Sonia unmoved, trio faces action
Baramati wine laced with poison
?Busy? Buddha gives Atal the miss
Rabri to face CBI tomorrow
Must-win match with menacing minnows
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, May 18 
The Congress Working Committee (CWC) tonight decided to take stringent disciplinary action against Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar even as Sonia Gandhi became more adamant about her decision to quit party presidentship.

As a gleeful BJP watched the crisis-ridden party from the sidelines, Congress bigwigs mounted moves to call a meeting of the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) to endorse the CWC?s decision on ?erring? partymen.

The AICC general body will reject Sonia Gandhi?s resignation and ask her to review her decision. The move to convene the AICC session gained momentum after it became clear that Sonia Gandhi was unfazed by the party leaders? pressure tactics.

Congressmen, nonplussed and unprepared to face polls without Sonia Gandhi?s leadership, offered to resign en masse from all government and party positions but the gambit failed to have any impact on her.

The sum and substance of all resignation letters sent to Sonia Gandhi was this: ?We do not think that the Congress will have any future without your leadership. In this situation, there is no point in continuing in our posts.? Four Congress chief ministers, all AICC office-bearers and the CWC offered to resign today to make Sonia Gandhi rescind her decision but in vain.

Barring the dissidents, the only CWC member who did not resign was Rajesh Pilot, who was not in the capital. But partymen feel that was not the only reason Pilot did not offer his resignation; they apprehend he may still be testing the waters before charting his course. Pilot was among those who raised apprehensions about Sonia Gandhi?s foreign origin at the CWC meeting on Saturday.

Sonia Gandhi termed her move to step down a ?personal decision? even as the resignations from partymen kept pouring into 10 Janpath. She refused to accept these resignations and asked party chief ministers ? Digvijay Singh, Giridhar Gamang, Ashok Gehlot and Sheila Dixit ? to return to their states and attend to administrative business.

An informal meeting of the CWC was held at Pranab Mukherjee?s residence in the absence of the party chief. It cleared the decks for disciplinary action against the Pawar-Sangma-Anwar clique on the ground that the three had refused to accept the CWC?s unanimous rejection of their demand against Sonia Gandhi. A formal CWC meet will be held on Thursday.

On the other hand, Pawar hardened his position and said there was no question of compromising on the issue of Sonia Gandhi?s foreign origin. ?This will be a major poll issue for us,? Pawar said in Mumbai, adding to the ire of Sonia Gandhi loyalists.

?Raising an issue is not indiscipline, but not abiding by the majority view and publicly criticising and questioning it is surely indiscipline,? Digvijay Singh said, putting himself on Sonia Gandhi?s side.

Sonia Gandhi was today witness to repeated emotional outbursts by many senior leaders who even wept uncontrollably to persuade her to reconsider. But she remained unfazed. Among those who were seen wiping tears were Ahmad Patel, Ambika Soni, Oscar Fernandes and Mohsina Kidwai. Hundreds of partymen thronged 10 Janpath and the neighbouring 24 Akbar Road AICC headquarters. The day-long ?Sonia-lao-desh-bachao? drama created a traffic snarl in the high security district and it is likely 10 Janpath will remain the centrestage of Delhi?s political activity in the days to come.

Sources close to 10 Janpath ruled out any possibility of Sonia Gandhi going back on her decision in the near future. Partymen, while publicly requesting her to take back the resignation, privately conceded that the prospects of Sonia Gandhi returning as party chief soon were remote.

While average party workers were hopeful of Sonia Gandhi softening her stand, senior leaders and those considered close to 10 Janpath were not so confident.

?She is a strong person. She seems to have carefully considered her decision and then tendered her resignation,? a CWC member said, adding that Sonia Gandhi was always known to stick to the stand once taken.

?She is hurt and feels that she made a mistake by entering politics. Her children have also supported her stand that dignity and self-respect was paramount for them. The campaign against her foreign origin and partymen endorsing the BJP?s line has done irreparable damage,? a 10 Janpath insider said. He said Sonia Gandhi was also disappointed over the CWC members? failure to take on Pawar, Sangma and Anwar at Saturday?s meeting. ?They got away with everything,? he said.

