Twin hiccups for govt-making
Firm PM shuts out din over diesel
Fares up, but bus strike threat on
Sonia prepares to take on Opposition leader mantle
Pawar sups with Congress and BJP
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Oct. 8 
The pressures of putting together a coalition government have already begun to tell on Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. His biggest ally, the Telugu Desam, has not yet confirmed its participation in the National Democratic Alliance ministry.

However, Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu formally conveyed his support in separate letters to the President and Vajpayee.

The NDA coordination committee held its first post-poll meeting today at the Prime Minister?s residence. Newly-elected MPs will gather on Sunday in the Parliament annexe to formally elect their leader, after which Vajpayee is expected to stake claim to form the government.

In Hyderabad, the Desam politburo authorised Naidu to write to the President and to Vajpayee, expressing ??simple support?? to the BJP-led government from outside. ??The question of our joining the NDA does not arise at the moment as our electoral understanding was only for seat sharing,?? said Desam spokesman Umareddy Venkateswarlu.

The politburo was non-committal on the Desam?s participation in the ministry. ??All through the poll campaign, we maintained that the Desam has no national ambitions. Our credibility will be hurt if we change our stand now,?? Venkateswarlu said.

The NDA put up a brave front, saying the Desam?s prevarication was not a cause for anxiety. ??Naidu has sent separate letters of support to the Prime Minister and the President. He has also held talks with Vajpayee and the home minister. So there is no cause for worry,?? coordination committee convener George Fernandes said.

To add to the NDA?s problems, tensions have surfaced within the Janata Dal (United) with its president, Sharad Yadav, and Ram Vilas Paswan not being invited to today?s meeting.

Instead, Fernandes, whose Samata Party is part of the reunified Janata parivar, tried to give the impression that as far as the JD(U)?s equations with the Centre went, he would continue calling the shots. Fernandes confirmed he had not sent a letter inviting Yadav, though such missives were sent to all other chiefs of NDA constituents.

??The decision to call this meeting was taken five days ago, so the question of inviting Sharad Yadav then did not arise,?? he said. Lok Shakti leader Ramakrishna Hegde was instead deputed to the meeting, indicating that the Samata-Lok Shakti duo is determined to maintain its stranglehold over the NDA.

However, there was respite for Vajpayee with the Trinamul Congress despatching Bikram Sarkar to attend the meet. The party had quit the committee in a huff when the government had raised the price of petrol last year.

Today?s climbdown is an indication that Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee could be part of the next Vajpayee government. In Calcutta, she hinted as much, saying: ??If the situation demands, I may consider the issue. My priority is to see the government completes its term.??

The National Conference, which had earlier supported the government from outside, came a step closer towards participation with Farooq Abdullah sending his representative to the meeting. The party had fought the polls against the BJP.

Briefing reporters after the meeting, Fernandes said neither ministry-making nor the participation of partners was discussed. ??Ministry-making is something the Prime Minister should engage in, and participation in government was not a subject of discussion,?? he said.

Vajpayee, in a written message, said the results showed that the ??people are looking forward to a stable polity to ensure rapid socio-economic development??.

He urged the Opposition to forget the campaign acrimony and ??conduct itself in a constructive manner to honour this mandate??.    

New Delhi, Oct. 8 
Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has begun on a firm footing. At the co-ordination committee meeting of the National Democratic Alliance today, he ruled out the possibility of rolling back the recently hiked diesel prices.

Without giving the allies any chance to pursue their arguments, Vajpayee said the country?s economy would be in a mess if the government went back to the old price regime.

Aware that he has come back stronger and without temperamental allies like Jayalalitha, the Prime Minister was categorical about rejecting a rollback, according to those who attended the first post-election NDA meeting at 7 Race Course Road today.

The matter was raised after pleasantries were exchanged and the meeting got down to the business of deciding the dates for election of the alliance leader, swearing-in of the Cabinet and convening of the new Lok Sabha. Chief ministers representing the farmers? lobby raised the issue then.

Haryana chief minister and Indian National Lok Dal leader Om Prakash Chautala was the first to say that the phenomenal increase was very unpopular and would really hurt the farmers. Punjab chief minister and Akali Dal leader Parkash Singh Badal also joined the chorus.

Badal said the farmers were already complaining and that the increase would have a cascading effect on prices of all essential commodities.

The Prime Minister realised that if he did not intervene immediately, more voices would echo Chautala and Badal. He stepped in to explain that it was an unpopular decision but could not be avoided. Otherwise, the economy would be in a mess as the oil pool deficit would mount. He said the step was taken right after the elections because the government had deferred it for several months.

