BJP’s search for new monarch ends in Modi
Party seeks sops to soften budget blow
CM plays Gujarati card
Vajpayee shovels fuel into Gulf diplomatic fire
Rap on speech
Queen’s barb leaves party brass blushing
Sonia hints at Pota rethink
Congress on toes over enemy within
Modi price for UP deal

 
 
BJP’S SEARCH FOR NEW MONARCH ENDS IN MODI 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
Panaji, April 13: 
Narendra Modi has emerged as the BJP’s new Hindutva symbol and acquired the same status that Kalyan Singh did after the Babri Masjid demolition. Though the party has to come up with an honorific for Modi, for all practical purposes Modi today is what Kalyan was in 1993 — Hindu hriday ka samrat (monarch of the Hindu heart).

A day after Modi’s well-scripted resignation drama was enacted at the Goa executive, the members looked visibly relieved not only because the Gujarat chief minister was not booted out, but even the “moderate and liberal” Atal Bihari Vajpayee harked back publicly to hard-core Hindutva.

“When Atalji spoke of the Muslims yesterday, he was clear and coherent and did not pause for even a second. This is because the speech came straight out of a swayamsevak’s heart. Whenever he spoke of secularism and liberalism, he often had to struggle for words unless the speech was already written,” remarked an Uttar Pradesh MP.

BJP sources said they had initially planned to adopt a resolution on Godhra that would contain a line rejecting the demand for Modi’s ouster.

However, as an afterthought it was felt a mere one-line mention was not enough to get across the “sense of solidarity” the party felt with Modi. Something “more dramatic” had to be done.

The chief minister offered to step down when the executive was about to leave yesterday for the public rally. Despite BJP president Jana Krishnamurthi’s request to Modi to speak later, Modi, it seems, insisted he had to do it then and there. The executive — which was slated to take up the economic resolution for discussion after the rally — deliberated on Modi and backed him.

Sources said the “deliberation” was merely a formality after Vajpayee and Krishnamurthi had declared unequivocal support for Modi.

Asked about the compulsions behind early polls in Gujarat, a Cabinet minister said: “It was a hard choice: either to please the allies by replacing him and risk angering Gujarat’s Hindus or dissolve the Assembly and have snap polls. The latter was a politically sounder option.”

The BJP’s feedback was, had Modi been replaced by a more “moderate” chief minister, the Hindus “feared” the move would “embolden” the Muslims to organise themselves and hit back at them.

The other reason was to tell the allies that they had no business to interfere in the BJP’s “internal” matters so long as the NDA’s common minimum programme was not tampered with. “Allies have nothing to do with our internal matter. We have a two-thirds majority in Gujarat. As a party, every party has the right to express its views on Gujarat. If the allies’ suggestion was in the larger interest, we would have accepted it, but if it was not our answer is we are sorry,” said rural development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu.

“Allies are all the time implementing their own agenda by being part of the NDA. But the BJP cannot allow the NDA to destroy its core spirit. BJP has to be kept alive, that’s why we cannot deviate entirely from our path,” said BJP youth wing president Shivraj Chauhan.

Other members suggested that just as the BJP had “sacrificed” power twice in the past on the RSS-Hindutva plank, it should be ready to do the same this time too if the allies made Modi an issue.

Some leaders rejected the idea that the Centre was threatened because of Gujarat. “As long as anti-Congressism is there, our allies need the BJP to prop them up in their states and we need them to sustain the NDA. With the Congress winning almost every election we are certain our allies will stick to us,” explained BJP vice-president and former Maharashtra deputy chief minister Gopinath Munde.

The other compulsion for backing Modi was, apparently, the Congress’ proposed campaign against him. “Our message was meant as much for Sonia because she was trying to take political advantage. If she can do it so can we. Hindus have also to be given their due share. In Godhra you (the Congress) are silent, anywhere else you are violent,” said Naidu.

   

 
 
PARTY SEEKS SOPS TO SOFTEN BUDGET BLOW 
 
 
FROM FREDERICK NORONHA
 
Panaji, April 13: 
The BJP today sought to sugarcoat its Hindutva thrust and pander to its middle-class votebank by pushing for several economic sops at its national executive in Goa.