While no leader is willing to talk about a Congress minus Sonia Gandhi, they are hoping that she may campaign for the party and stay in office till the polls.    

New Delhi, May 18 
Just a few evenings ago, Sharad Pawar played host at a soiree on the rear lawns of his Rakabganj Road bungalow which most thought, quite mistakenly, was in celebration of Sonia Gandhi handing him charge of negotiations with Jayalalitha and other potential allies. Pawar was geniality itself, flashing benign smiles whose whiteness only his crisp bush-shirt rivalled. Nobody thought, again quite mistakenly, he was concluding plans to spatter it with blood at the Congress Working Committee.

The nearest thing to blood in evidence that evening was, in fact, burgundy Baramati wine being served in exquisite goblets. Pawar even had a lovely tale to lace it: ?Actually, I told my leader (till then, still Sonia) that I am a visionary because I signed up an Italian collaborator for producing this wine 20 years ago.? Pawar seemed disarmingly reconciled to Sonia, he was even cracking loyalist jokes, most thought. But again, quite mistakenly. For, in the event, the joke was an utterly cruel one. He could not have been unaware that evening of what he was about to do; he could not have been unaware of the dark sarcasm of his tale: Sonia was actually his leader no more, her Italian connection was vice not virtue, and Pawar?s vision was set on burying Sonia, not praising her. He, of course, offered no glimpse of his dagger that evening but stealth, as we well know from that celebrated rendezvous between Shivaji and Afzal Khan, is the greatest weapon in the Maratha?s armoury.

Only, Pawar?s assassination bid was far more sophisticated. Shivaji carried a ?baghnakha? (a poison-tipped iron glove in fashion with the day?s guerrillas) to dig into Afzal Khan?s back. Pawar did it with a letter that did not even have a bomb in it; the prose was enough to blow Sonia?s essay to power. He had done worse than challenge Sonia?s leadership, he had legitimised the campaign of the main adversary, the BJP. Pawar, suddenly, had padded up not as the Sachin in Sonia?s team but the BJP?s pinch hitter. He literally hit where it pinched Sonia most: her foreign origin, the only stick the BJP has to beat Sonia with.

But more than Sonia, Pawar has dealt a blow to forces desperately seeking an alternative to the BJP. For, like it or not, without Sonia, there isn?t a credible Congress and without the Congress, there isn?t a credible alternative in sight, something that only the CPM and Laloo Yadav appear to have quickly grasped.

The BJP, in its new, larger, avatar ? the National Democratic Alliance ? has a clear leader, and quite a winsome one, in A.B. Vajpayee. Who do the rest have? True, there is no dearth of candidates for prime ministership but they don?t even have seconders, much less followers. Sharad Pawar? Arjun Singh? Chandra Shekhar? Manmohan Singh? Chandrababu Naidu? N.D. Tiwari? Chance would be a fine thing if one among these supports the other.

No wonder, the Congress is falling supine at Sonia?s feet and the CPM and Laloo Yadav are sticking their necks out longer than needed in support of the lady of 10 Janpath.

Without her, the BJP looms and the alternative disintegrates. In the unforeseen chaos of the last few days, Laloo Yadav, privately, of course, has fired a query that makes itself heard above the political cacophony: Didn?t Sharad Pawar know before this day that Sonia Gandhi was born in Italy?

Questions must arise about why Sharad Pawar has done what he has at the time that he has done it. Sonia Gandhi?s place of birth has never even come close to being a state secret.

In 1991, Pawar was among the fawning courtiers pleading with Sonia to take over the party after Rajiv?s assassination. In 1998, he hailed her accession to presidentship of the party and then proposed her as leader of the Congress? parliamentary group. When the Vajpayee government fell, Pawar said Sonia was the ?obvious choice? as leader and played along dutifully in her failed bid to form an alternative government.