Neither Chautala nor Badal argued with Vajpayee. Had it been the earlier BJP government with its wafer-thin majority, they would have probably pressed on.

Besides, this was the NDA?s first post-election meeting and both leaders probably thought it would be discourteous to keep on arguing with the Prime Minister. Badal is also on a sticky wicket because of his party?s poor performance in Punjab.

Sources said Vajpayee?s prompt reaction came as a pleasant surprise. In earlier NDA meetings, he had been overly modest and put in a word only after hearing out the aggrieved ally.

Today, he made it clear that with NDA mustering around 300 seats, he would not go back to an embarrassing rollback regime.

When the demand for retracting diesel prices was made, Union finance minister Yashwant Sinha was present. He appeared to be readying to say something, but the Prime Minister was so firm that he preferred to keep quiet.    

Calcutta, Oct. 8 
The state government today announced a fare hike for passenger transport, effective from October 16. Transport operators have called the revision ?grossly inadequate?.

Bus and minibus operators have called a 24-hour strike on Monday. Even private school buses will be off the roads on that day.

The two major taxi unions ? Bengal Taxi Association and the Progressive Taximen?s Union ? will decide on their course of action after meeting their members tomorrow.

Bus, minibus and taxi fares in the state were last revised in 1997 following a hike in petroleum prices. This time, with diesel prices in the city up to Rs 14.20 per litre from Rs 10.50, fares were revised without the state transport department even setting up a panel to rationalise the structure which takes into account steps taken by other states.

Transport minister Subhas Chakraborty, who held a meeting with operators today, blamed the BJP-led government for the hike. ?Raising diesel prices was a criminal act perpetrated in the darkness of the night,? he said.

He said the transporters? demands would be met. ?If they go on a strike, they will have our full support,? the minister said. Chief minister Jyoti Basu wrote to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee yesterday, urging him to roll back the price.

The taxi operators? unions had demanded a 40 per cent rise in the minimum fare. The government set the minimum fare at Rs 12.00, a 20 per cent increase.

Sadhan Das, general secretary of the Joint Council of Bus Syndicates, said the new rates were ?too little?. He said buses on routes like No 75 had stopped plying because it was not ?financially viable?.

The secretary of the Bengal Minibus Owners? Syndicate, Lakshmi Das, said the new minimum fare of Rs 2.25 would not ?allow the maintenance of vehicles and staff payments.? Minibus owners had demanded a minimum fare of Rs 4.00. A spokesman of West Bengal Contract Carriage Owners and Operators Association, which mainly runs school buses, said: ?We have no other option but to resort to the strike, even though we are aware that it will hurt the interests of children.?    

New Delhi, Oct. 8 
Keen to offset the charge of ?inexperience? against her, Congress president Sonia Gandhi is positioning herself to become the leader of the Opposition in the 13th Lok Sabha.

Even though she has led the Congress to its worst-ever electoral defeat, Sonia thinks revival lies ahead and that she must remain in the political forefront.

Her loyalists said today that she is even willing to take on any party leader wanting to force a contest in the Congress Parliamentary Party. The CPP, which is likely to meet on Sunday or Monday, may unanimously elect her or opt for polls later. Sonia loyalists are working to avoid a contest as they fear that it may further divide an already weakened party.

In a significant development, the Congress Working Committee meeting scheduled tomorrow has been deferred as Sonia wants to address the CPP first.

Party leaders said her loyalists wanted to avoid a discussion on the poll debacle in the CWC before getting her elected by the CPP. Some disgruntled partymen are raising the issue of ?one-man-one-post? to queer the pitch for Sonia. Loyalists Ahmad Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Makhan Lal Fotedar are meeting a large number of partymen to ward off any challenge.

Former Union minister Matang Singh today made a demand for the Congress president?s ouster but there are virtually no takers for his call.

The dissidents want to field N.D. Tiwari or Rajesh Pilot but both are reluctant to challenge Sonia.

Young party MPs want Sonia to spend more time in the Lok Sabha and prepare for her ?future role as Prime minister?.

?Unless she participates in debates and gets familiar with parliamentary norms and traditions, she will not be able to establish herself as a national leader,? an MP said.

He pointed out that the party had many ?competent? MPs to keep the Vajpayee government on its toes, like Mani Shankar Aiyar, N.D. Tiwari, Jaipal Reddy, Shankersinh Vaghela, Madhavrao Scindia, Margaret Alva, K.P. Singhdeo, Kamal Nath, Sunil Dutt, Rajesh Pilot and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi.