In an economic resolution adopted on the second day of the national executive, the party suggested restoring the 20 per cent tax rebate under Section 88 for incomes up to Rs 5 lakh, review of the proposed service tax on insurance and a new scheme for pensioners affected by a cut in interest earnings.

But even while calling upon the government to soften the bodyblow of the budget, the party refused to castigate Yashwant Sinha’s unpopular measures. The national executive asked the Centre to push economic legislations through Parliament and said privatisation should be aggressively pursued as it is key to “sending out signals about (a) commitment to economic reforms”.

Putting up a stubborn defence of Sinha’s budget, the BJP said it contains “certain measures which may appear harsh to certain sections”, but appealed to the “affected sections” to cooperate with the government “at this hour of crisis”.

Apart from suggesting the rollback of several budget measures, the party called on the government to distance itself from the pricing process of petroleum products as the administered price mechanism has been phased out from this month. However, it said some subsidy support could be given on a time-bound decreasing scale to cooking gas and kerosene over the next three to five years.

Reacting to the demands, Sinha today said changes, if any, would be announced during the discussion on the finance Bill in Parliament.

Voicing concern over falling interest rates on small savings, a step that has met with furious opposition from party MPs, the party asked the government to launch “attractive monthly income schemes” for senior citizens, who could invest their savings and “lead a retired life peacefully through interest earnings”. It sought a pension scheme for individuals, too.

The resolution said steps should be taken to minimise issue prices of PDS foodgrain and ensure flexible distribution so that the poorest of poor would have access to food security.

The BJP suggested providing subsidy support on fertilisers directly to farmers instead of routing it through the companies and modification of crop insurance scheme so that farmers would have easy access. A rethink on the removal of the tax concession on diesel for fishermen was also urged.

Under the one-by-six scheme, the party wanted telephone subscribers to be exempted from filing compulsory returns. However, those with mobile phones could be brought under the scheme.

The party wanted efforts to be concentrated on recovering tax arrears through tough measures. “Goodwill of the general public is crucial for carrying out economic reforms, specially (those of) the second generation,” the party said, while presenting its suggestions.

   

 
 
CM PLAYS GUJARATI CARD 
 
 
FROM BASANT RAWAT AND AGENCIES
 
Ahmedabad, April 13: 
A triumphant Narendra Modi today arrived here to a hero’s welcome, armed with his party’s blessing to lead the state to a mid-term poll that many expect will return the BJP to power.

“Modi is the winner. He returns as a victorious warrior after vanquishing all his critics,” said cottage industries minister Ranjit Singh Chavda, reflecting Modi’s enhanced image and support base in the state party.

Modi was accorded a red-carpet welcome at the Sardar Vallabhai International airport in contrast to his low-key departure yesterday for Panaji. The smiling chief minister, who reached here with predecessor Keshubhai Patel, was received by Union minister Haren Pathak, his Cabinet colleagues and MLAs.

In a spirited 25-minute speech, Modi sought to address the sentiments of the people in the state, saying the campaign after the carnage was aimed at “defaming” the BJP and five crore Gujaratis.

Mid-term polls may be bad news for the Congress, but the wishes of the BJP and its Chhota Sardar — Modi — have been fulfilled. It has become clear that in the aftermath of the Godhra carnage Modi was pursuing his own agenda — a well-planned strategy to create a wave in favour of the BJP, which was fast losing its base in the state.

After repeatedly denying any intention of calling early polls, the BJP high command has asked Modi to dissolve the Assembly and seek a fresh mandate. Clearly, Modi was all along assessing the people’s mood.

Having realised that polarisation was complete in Gujarat, it was time to reap the benefits by holding early elections. According to Modi’s assessment, the BJP’s tally would go up if elections were held in a communally charged atmosphere, a party insider said.

Upbeat with the poll “directive” from Goa, the party’s state unit “will draw out a clear roadmap” at a crucial meeting here tomorrow, reports PTI.

