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Tandon out to save Atal blushes
- Accused in stampede, PM aide steps down

Lucknow, April 18: Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Lucknow pointman Lalji Tandon stepped down from the Prime Minister’s campaign committee today after being charged in the sari stampede tragedy.

“I have decided to withdraw myself from the responsibility of convener of the election management committee of the Prime Minister as I do not want to provide the Opposition parties with any chance to drag the PM’s name into the controversy,” Tandon said.

A criminal case was registered against Tandon on the order of the Election Commission in connection with the accident at a sari distribution programme organised on his birthday. Twenty-five women and a child were killed in the stampede last Monday.

Tandon’s announcement came a day before Vajpayee returns to Uttar Pradesh to address a rally at Varanasi.

He said Vajpayee had a reputation unmatched by any other politician. “I think my association with the committee would drag Atalji into an undesirable embarrassment,” he said.

Sources said Tandon was asked by the high command to step down from all official positions in the party.

The surgery has Vajpayee’s hand written all over it. First, he conveyed the message that he had not dropped his close aide by permitting Tandon to accompany him as he filed his nomination on Thursday. Tandon was by his side when he addressed a rally after that.

In exchange, Tandon now had to pay the honourable price of voluntarily withdrawing himself from the Prime Minister’s Lucknow campaign that had come under the dark shadow of the stampede.

Tandon’s action is also believed to be an attempt to prevent legal complications from fouling up Vajpayee’s election as the poll panel has described the sari distribution as a bribe to voters.

Election officials have registered an FIR against Tandon and two of his associates at Mahanagar police station on charges of bribery. Tandon also faces the charge of violating prohibitory orders imposed in the area under Section 144.

The police will now investigate the case and seek permission from the court to formally arrest Tandon. The charges being bailable, his problems will be more political than legal.

Used to being in the public eye, he would now be expected to lie low in the party, at least in the immediate future.

Tandon was an obscure politician until Vajpayee picked him to handle his poll campaign in Lucknow in 1991. As the “constituency minder”, as the BJP called him till the other day, he grew with every Vajpayee victory since.

From a successful businessman running the family’s chikan embroidery trade, he came to be known as the “pradhan mantri of the Chowk area”. He now represents this wholesale market for chikan dresses as an MLA.

He has been involved in the alliance deals struck between the BJP and Mayavati’s Bahujan Samaj Party — in 1995 and 2002. Now he is known for his proximity to Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Mulayam Singh rushed to his house after the stampede and gave him a clean chit. On the contrary, his relations with Mayavati have plunged so low that the BSP leader — once known as his “bahen” after a celebrated rakhi-tying ceremony — said he should be put in jail.

The poll panel has permitted the state to pay compensation to the victims’ families.

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