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PM asks friend Ram to pull out
- Opposition nominee to respond later

April 14: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today made an unprecedented appeal to Ram Jethmalani, his opponent in the Lucknow parliamentary seat, to withdraw from the contest, invoking their 40-year-long friendship.

Although possibly completely unrelated, the appeal came as Vajpayee found himself sucked into the controversy over a tragic incident in which 25 women and a child died in a stampede in his constituency during a sari distribution organised by his own election agent, Lalji Tandon.

“Ram has filed his nomination to contest for the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections from Lucknow constituency, from where I am also seeking re-election. Since this is likely to be the last election in which we will be active participants, I expect that he will reconsider his decision,” Vajpayee said in a statement in Jammu.

Jethmalani, who was on his way to London on a short visit, said he would decide on his return after consulting his supporters.

“Shri Ram Jethmalani and I have been friends and colleagues for 40 years now. We have broadly shared political values and goals. We have been together in the fight for democracy... The issues that are of concern to him — particularly with regard to the security and welfare of minorities and the freedom of the press — have always been important to me as well. I assure him that these will continue to be addressed, if I am returned to office, after the elections,” Vajpayee said.

Jethmalani replied to this, saying: “This is not an issue of friendship nor a matter of sentiment. It is a matter of national duty. So many sincere workers have worked for me and many political parties have supported me. I cannot take a decision without consulting them.”

He welcomed the Prime Minister’s strong condemnation of personal attacks — described as “uncalled for” and “regrettable” in the appeal — made on him during campaigning. “This will restore decency in the campaign in a democracy,” Jethmalani said.

Vajpayee, who arrived in Lucknow tonight to file his nomination papers tomorrow, stood by Tandon in public, though rumours swirled about his removal as election agent.

“No decision has been taken,” he said about such a possibility.

Earlier in the day, Vajpayee had said: “Nothing wrong in distribution of saris… Every year saris have been distributed there. This time something happened and it is unfortunate.”

“It is a great tragedy, we are mourning it, but elections cannot wait.”

To exorcise the ghost of the tragedy, however, a yagna will be held in the auspicious hour of his filing nomination, from which Tandon is believed to have been asked to lay off.

S.S. Ahluwalia, a Rajya Sabha MP known for his vocal power in Parliament, is expected at the time of filing the papers, which has triggered another round of speculation that he would replace Tandon as the election agent. There is as yet no official confirmation of this.

On the advice of central leader Pramod Mahajan, who arrived yesterday to mount damage control, Tandon has dropped out of public view and was not there at the airport to receive Vajpayee today.

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