The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Drought-active Shekhawat sows surprise

New Delhi, Nov. 12: Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’s move to convene an “informal” meeting of the task force on drought set up by the Centre has angered Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot and caused perplexity in official circles.

At a meeting with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today, Gehlot, who has been under attack for his government’s “tardy” response to the starvation deaths in Rajasthan, told him if the Vice-President could seek an “informal” briefing on the drought, he was within his right to request the Centre for early release of the next instalment of funds to tackle it.

Official sources said Vajpayee assured him the package was ready, would be to his liking, and would be released by the task force by the end of this week.

Shekhawat’s move took not only Gehlot by surprise but quite a few in the BJP too because this was the first time a Vice-President had on his own summoned a high-level body for a meeting.

On November 11, he reportedly called deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, who heads the task force, and told him he would like to be kept posted on how the Centre was handling the crisis.

Advani and the other members of the task force, including finance minister Jaswant Singh, food and civil supplies minister Sharad Yadav and agriculture minister Ajit Singh, called on him with an entourage of officials comprising the secretary (expenditure) and those of the related ministries.

Official sources said as the Vice-President reeled off his queries, Advani kept mum while the other ministers said their departments had done the best they could.

Yadav, for instance, said his ministry’s granaries were “overflowing” and the drought-affected states were “at liberty” to pick up whatever they needed.

Gehlot told Vajpayee that “picking” up food allocations was not as simple as it sounded. It called for coordination with other ministries like surface transport and rail.

He also emphasised that the task force, which was to meet on November 2, deferred the session for no ostensible reason.

It is not Gehlot’s point of view that is causing surprise, but Shekhawat setting a precedent. In the past, only Presidents have summoned Cabinet ministers and high-ranking officials if they wanted a briefing or a clarification on a particular subject.

In keeping with protocol, they routed their requests through the Prime Minister’s Office. Former President K.R. Narayanan, for instance, twice called minister Jagmohan and former minister Madan Lal Khurana through the Prime Minister.

The sources said this time, the PMO was unaware of the Vice-President seeking the meeting. “He must have approached the deputy Prime Minister directly,” the sources added.

Shekhawat’s “pro-active” interventions have been the subject of much speculation in the BJP. On November 8, he said in Mumbai India was “ill-prepared” to deal with the possible repercussions of the WTO on agriculture and industry.

The only “guess” BJP sources are willing to hazard is that having been a grassroots politician for nearly five decades, it is “difficult” for Shekhawat to fit himself into a ceremonial post.

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