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Guwahati, April 13: 

Sonia takes shot at PM, not power

Sonia Gandhi today tore into Atal Bihari Vajpayee, accusing the Prime Minister of losing his �mental balance� and saying his comments against the minority community have �completely exposed� his mask.

Addressing her second press conference since taking over as Congress chief four years ago, Sonia put the party back on the �ekla chalo re� path, though she spoke about the possibility of talking to �secular allies� of the National Democratic Alliance.

�Why not? We could talk. We had earlier talked to the Trinamul Congress,� Sonia said.

But Congress sources later pointed out that Sonia was merely responding to a question, and the party was not expecting a favourable response from any BJP ally, barring Trinamul.

Sonia minced no words while attacking Vajpayee. Asked to comment on the Prime Minister�s challenge in Goa yesterday to the Congress to bring down his government, she said: �Vajpayeeji jab jab apna mansik santulan khote hain, woh aisi baat karte hain (Whenever he loses his mental balance, he talks like this).�

The tone and tenor of the remark stunned some of her party�s chief ministers, who later sought to defend her by pointing to Vajpayee�s numerous outbursts against her both inside and outside Parliament.

In Goa, parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan said Sonia�s �remark only shows whose mental balance is lost�.

In her 35-minute interaction with the media, Sonia constantly targeted Vajpayee and the BJP. Referring to the Prime Minister�s speech yesterday, Sonia said: �We always knew that the BJP had one face � a communal face. Its acts of pretence stand exposed. The Prime Minister�s mask that kept falling has been completely exposed.�

At the press conference, Sonia also snubbed Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, much to the delight of some Congress Working Committee members. Asked if she agreed with Mulayam�s call to boycott the Gujarat polls, Sonia said: �Mulayam is a leader from Uttar Pradesh. What has he got to do with Gujarat?�

Her remarks are likely to have a bearing on Opposition unity in Parliament when the budget session resumes on Monday.

Sonia iterated her party�s commitment to economic reforms, pointing out that she had directed Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh to replace free power to farmers with �assured power supply� at an �affordable price�.

Sonia said the Congress was ready to face general elections and Assembly polls in Gujarat whenever they are held.

The AICC chief, however, appeared lukewarm to the idea of stitching together a coalition against the BJP. The Congress feels it is a futile exercise to explore the possibility of government formation now.

The numbers game does not favour the main Opposition party. BJP allies, like the Telugu Desam Party, the Biju Janata Dal, the Samata Party and the Janata Dal (United), and those like the Nationalist Congress Party are unlikely to have any truck with a Sonia-led Congress.

Congress chief ministers like Digvijay Singh and S.M. Krishna favour the �go-it-alone� formula and feel that the party should wait to get a �decisive mandate�.


April 13: 
With other allies looking to him for signals, Chandrababu Naidu today struck back at the BJP for the Gujarat snub, declaring his opposition to the use of the �noble process� of polls for achieving �blatantly narrow and communal ends�.

The scathing attack prompted Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to confer with home minister L.K. Advani and parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan. All three spoke to Naidu over phone and appealed to him to reconsider his stand.

The Telugu Desam Party chief stuck to his demand that elections should not be held in Gujarat and Narendra Modi should be replaced. But Vajpayee made it clear that the BJP could not go back on its decision to back Modi and its advice to him to go for elections to seek a fresh mandate.

The Desam resolution, passed after an impromptu politburo meeting in Hyderabad, accused the BJP of trying to make �political capital� out of a �human tragedy� and slammed its poll gambit as a �covert attempt to clothe its narrow and partisan ends to sabotage the democratic process�.

The resolution capped a day of frenetic activity in the Andhra Pradesh capital, though Desam sources said the party would find it difficult to immediately withdraw the support it lends to the NDA coalition from outside. But to distance itself from the BJP, they said the Desam has decided not to accept the post of Lok Sabha Speaker lying vacant since G.M.C. Balayogi�s death in a helicopter crash.

Sources said the party may from now on extend only �issue-based� support to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. The parliamentary party would take a decision tomorrow at Hyderabad, they added.

NDA sources said though the Desam is deeply embarrassed at the rejection of its demand for Modi�s scalp and the Prime Minister�s �hawkish� speech at the BJP national executive in Goa, it would not do anything drastic as the Congress is fast gaining ground in Andhra.

Alliance leaders said small parties would do what Naidu tells them. �If the Desam withdraws support, we will also do so,� said Jainarain Nishad of the Lok Janashakti Party. �We will discuss our strategy with our leader Ram Vilas Paswan before Monday,� he said.

Asked if his party would withdraw support, he said he was opposed to burdening the people with another election, but would go along with what the Desam decides.

Samata Party leader Shambhu Shrivastava, who had resigned as the party spokesperson over Modi�s continuation in office, said the allies, specially the Desam, should now decide whether to remain with the NDA or not. �The time of reckoning has arrived. It is a litmus test for the allies whether their concerns and protestations about the communal carnage in Gujarat were genuine or not,� he said.

Shrivastava said the Prime Minister�s speech has �virtually cast aspersions on the Muslim community as a whole, which is the second largest segment of the population in the country�.

The Janata Dal (United) went to the extent of saying it would boycott the Gujarat elections if held under Modi and demanded imposition of President�s rule in the state. �First bring peace and normality back to the state and restore people�s confidence in the administration. Till then, Article 356 should be imposed,� said spokesperson Mohan Prakash.

Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee said: �We still stick to our demand that Modi should resign for his failure to contain communal violence in Gujarat � We are all together on this crucial issue.�

Sources said Biju Janata Dal leader and Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik had asked Union labour minister Sharad Yadav �to do something� to restrain Sangh hardliners. Yadav told Patnaik to speak to Naidu.