Then, almost overnight, he discovered she was born in Italy. He also discovered he was the repository of national opinion. He asked her to sign her own political death warrant, demanding that she suggest a constitutional amendment barring all Indian citizens of foreign origin from assuming high office.

Pawar was offering Sonia Gandhi a rare honour in the annals of parliamentary democracy: she was acceptable as party president, as chairperson of the Congress parliamentary party but not as Prime Minister.

Neither the presidentship of the Congress nor the chairpersonship of its parliamentary party registers as a charity institution.

Pawar?s followers ?- few in New Delhi but many in Maharashtra ?- have their reasons: he had reached the end of the road, they contend, and had nowhere further to go under a Sonia-led Congress, he had to take a gamble. But in trying to load the dice against Sonia, Pawar may already have loaded it in favour of the BJP, not merely his rival in New Delhi but also at home in Maharashtra.

Pawar?s only satisfaction can be if he has queered his own pitch, he has queered Sonia?s too. Having resigned presidentship of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi now treads the painful horns of her own dilemma.

If she goes back, she will be roundly, perhaps credibly, jeered by opponents as another power-hungry politician indulging in puerile drama. If she sticks to her decision, she faces the prospect of her party going to pieces and her adversaries consolidating on the Delhi throne.

Perhaps only a metaphor of foreign origin befits this old home of palace intrigue: Helen of Troy has met her Trojan Horse, and this one?s high on Baramati burgundy.    

Calcutta, May 18 
Acting chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya today announced his decision to virtually boycott a ceremony where Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee will lay the foundation stone of the Rs 696-crore Metro expansion project on Thursday.

With the state CPM scripting the line for him, Bhattacharya made it clear he loathed sharing the dais with Vajpayee because the event was designed to get votes in the Lok Sabha polls.

Bhattacharya, however, had the announcement couched in officialese and said he would have to be elsewhere in connection with a ?pre-arranged? engagement on May 20.

But he also hastened to add ? presumably for the sake of appearances ? that Bengal will be represented in the ceremony at Chanditala in south Calcutta by transport minister Subhas Chakraborty and public works minister Kshiti Goswami.

After obtaining the go-ahead from chief minister Jyoti Basu in London, Bhattacharya also made a show of the state government?s reservation about the Prime Minister?s main official engagement in the city. He expressed dismay to railway minister Nitish Kumar at what he termed as the unauthorised inclusion of his name in the list of dignitaries for the function.

Bhattacharya gave vent to his feelings in a fax message to Kumar, saying that Metro authorities did not consult him before including his name in the list. Kumar and the ruling communists, however, enjoy good rapport on one count: strong dislike for Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee.

The decision comes a few days after the CPM strongly criticised Vajpayee?s decision to inaugurate the project before the elections. State CPM secretary Anil Biswas had said Vajpayee?s decision to attend was a pre-election stunt.

If Bhattacharya had not stayed away on May 20, he would have found himself sharing the dais not only with Vajpayee, but also several Trinamul Congress leaders, including Mamata.

Trinamul has been claiming credit for the Metro expansion project since the presentation of the railway budget. The project covers 8 km between Tollygunge ? the present terminus ? and Garia.

Trinamul said the expansion has been okayed by the Centre because Mamata had it incorporated in her ?Bengal package? and pushed for its implementation in the past several months.

The communists, however, accuse Trinamul of distorting facts as they claim that they have been lobbying with the Centre for clearing the project for the past five years.

?How can they claim credit for it?? a senior transport department official asked, pointing out Kumar?s statement in Parliament on this count in support of the state government?s contention.

However, Mamata said the presence of two ministers at the event would prove that Bhattacharya?s sabre-rattling was meant for the gallery.

?If they were really serious in their so-called reservations about a caretaker Prime Minister inaugurating a project, they would not have allowed other ministers to attend the event. They know that what we are doing is not a stunt,? she said.    

Patna, May 18 
Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi has told the CBI in a letter that she is ready to be interrogated on Thursday.

