Atal tries to gather fallen pieces
Tied up in knots of fact & fiction
Cong beckons, but Mamata cool
Heat on PM to drop close aides
Policemen, Laloo MP in gun battle
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, March 16: 
After staggering from one crisis to another triggered by the Tehelka revelations, the government appeared to have got its damage-control act together by taking a series of steps.

It announced the appointment of a one-man commission of inquiry, preferably headed by a sitting Supreme Court judge, to probe the Tehelka disclosures and submit its report in four months.

But the main Opposition party, the Congress, described the move as �pointless and diversionary tactics�, sticking to its demand for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee�s resignation on moral grounds.

More worryingly for Vajpayee, the RSS today issued a certificate of �truth� to the contents of the Tehelka tapes and asked the government to clean up the administration. Its stamp of sanctity on the revelations stood in sharp contrast to tales of conspiracy floated by the government.

As part of crisis management, Vajpayee convened a meeting of coalition partners who expressed �full faith� in George Fernandes and approved his �reappointment� as convener of the National Democratic Alliance.

This was aimed at placating Fernandes as well as other ministers of the Samata Party who resigned after he quit as defence minister yesterday. Fernandes himself undertook the task of persuading them to withdraw their resignations.

Getting the Samata Party to fall back into line had become important after angry colleagues of Fernandes today openly demanded the removal of the Prime Minister�s principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, and cast aspersions on Vajpayee�s son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya, both of whose names figure in the Tehelka tapes. Fernandes dissociated the party from this view.

After a one-hour meeting, the alliance partners expressed solidarity with Vajpayee and appealed to the three Samata Party ministers � Nitish Kumar, Digvijay Singh and V. Sreenivasa Prasad � to recall their resignations. But Nitish Kumar was still belligerent.

The NDA meeting also ruled out the resignation of any member of the Prime Minister�s Office. But the Prime Minister may have to yield some ground here under pressure from sections of his party and the Sangh parivar.

Brajesh Mishra is the target. So is N.K. Singh, officer on special duty. Ranjan Bhattacharya�s name appears in the tapes but, as the RSS said today, one cannot be held responsible for the actions of one�s son-in-law.

At the end of a day of efforts to regain some credibility, the Prime Minister went on television to tell the nation that the tapes did not have any evidence to suggest the involvement of ministers in deal-making, but at the same time spoke of the cancer of corruption that has spread deep and wide.

Certain that no party � the Opposition included � wants an election now and that there is no alternative to a BJP-led dispensation, the government is also planning to move a confidence motion next week to blunt the Opposition demand for its resignation, provided all the allies agree.

Sources said the Prime Minister wanted to move a confidence motion immediately. But civil aviation minister and Janata Dal (United) president Sharad Yadav told Vajpayee to go slow. The Prime Minister is expected to talk to other NDA leaders like Chandrababu Naidu, M. Karunanidhi, Bal Thackeray and Om Prakash Chautala before making up his mind.

What buoyed the shellshocked Vajpayee camp was the let-up in the heat turned on by the Opposition and its disunity. Even while insisting on Vajpayee�s resignation, Congress spokesman Jaipal Reddy conceded at the plenary venue in Bangalore that the party did not wish to challenge the government�s �numerical� strength.

Many Opposition leaders feel the government should last at least till the Assembly elections. Some Congress MPs, sources said, even told RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh not to go beyond a point in attacking the government.

After a Cabinet meeting, the government announced the terms of reference of the inquiry.

Probe transactions mentioned in the tapes and transcript;

Find out if illicit gains have been made and, if so, to what extent;

Suggest action against the guilty; and

Investigate all aspects related to making of the allegations in the tapes.

The last clause means Tehelka will be probed.


New Delhi, March 16: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sounded a shade unconvincing as he took pains to send the message to the people that the Tehelka sting operation had shaken, but not really shattered his government.

In his address to the nation this evening, Vajpayee contradicted himself when he tried to write off the investigation by the news portal as �fictitious� while admitting that the �cancer� of corruption had spread its tentacles deep into the administration.

