje turned up to campaign for their party against their nephew.

Never in Congress history had the AICC president campaigned for a bypoll. But Sonia Gandhi broke tradition and came down to campaign for Jyotiraditya in Guna.

   
 

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