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George in the sky, party at sea

New Delhi, July 3: George Fernandes may have visited Siachen 32 times, flew in the cockpit of a Sukhoi fighter jet and sailed in a submarine, but the “He man’s” — as some Samata leaders refer to him sarcastically — party is in doldrums.

Though the defence minister is set to be re-elected Samata chief at the party’s national council meeting on July 13 and 14, following a truce with railway minister Nitish Kumar over their turf in Bihar, the party is plagued by large-scale desertions.

On June 25, the Madhya Pradesh unit merged with the BJP at a meeting of office-bearers in Gwalior. State unit chief Brijendra Tiwari and general secretary Rakesh Sharma were among those who switched camps.

A day earlier, the Chhattisgarh unit merged with the ruling Congress. Samata office-bearers, led by state chief Shobha Yadav, announced the merger decision in the presence of Congress Working Committee member and former Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. Shobha said her party felt that small outfits have no scope and the Congress alone could provide a stable government.

Samata spokesman Shiv Kumar, however, downplayed the developments, saying: “We had sacked the Chhattisgarh unit as it was not able to strengthen the party there.” As for the Madhya Pradesh unit, he said the party leaders had “resigned”.

On Monday, over a hundred party leaders from Bihar, led by former law minister Deonath Prasad, joined the Congress. Two months ago, the then national spokesperson and Fernandes loyalist Shambu Shrivastwa had resigned to join the Congress.

Speculation is now rife that Union minister of state for public distribution and civil supplies Srineevas Prasad, who is from Karnataka, may join the Congress. Sources say he believes there is a thin chance of getting elected on a Samata ticket in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.

On June 17, Uttar Pradesh Samata chief Ram Asrey Verma resigned as a primary member of the party, saying he had “tried hard to understand the culture of the party, but failed”.

Even leaders of the unit in Jharkhand, where the party shares power, have disobeyed the high command. On June 18, Fernandes had summoned all five Samata ministers to Delhi to discuss organisational polls and sort out differences. Three of them flatly refused to come.

Though Fernandes has bought peace with Nitish in Bihar, there is speculation that he might try his luck from Karnataka, his home state, in the coming Lok Sabha polls. However, state unit chief I.M. Jayaram Shetty ruled out that possibility.“Fernandes would seek re-election… from Bihar… and is not contesting from…Karnataka,” Shetty told reporters last week.

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