Party sources said Sonia may agree to become the leader of the Opposition on the grounds of her security set-up. The Special Protection Group Act is likely to be reviewed in November and the government may make some changes.

?Her status as the leader of the Opposition would ensure proper security arrangement,? a senior party leader said.

Some leaders, including CWC members, also suggested that she should become chairperson of the CPP and then appoint floor leaders for the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.

Another proposal is that she should head the CPP as well as the Opposition.

Party leaders said the one-man, one-post issue was settled long ago when the AICC amended the party Constitution, making an exception in the case of the Congress president who can hold twin posts.

According to Pranab Mukherjee, there are precedents when the CPP chairperson did not become the leader of the Opposition. Indira Gandhi had C.M. Stephen for the job in 1978. But Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 held both the posts.    

Mumbai, Oct. 8 
A bewildering array of moves was played on the political chessboard of Maharashtra today around master manoeuvrer Sharad Pawar who appeared to be negotiating with both the Congress and the BJP.

As state Congress president Prataprao Bhosale called on Governor P.C. Alexander to stake claim as the single largest party in the hung Assembly, saying that talks with Pawar were under way, BJP leader L.K. Advani revealed in Delhi that the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of Pawar had been ?informally sounded? out.

Speaking on Eenadu TV, Advani refused to disclose the state of the negotiations. ?I would confine myself to saying that informal sounding has been made.? BJP leader from Maharashtra Pramod Mahajan has been camping in Mumbai since yesterday.

After his meeting with the Governor in Mumbai, Bhosale said he expected to conclude a deal with the breakaway Congress in ?four days?.

The deal the two sides are working on appears to entail chief ministership for the Congress and the deputy chief minister?s post to an NCP leader.

Bhosale?s visit to the governor was preceded a public expression of regret by Pawar at the ?lack of a positive response? from the Congress to a proposal for a coalition to keep ?communal forces? out of power.

In the 288-member Maharashtra Assembly, the Congress has 75 legislators and the NCP 58, their combined strength still short of simple majority by 12. But the BJP-Shiv Sena combine has even less, at 125.

Under the formula being discussed, AICC general secretary Sushil Kumar Shinde may bag the top post with NCP?s Chagan Bhujbhal as his deputy. Shinde today called on Sonia Gandhi after his return from Mumbai last night, but publicly he maintained a ?not-interested? facade..

Sonia, treading cautiously, has sent AICC general secretary Madhavrao Scindia and CWC member Mohsina Kidwai to Mumbai to ascertain the views of party MLAs. ?If the party MLAs want to keep the communal BJP-Shiv Sena out of power, we will take the initiative,? a senior Congress leader said.

Congress sources said Sonia had been forced to consider Pawar?s proposal because of the party?s dismal performance in the Lok Sabha polls. ?She is desperately trying to tell her partymen that under her leadership, the party formed the government in three states ? Karnataka, Maharashtra and Arunachal Pradesh ? in spite of the Lok Sabha reverses,? an AICC functionary said.

Moreover, she wants to send a signal to edgy partymen that she is for inner-party democracy and decentralisation of the decision-making process. ?If the Maharashtra party MLAs want to form the government, she would not come in the way,? said the AICC member.

A section of the Congress high command is, however, uncomfortable about sharing power with Pawar. ?He was a real spoiler for us. If there was no division in the party, our national level tally would have been much better,? said a newly-elected party MP. He expressed apprehension that the central leadership might fall into a ?trap? laid by Pawar. ?He is a clever fox and there must be some design behind his proposal,? he said.

But sources close to Sonia felt Pawar?s offer of support was an ?indirect? admission that his campaign against the Congress chief?s foreign origin was wrong. ?Let him not say so, but the fact that he is prepared to back a Congress-led government proves our point,? a 10 Janpath confidant said.

The NCP leadership in Delhi also hinted that it was ready for rapprochement with the Congress to keep the Sena-BJP alliance out of power.

?All options are open.... And the bottomline is that it is a verdict against the Sena-BJP coalition,? NCP spokesman Devendra Dwivedi said.    

Today? s forecast: Partly cloudy sky. Possibility of a shower in the evening. Max.temperature: 33.5? (1? above normal) Min. temperature: 26? (1? above normal) Maximum relative humidity: 95% Minimum relative humidity: 60% Sunset: 5.43 pm Sunrise: 5.25 am    

Maintained by Web Development Company