BJP spokesman Nalin Bhatt said the meeting would be attended by Modi and Patel. He added “it was premature to say whether we favoured election by June or after monsoon”.

Muslims are worried about a poll that will be fought on communal lines. Nobody has any doubt that the BJP will play the communal card to win the elections. “If the BJP is going to hold elections, it only proves that the party is ready to go to any extent to win the elections. It also proves that what happened in Gujarat was a part of an agenda,” said Safibhai Memon, a businessman and social worker.

2 die in violence rerun

Two persons, including a woman, were killed and 21 injured after fresh violence erupted in the labour-dominated Danilimda area in Ahmedabad last night, police said.

While a youth was killed in police firing, the woman succumbed to her injuries sustained in heavy stone-throwing in the area, police said.

   

 
 
VAJPAYEE SHOVELS FUEL INTO GULF DIPLOMATIC FIRE 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, April 13: 
Indian diplomats are having a tough time “defending the indefensible” stand of the government on Gujarat.

Continuing violence in the state, where Muslim minorities are being targeted by Hindu hardliners, has made it untenable for them to justify why things are happening the way they are in the western state.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s statement yesterday, backing the BJP’s decision to retain Narendra Modi as the chief minister and his sharp criticism of Islam, has further complicated the situation.

Vajpayee’s remarks, which are being interpreted as an attempt to condone the action of the hardliners, has come as a major embarrassment for South Block, particularly senior diplomats serving in the Gulf and in the Arab nations.

India faced a similar problem in 1992, when the demolition of the Babri Masjid raised questions about the country’s secular credentials.

The BJP, which was then in the Opposition and had a hand in the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya, had to live with its “Hindu nationalist party” image for many years in the western media.

The nuclear tests in May 1998 kicked up a similar furore internationally, but it settled within a year and ultimately worked in India’s favour. Pokhran II spruced up India’s image both as a military power and an economic destination as well as a world leader in the field of information technology.

But the brushes with religious minorities have been a sore point for the diplomats, who have had to defend the government’s position several times in the recent past, specially during the attacks on Christians.

But the orgy of violence in Gujarat, which is drawing widespread criticism even at home, posed perhaps one of the most serious challenges to Indian diplomacy.

A week after the Godhra carnage led to mob fury on Muslims, foreign minister Jaswant Singh reportedly told a few close aides: “How does one defend the indefensible?”

Singh, who had just returned from the Commonwealth heads of government meet in Australia, had sensed the mood of the world leaders on the riots. Vajpayee’s remarks yesterday have only made things tougher.

Realising the onerous responsibility on the envoys, foreign secretary Chokila Iyer had sent despatches to Indian ambassadors and heads of missions, highlighting points that might help them defend India in the face of criticism from their hosts.

The defence was built around the peg that though unfortunate, these incidents were isolated events limited not only to one part of the country, but also to only some districts of Gujarat.

The guidelines, sent out at the initial stages, also tried to play down the delay in sending the army to the affected state. Iyer had argued that the troops could not be brought in earlier since most of the armed forces were deployed along the Line of Control and the international border with Pakistan.

Foreign ministry sources said Indian envoys did defend the government stoutly at the outset of the flare-up and, in most cases, managed to convince their hosts that these were stray incidents and that India remained firmly rooted in its secular credentials.

But Vajpayee’s inability to take tough measures and his decision to rally behind Modi and the hardliners has triggered fresh worry among the diplomats.

“How do we say these are isolated incidents when the Prime Minister makes a public statement blaming Islam for breeding violence?” a senior South Block official asked.

   

 
 
RAP ON SPEECH 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Panaji, April 13: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s speech last evening has come in from criticism by the All Indian Christian Council, which termed it a “betrayal to the nation in its darkest hour (and one that would) encourage Fascist violence against the minorities,” reports our correspondent.

“The All India Christian Council condemns in the strongest terms the speech of the Prime Minister, and all its insinuations, as an invitation to mass violence and the disintegration of the country,” council president Joseph D’Souza and secretary general John Dayal said in a press release.