The Prime Minister chose the timing of his speech carefully. He faced the nation only after resignation papers had been put in by his defence minister George Fernandes, whose department had come under a cloud following the expose.

At the same time, Vajpayee also managed to humour Fernandes by retaining him as convener of the National Democratic Alliance. After the exit of Mamata Banerjee�s Trinamul Congress yesterday, Vajpayee had to ensure that all remaining allies were steadfast in their support for his government and they too accepted Fernandes as the NDA convener.

The Prime Minister wanted to send the message through his speech that he was in control of the situation despite the crisis.

Vajpayee�s thinktank had calculated that after 72 hours, the expose may have lost some of its sting and it was politically prudent to let the Prime Minister face the nation and pledge that the administration would be cleansed.

But the Prime Minister appeared a bit wooden, even a trifle battered and bruised, as he spoke.

Vajpayee sought to allay fears that the country�s security system had been infiltrated with impunity. But in doing so, he could only admit that corruption was a deep-rooted malaise that has afflicted the system for a long time.

In effect, Vajpayee could no longer project his government as one that was different from earlier regimes.

The Prime Minister did not sound entirely credible when he said his �government shall do everything necessary to bring everyone guilty to account, howsoever high or low�.

After the videotapes showed the murky dealings of senior politicians, Vajpayee�s claims that �the country�s security apparatus remains strong as ever and that our soldiers retain the fullest confidence in it� did not carry the desired conviction.

Promising to clean up the dirt, he attacked the Opposition for stalling proceedings in Parliament. �Let us begin the inquiry. Let us have a thorough discussion in Parliament. Let us get back to work,� he appealed.

But the defensive tenor was more than evident. He admitted that �what had come into view went beyond security. The ease with which persons posing as arms merchants gained access to our defence personnel and politicians shows how far the cancer has spread�.

He tried to play down the investigation by suggesting that hurling such allegations was �criminal� and �giving heed to them was just as destructive�. But there was no explanation why he was ordering a probe if the allegations did not warrant any attention.


New Delhi & Calcutta, March 16: 
The Congress tonight offered to go into the Bengal elections with Mamata Banerjee as the chief ministerial candidate, though the Trinamul leader refused to shut the door on the BJP.

�Now that she has left the NDA, we will extend our full co-operation,� AICC general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad said in Bangalore.

Back in Calcutta after severing her ties with the NDA, Mamata said: �We have no reservations against any party whatsoever in order to oust the CPM... (But) I want to make it clear Trinamul is strong enough to contest alone.�

At its plenary, the Congress has authorised Sonia Gandhi to open talks with Mamata once the green signal comes from Calcutta. The Trinamul leader said she had not held any discussions with Congress leaders on an alliance.

Growing impatient at persistent questions about the future of her poll alliance with the BJP, she said: �I will make everything clear in a day or two.�

Mamata, however, made it clear that she was reluctant to end the understanding. �I strongly feel that the present situation does not merit dismantling of the Save Bengal Front (of which the BJP is a member),� she said.

She arrived in the city at 8.40 to be greeted by a huge gathering of Trinamul supporters and immediately went into a meeting with senior party leaders.

If a section of the BJP gets its way, Mamata�s dilemma over whether or not to continue with the alliance will be resolved for her. At a meeting of the BJP state secretariat, it was decided that the party would put up candidates for all 294 Assembly seats.

Heading this group is Tapan Sikdar, Union minister of state for telecommunications, whose relations with Mamata are bitter. He has described Mamata�s departure from the Vajpayee government as �good riddance�.

�She formed Trinamul by breaking away from the Congress. Now she wants to unite the two parties,� he said. Sikdar is threatening to field candidates in all seats to �teach Trinamul a lesson�.

The moderates in the state BJP appeared wary of disturbing the alliance. State BJP president Asim Ghosh and vice-president Muzaffar Khan said they would go by the advice from Delhi.

