The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Atal shuts up to save throat and face

Lucknow, Oct. 20: A sore throat or soreness with dissidence in the party or both may have caused Atal Bihari Vajpayee to cut short a visit to his home constituency. But the Prime Minister’s abrupt afternoon departure for Delhi today merely fanned the fire of malcontent in Lucknow and provoked questions about his health elsewhere.

Vajpayee cancelled all his engagements here, but one, citing a bad throat and did not even meet party workers. He appeared at the scheduled news conference to be excused: “Mere gale ki halat theek nahin hain. Mujhe salah di gai hai ki main chup rahun (The condition of my throat is not good and I have been advised to maintain silence ).” He added that this advice cannot be followed without the newspersons’ cooperation.

Silence told many tales, though. One started around the absence of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayavati from the news conference.

Mayavati is under threat from disgruntled BJP legislators and a dozen Independent MLAs who are unhappy at not having found places in the ministry. While the Independents have publicly threatened to walk over to the Opposition, the BJP dissidents are openly demanding that BJP ministers should resign.

Vijay Goel, Vajpayee’s aide, however, sought to scotch speculation, saying it is not mandatory for a chief minister to be present at the Prime Minister’s news conference. She was expected nonetheless, particularly since her party and the BJP have a coalition going.

Vajpayee’s decision not to address the media and party supporters — he was scheduled to meet them — spurred rumours that the “sore throat” had given him the opportunity to, first, avoid potentially embarrassing questions and, second, skirt the possibility of being forced to come face to face with dissidents.

The rebel group had sought an appointment with the Prime Minister without success and might have confronted him at Shishu Mandir, where he was to have met BJP activists. “We will take our battle to Delhi,” Ganga Bhakta Singh, senior BJP leader and former minister, said after more than two dozen BJP legislators met at his residence to chalk out their course of action. The dissidents decided to form a “Save BJP Committee” and claimed that their number was rising and would soon cross 40.

Although the “sore throat” did not allow Vajpayee to speak, the soreness of the national leadership with the dissident activity was evident in deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani’s voice. Speaking in Mumbai, he told the dissidents “to fall in line and not to cross the Lakshman rekha”.

In Bangalore, NDA convener George Fernandes reacted with curtness to a question about Vajpayee’s health leading on to the possibility of a change in the leadership of the government.

“I don’t know what the press conference cancellation has to do with change of leadership,” he said angrily.

The only public ceremony Vajpayee attended was at Aliganj, where in response to persistent urging by the media he begged to be excused with a promise to possibly speak at the airport — which he did not — or return to Lucknow shortly.

For the record, Vajpayee tried to play down the dissidence in a brief chat with the media last night when he said it was “nothing new” and the party’s state leadership was capable of solving the problem. But sources close to him indicated that he had sought a report from the state leaders and was not averse to meeting the dissidents in Delhi.

Having missed their chance to meet the Prime Minister, the dissidents have now turned their ire on urban development minister Lalji Tandon, who, with state BJP president Vinay Katiyar, flanked Vajpayee at the Raj Bhavan news conference-not-to-be.

The rebel group blamed Tandon for “wrong selection” of ministers from the BJP quota in the coalition and “preventing” it from meeting the Prime Minister.

Tandon rejected the charge. “To the best of my knowledge none of them had formally sought an appointment with the Prime Minister.”

But a dissident leader said they had sent faxed a letter requesting an audience with Vajpayee, but never received a response.

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