Sources said she would face the CBI team at her Anne Marg residence.

CBI joint director U.N. Biswas will arrive here tomorrow. The agency is going ahead with its plan to have the questioning videographed. The team is expected to submit a status report on the case to Patna High Court on Friday. The court has complained of tardy progress in the probe.

Rabri Devi is Bihar?s second chief minister to face the CBI over the fodder scam. Her name figured in the scam after her husband told the CBI that Rabri Devi?s dairy farm accounted for a large part of the Rs 42-lakh disproportionate income he has been accused of amassing.    

Leicester, May 18 
It?s a must-win situation and that, too, so early in the World Cup. For India, therefore, the task is truly cut out: Tomorrow, nothing short of a handsome win versus Zimbabwe will do.

May not seem an unusually tough ask, but it?s worth noting that Zimbabwe don?t care too much for reputation and, in any case, have already beaten India twice in the 1998-99 season ? Harare and Sharjah.

It?s going back a long way, to the 1983 World Cup, but Zimbabwe had then shocked Australia and India, in the same edition, were on the ropes at Tunbridge Wells till Kapil Dev arrived. More recently, in 1992, Zimbabwe stunned eventual finalists England.

So, never take them lightly. Indeed, the body language of Alistair Campbell?s team has to be admired. No more is Zimbabwe merely completing numbers in the World Cup. That Henry Olonga had the cheek to rattle Sachin Tendulkar with a snorter in Sharjah last year alone says much for the one-time minnows of limited overs cricket.

Campbell himself put it beautifully when he said there?s ?no better stage than the World Cup?. Today, it?s the banner headlines Zimbabwe is looking for.

?Having got full points versus Kenya, the pressure is off us. After all, where (Test-playing nations?) ratings are concerned, we?re probably No. 9...? said coach Dave Houghton, a former captain.

He added: ?Teams that aspire for the super-six must win three games, at least. We?ve already won one, whereas India have to win three of the remaining four if not all four.? However, it remains to be seen whether the match will get over tomorrow itself or will go into the reserve day. The weather, today, was aweful ? a dramatic change from yesterday ? and the forecast isn?t comforting.

In some ways, perhaps, a must-win situation has advantages. Everyone?s role is that much clearer and there?s no middle path.

The Indians were somewhat similarly placed against Zimbabwe in the tri-series in South Africa, over two years ago. At stake was a berth in the final and the Benoni ?decider? saw India win big, thanks to Sachin?s epic 104.

Much depends on him though Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid collected more runs and points versus South Africa in Hove. The Zimbabweans realise that.

?I guess our best chance is to get Sachin early. If he gets a hundred, we lose (once in Bulawayo and twice in Sharjah, in recent times). Otherwise, we can fancy our chance,? said Houghton.

That the Zimbabweans really mean business has been evident for the past two days ? they?ve been watching video recordings of the India-South Africa match. Nobody saw that ?live? as they themselves were playing on Saturday.

The Indians have been working their own way, and while coach Aunshuman Gaekwad insists there?s no need to reach for the panic button, may be, it?s time to press the innovation-button. But, more important, it?s the basics that have to be got right.

That some have to be reminded of the basics in the midst of cricket?s biggest show is inexpli-cable. That?s a different story, though.

Of course, the bowlers need to work hard but, equally, the batsmen must pick the right bowlers to take runs off. It?s going to be one big mental game, not to discount the importance of fielding.

For those who may have been a bit edgy, the good news is that Sourav is fit, barring slight stiff-ness on his right leg above the knee. He?s a big-match player and hasn?t been unsettled by the Jawagal Srinath hit at nets yesterday.    

Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky with one or two spells of slight rain accompanied by thunder. Not much change in day temperature.
Temperature: Maximum 34.4 (2?C below normal)
Minimum 24.9?C (2?C below normal)
Relative humidity: Maximum 90% Minimum 59%
Rainfall: Nil
Sunset: 6.08 pm Sunrise: 4.57 am    

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