Ghosh said the party would finalise its decision at a meeting here tomorrow to be attended by Kailashpati Mishra, the central observer for Bengal.

Sources said the the central leadership would not like the state unit to go on the offensive against Mamata � and push her towards the Congress � as long as she did not snap the link herself.

The moderate section also believes that Mamata might continue the alliance she has stuck to her resolve to take on the Left in straight contests. �We need a one-to-one fight to ensure the defeat of the ruling communists,� she said even today.

Mamata has also made it apparent that her party will not get involved in any move to pull down the Vajpayee government.


New Delhi, March 16: 
The government seems to have survived the Tehelka storm for now after George Fernandes� resignation, but there is every possibility of Brajesh Mishra and N.K. Singh putting in their papers by Monday.

The NDA, which met at Atal Bihari Vajpayee�s Race Course Road residence this afternoon, has apparently decided that no official of the Prime Minister�s Office will be investigated in any probe ordered by the government. But sources close to a senior Cabinet minister said Vajpayee was still under pressure to drop his principal secretary and the officer on special duty in the PMO following the expos�.

The news portal�s secret camera had shown disgraced former BJP president Bangaru Laxman speaking out against Mishra and Vajpayee�s foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya. Even R.K. Gupta, whom Tehelka describes as an RSS trustee, had gone to the extent of saying that �Brajesh is the PM�.

Sources said the Prime Minister �has to get rid� of Mishra and Singh. �Otherwise, the PMO will be made to look like the fountainhead of corruption,� they said, insisting that their resignations are expected �within Monday�.

The Tehelka tapes show certain middlemen and power brokers making allegations against Mishra (there is no mention of N.K. Singh) and Bhattacharya which do not amount to any direct involvement in fixing corrupt defence deals.

But the same allegations have been levelled at Fernandes with former Samata Party president Jaya Jaitly being shown accepting Rs 2 lakh from �West End� executives for putting in a word with sahib�s (Fernandes�) office.

According to the sources, as the allegations were �more or less of similar nature, it is only logical that at least Mishra should follow in the footsteps of Fernandes and Jaitly�.

They said it would be difficult for Vajpayee to persist with his principal secretary who also happens to be the national security adviser.

More so, because the RSS also wants the Prime Minister to clean up his administrative set-up.

Mishra has been the target of some Sangh parivar constituents for quite some time and Sangh leaders have even complained against him to senior BJP members and Cabinet ministers.

The leaders, who in private claim that Mishra is the �de facto� Prime Minister, have also openly criticised the �line� followed by the PMO in Jammu and Kashmir and the failure to contain terrorism in the state.

These voices became louder after former economic affairs secretary E.A.S Sarma made public the interference from the PMO in major economic decisions of the government and pressure from a big industrial house.

It is widely believed that Mishra enjoys Vajpayee�s confidence and trust. Now, after the Tehelka tapes, Vajpayee, the sources said, will have no option but to seriously consider delineating the dual charge held by Mishra.


Patna, March 16: 
Two children were feared killed in a shootout between angry policemen and supporters of an MP from Laloo Yadav�s party in Siwan today.

Enraged by the attack on officials, including a deputy superintendent of police, at an examination centre yesterday, policemen armed with an arrest warrant against Rashtriya Janata Dal MP Mohammed Shahabuddin went to raid his house in Pratappur.

The policemen had forced senior district administration officers to sign firing orders and ordered the deputy inspector-general to accompany them to the village.

Henchmen belonging to Shahabuddin, who virtually controls the north Bihar district, exploded bombs and fired at the police.

Two minor boys were reported to have been killed in the crossfire while four policemen sustained bullet wounds. Over 100 RJD workers have been detained. Prohibitory orders have been clamped on the city.

Laloo has sent a team of RJD ministers led by Shakil Ahmed Khan to talk with Shahabuddin and help defuse tension.

Sources said resentment among the policemen grew following yesterday�s attack on their colleagues by RJD supporters at a school-final examination centre at Daroga Rai college.

Police had earlier prohibited political workers from entering the examination hall.




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