   

 
 
QUEEN’S BARB LEAVES PARTY BRASS BLUSHING 
 
 
FROM ANUPAM BORDOLOI
 
Guwahati, April 13: 
She strode in regally, sharp at noon, resplendent in a muga saree with a red border. From cocky gait to confident answers, Sonia Gandhi looked very much in command — a queen lording over her subjects in the royal durbar.

Flanked by 14 chief ministers and other party dignitaries, the Congress president used her second press conference till date to demonstrate her authority and, the fact that she had finally arrived.

However, the Congress chief forgot to greet the mediapersons, most of whom were seated well in advance. But once she took off, the maturing politician in Sonia Gandhi was visible.

The only time she forgot the unwritten “dos and don’ts” of a politician of her stature was when she made a personal attack on the Prime Minister, saying Atal Bihari Vajpayee had lost his “mental balance”. The barb virtually left the Congress top brass squirming in their seats.

Madhya Pradesh chief minister, the seasoned Digvijay Singh, looked towards the Congress president with a smile — it was a subtle signal, perhaps, to tone down the attack on the Prime Minister a bit. Madam obliged, refusing to elaborate on the accusation that she had just hurled.

There were no further goof-ups, except that she was once stuck at the end of a sentence, fumbling for the right word. Once again, the loyal “Diggy raja” came to her rescue. “Target”, he prompted. “Yes, target,” she repeated.

Asked about a probable reshuffle in the AICC, Sonia Gandhi first glanced at party functionaries, shuffling uneasily, before putting them at ease, and said it would not be a major exercise.

Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi and his Nagaland counterpart, S.C. Jamir, sat side by side, listening in rapt attention to her comments, eager to hear words of praise for their governments.

Gogoi could not help smiling in satisfaction when Sonia Gandhi praised him generously along with Jamir, Digvijay Singh, Vilasrao Deshmukh and Amarinder Singh.

The Assam chief minister also nodded in appreciation when Sonia Gandhi categorically said the Congress leadership would continue to pressurise the Centre to provide more funds for the cash-strapped state.

Her face hidden partially behind the many microphones placed on the table in front of her, Sonia Gandhi fielded questions on politics, economics, the Northeast and good governance with ease, hardly needing to look at the prepared notes.

Many scribes say today’s event was in sharp contrast to the first performance before the Press by the lady from 10 Janpath in 1999.

That year, the Congress high command was accused of inviting only “friendly” journalists. But even then, the party president had lost her cool on issues like Bofors and Oliver Quattrocchi.

According to Congress sources, the party’s media managers did not want to take any chances today and had taken notes from state party leaders on the issues concerning Assam and other northeastern states.

The party spin-doctors had even worked out the minutest detail of the press meet. They were briefed on local party issues so that the party president was ready with all the answers, in case there were any tricky posers.

Though the media managers had prepared answers to more than 100 “probable questions”, there was hardly time for 20. Exactly at 12.30, Mohsina Kidwai stood up to announce the end of the press conference. Sonia Gandhi stood up to leave, save for “one last question” from the media. She smilingly obliged.

   

 
 
SONIA HINTS AT POTA RETHINK 
 
 
FROM SUSHANTA TALUKDAR
 
Guwahati, April 13: 
The Congress today hinted at a climbdown from its earlier stand on the contentious Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota), with party president Sonia Gandhi saying it has now become a law of the land after being passed by Parliament in its joint session.

The third meeting of Congress chief ministers, which concluded here this morning, resolved that since Pota has already become law, the party cannot adopt the stand of not implementing the legislation in Congress-ruled states. The chief ministers decided that they would go by the existing laws, which were adequate for dealing with the problem of law and order, instead of opposing Pota.

“We opposed Poto tooth and nail as we considered it draconian. Now it is a law of the land after it was passed in the joint session of Parliament. Today we discussed the issue with the chief ministers. The general feeling was that the present laws, both at the Centre and the states, are perfectly adequate to deal with law and order problems,” she said.

