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Nitish is firm, Fernandes infirm

New Delhi, July 15: The faction-riven Samata Party plunged deeper into crisis today with party chief George Fernandes saying he was powerless to stem the rot and an adamant Nitish Kumar refusing to withdraw his resignation as railway minister.

Kumar, who yesterday forwarded his resignation to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, said he had no complaints against the Prime Minister or the National Democratic Alliance leadership but could not tolerate the squabbling within the Samata parliamentary party.

He did not attend office today, though Vajpayee has rejected his step-down offer.

Kumar had last night alleged that Fernandes was encouraging indiscipline in the party by not taking action against three Samata legislators who, led by controversial MP Prabhunath Singh, had attacked him at yesterday’s national council meeting. The three members were demanding that two expelled MPs — Brahmanand Mandal and Raghunath Jha (Fernandes loyalists) — be taken back.

The two had last April written to Vajpayee levelling corruption charges against the railway minister and demanded his sack. Kumar struck back by getting Fernandes to expel them. On Sunday, the national executive ratified their expulsion. However, the three MPs led by Prabhunath demanded revocation of the expulsion. Prabhunath even threatened to quit if they were not reinstated, before walking out.

What had apparently shaken Kumar, sources said, was that Prabhunath and Renu Kumari are his camp followers, while the third, Arun Kumar, has been swinging between him and Fernandes.

What is galling for Kumar is that most members of the parliamentary party are opposed to him. When the turf war between Fernandes and Kumar broke out, with the rebels accusing the railway minister of corruption, as many as nine of the 12 MPs had signed a letter in April pledging support for the defence minister. Hence his decision to quit the government.

Fernandes today said he “desired and hoped” Kumar would take his resignation back. The NDA convener had a 45-minute talk with his colleague last night but failed to sway him. Kumar stuck to his stand that he was resigning not because of differences with the Prime Minister or NDA leaders but because he could no longer take attacks on his personal integrity by members of his own party.

Kumar’s main grouse is that they raised the issue at the national council in front of hundreds of delegates from across the country. “The national council is not the forum for such issues,” he said today.

Asked to comment on Kumar’s accusation that he was “encouraging” indiscipline in the ranks, Fernandes conceded it was a major problem but said he was “helpless” as “anybody can say anything and anybody can abuse anyone” in his party.

Asked if he would take disciplinary action against the three MPs, the defence minister shot back with a query. “Disciplinary action will be taken against how many people'” he said. “I feel disciplinary action should be taken against me, too.

Nobody knows who will say what in our party — inside and outside Parliament and inside and outside the party,” he added. “I am the party president, so the ultimate responsibility is mine.”

Fernandes, however, sought to placate Kumar by saying there was no question of taking the two expelled MPs back.In Patna, anti-Kumar leaders have decided to hit the streets with a “vicious” campaign. “The real battle against Nitish will soon start,” said expelled Samata member Raghunath.

On the other side of the divide, Kumar loyalists have called a state legislature party meeting tomorrow. The body is expected to recommend disciplinary action against Prabhunath, who is at the forefront of the rebellion against Kumar.

Samata legislature party leader Upendra Kushwaha, a known Kumar loyalist, is expected to pass the recommendation for disciplinary action against Prabhunath.

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