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George, Jaya break three-year ice

Chennai, Nov. 7: Defence minister George Fernandes today called on chief minister Jayalalithaa, ending a three-year stand-off since she demanded his “dismissal” from the Cabinet in April 1999 and pulled down the A.B. Vajpayee government.

A cheerful Fernandes, who was here for a conference, made a 30-minute “courtesy call” to Jayalalithaa at the secretariat. The NDA convener said: “I have not come here with any signal.”

Fernandes defended the Samata Party’s call for a review of the divestment process, particularly when the “nation’s interests are involved”.

Denying that the Samata or party general secretary Shambu Shrivastwa had attacked the Vajpayee government’s divestment policy, Fernandes said the former had merely expressed “an opinion” favouring a mid-term review of the policy.

Although the controversy erupted after two letters he had written to the Prime Minister on the selloff were “leaked” to the press, Fernandes asserted: “I never released these letters at any point of time.”

The Samata had yesterday attacked the “procedure and speed” of disinvestment, particularly in the sale of Mumbai-based Centaur hotel and IPCL. Releasing the resolutions passed at the party’s national executive in Rajkot, Shrivastwa said the selloffs had raised doubts in the public’s mind.

With this meeting, Fernandes finally managed to keep an appointment he had sought with Jayalalithaa in July. He had rushed back to Delhi then without meeting Jayalalithaa, citing “urgent summons” from Vajpayee at the height of the Gujarat crisis. The two leaders had not met since she demanded his dismissal over allegations of corruption levelled by former navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat.

The rapprochement, though long in coming, was clearly indicated yesterday in Patna when Fernandes defended the Tamil Nadu law banning forcible conversions, saying there was “nothing wrong” with it.

The NDA convener struck a balance by going to Apollo Hospitals to meet ally DMK’s senior leader and Cabinet colleague, Murasoli Maran, who has been under treatment for over a month for a serious heart ailment.

But he could not meet DMK chief M. Karunanidhi, who was waiting for him in the hospital. Karunanidhi left around 1.30 pm as the defence minister was late.

Replying to queries about the Jaguar crash at Ambala, Fernandes reiterated that it was one of the finest and safest aircraft, adding that “it is only an accident”.

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