Chief Congress spokesman Jaipal Reddy said being the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi cannot make any “irresponsible” statement such as saying Pota would not be implemented in Congress-ruled states.

Though several chief ministers categorically said the existing laws in their respective states were adequate to deal with terrorism, Maharashtra chief minister Vilasarao Deshmukh gave liberty to his police department to implement the Act if and when it feels it necessary.

However, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh said there was no need for Pota in his state as the prevailing situation was “peaceful and the existing laws sufficient to deal with the trouble-mongers.”

Nagaland chief minister S.C. Jamir and his Manipur counterpart Ibobi Singh maintained that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act which is in force in their states, gave ample power to the security forces to deal with law and order as well as insurgency problems. They also insisted that as law and order is a state subject, the discretion lies entirely with the state government as to which Act should be made applicable.

Though Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi had announced that his government was not going to implement the Act immediately after Poto was passed, today he chose to harp on the adequacy of the existing laws and avoided a direct reply.

Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Mukut Mithi pointed out that since the terrorist organisations named in Pota have no existence in his state, there was no need for him to implement the legislation.

   

 
 
CONGRESS ON TOES OVER ENEMY WITHIN 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
Guwahati, April 13: 
Are party cadre a bane or a boon? Kerala chief minister A.K. Antony’s poser initially amused Sonia Gandhi at the Congress chief minister’s conclave but by the end of the discussion, she was left wondering aloud on similar lines.

Yesterday, Sonia had gently reminded the chief ministers to be more sensitive to party leaders. She had urged them in her opening remarks to bear in mind the primacy of the party in policy-making and sensitivities of the rank and file.

The chief ministers could not muster courage to disagree with “madame”. However, “Mr Clean” Antony finally decided to call a spade a spade. He pointed out that the party was often coming in the way while pushing through “greater good”.

He said that as chief minister, he was accountable to “masses” and not the cadre alone. Many saw Antony’s remarks in the context of his running battle with arch-rival K. Karunakaran, who created a flutter recently by supporting striking government employees in the state.

Antony’s argument found favour from almost all the chief ministers. Embittered by factionalism, they said “power-hungry vested interests” within the party were posing hurdles to good governance.

Taking the cue from Antony, another chief minister from northern India said party leaders often took on the role of the Opposition, and were much stiffer than the real Opposition. “Madame, how do we deal with such a situation?” he asked.

A discussion followed, where senior party functionaries underlined the need for unity and coordination between government and the political wing. They said partymen out of office should bear in mind the governments’ compulsions. But some AICC functionaries pointed out that often ministers become indifferent towards expectations from partymen. “They forget about workers, waking up five years after. But by that time, it’s too late,” said a functionary.

Old-timers blamed it on the changing times, saying that a consumerist and power-hungry society was creating a rift.

   

 
 
MODI PRICE FOR UP DEAL 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
Panaji, April 13: 
Home minister L.K. Advani, who had so far resisted a BJP-BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh, has come around after the national executive backed Narendra Modi and rejected his resignation offer yesterday.

BJP sources described Advani’s acceptance of the BSP alliance for forming a coalition government in Uttar Pradesh as a “quid pro quo” in return for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee agreeing not to replace Modi and instead advising the dissolution of the Gujarat Assembly. Vajpayee had opposed the move when Modi mooted it earlier.

Sources said Advani was trying hard to convince former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and leader of the BJP legislature party Rajnath Singh not to oppose a coalition government led by Mayavati in the “larger” interest of the state and the country. Singh has been arguing that propping up Mayavati as chief minister was too “heavy” a price for keeping the Samajwadi Party out of power.

Advani was brought around by the leader in charge of Uttar Pradesh, Kushabhau Thakre, who met him over breakfast today. Thakre, according to sources, told him that the alliance with Mayavati would not be restricted to forming a government in Lucknow but would also lead to a seat-sharing arrangement in the next Lok Sabha polls. “Together the BJP and BSP can get all 80 seats in UP,” said sources close to Thakre.

The BJP has been eyeing the BSP’s votes in Uttar Pradesh to shore up its own strength during the presidential election scheduled for June.

   
 

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