Panaji, April 13: 
Home minister L.K. Advani has confirmed that a �Kamaraj-like plan�, involving a large-scale shuffle in the government and the BJP organisation, would be implemented after the budget session.

He said some Central ministers could return to the party but ruled out his own transfer as BJP chief, saying K. Jana Krishnamurthi was doing a good job.

�The party president is handling matters well and I am discharging my responsibilities as a minister,� Advani said. �There will be a reshuffle after the Parliament session. More people should go to the party from the government.�

Advani said Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the BJP president would �think about it, discuss it and then decide�.

The home minister also sought to soften the Hindutva blows delivered by Vajpayee yesterday by stressing that the BJP would not abandon the NDA agenda and revert to its own.

�Of late, there has been some speculation that the BJP could abandon the common manifesto of the NDA and go back to its own agenda. This will not happen. The BJP, which is the main component of the NDA, will remain faithful to the coalition�s common agenda,� Advani said.

As Vajpayee virtually justified the Gujarat violence by arguing that it was a reaction to the Godhra carnage, Advani put a different spin and said the happenings belied the BJP�s claim of giving a government free of communal trouble.

But on rejecting Narendra Modi�s resignation offer, he was clear that the BJP had the right to appoint its own chief minister. �I don�t decide other parties� chief ministers. They (the allies) have the right to say about the Centre but Gujarat belongs to the BJP and the BJP has the right to choose its own CM,� Advani declared.

A day after the Prime Minister gave the impression that he had taken a U-turn on secularism and was set to play the �Hindu card�, the home minister said a coalition government of diverse ideological groups should necessarily draw up a common minimum programme and run the government �scrupulously� on that basis.

�Indeed, a very large area of governance has nothing to do with ideology,� Advani said.

The strongest statement that came from a leader regarded as the BJP�s Hindutva face was that the party need not be apologetic about its ideological moorings.

�Here, I do not refer to any specific issue as such but to our entire guiding outlook on enlightened cultural nationalism, on positive secularism as against pseudo-secularism, and on samajik nyay (social justice) and samajik samarastha (social harmony),� he added.

Advani gave his own example to illustrate how it was possible to balance ideological commitment with ministerial responsibilities. �I had to testify before the Liberhan Commission (on Ayodhya) and I reiterated all that I believe in. But as long as I am in the government I will believe in the NDA agenda,� he said.


Panaji, April 13: 
Goa has proved to be a landmark in more ways than one for the BJP and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

In 1995, when the BJP held its first national executive here with its Hindutva tag intact, Vajpayee did something that stunned hardliners: he attended a dinner on the Kalangut beach in jeans and a T-shirt.

The sartorial departure, it later emerged, was �politically� significant. At that time, the BJP was finding it difficult to wipe off the taint of the Babri masjid demolition. So Vajpayee wanted to convey the message that his party had its share of �easy-going liberals� who did not necessarily subscribe to the �Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan� slogan symbolised by the dhoti-kurta regimen.

The 1995 executive was also important for its policy decisions. The BJP decided to strike strategic alliances wherever it could, keep its ideology flexible to woo �secular� allies, and consider projecting Vajpayee rather than L.K. Advani as its prime ministerial candidate. In 1999, when the BJP executive met here again, Vajpayee addressed a public rally mostly in English as a goodwill gesture to the Goans.

The 2002 session will go down as an event where the Prime Minister wore only dhoti-kurta and addressed a public meeting in Sanskritised Hindi. But, most important, he spoke like a pracharak unmindful of the fact that 30 per cent of Goa�s population was Christian and was keenly following and reacting to the Gujarat violence as a silent protest march through Panaji today testified.

BJP sources explained why Vajpayee had discarded his �secular� mask. The objective, they said, was as much to soften up criticism within the executive on the poll reverses as to tell the Sangh parivar that he was still one of them. The implicit message: the parivar should not ditch his party as it allegedly did in the recent elections.

A discussion on the elections was to have been the main agenda of the executive. Sources said state-level leaders, as well as a section of Central bigwigs, had sharpened their knives to attack the government. �But the emphasis would have been on Hindutva and how giving it up has cost the BJP its votes,� said a senior member.

�If the Prime Minister continued to take the plea that he was bound by the National Democratic Alliance agenda, there were people ready to ask him why he went overboard on secularism from time to time with his Kumarakom musings and the tears he shed in the Ahmedabad relief camps. It was high time the Prime Minister told the party what his own stand on secularism was.�

The sources said the members were even prepared to suggest that if the NDA government had to be given up for the cause of �Hindutva�, so should it be.

The drama over the resignation offer of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and Vajpayee�s anti-Muslim remarks at yesterday�s public rally were meant to pre-empt such arguments.

�The message from his speech is that the BJP is still a party with a difference,� said Shivraj Chauhan, BJP youth wing chief and MP from Madhya Pradesh. �Our core ideology is cultural nationalism. It has manifested itself in different ways � Ayodhya, swadeshi, and now Gujarat. If an attempt was made to equate Godhra with what followed thereafter, it would have amounted to a betrayal of cultural nationalism.�

BJP vice-president Gopinath Munde said Vajpayee�s pro-Hindutva speech was a reaction to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi�s �shrill rhetoric on secularism� in Guwahati.

�Goa and Guwahati have to be seen in tandem. We have to keep Sonia in focus for our own political survival and also to keep our allies together and tell them that they cannot fight the Congress separately,� the former Maharashtra chief minister said.

His logic: the more high-pitched Sonia�s tone on secularism is, the more difficult it would be for the NDA�s �secular� allies to match it.




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