The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Splintering ties stoke split whispersGeorge

New Delhi, Jan. 7: Ties between top Samata leaders George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar have hit rock bottom, fuelling speculation that the railway minister is moving away from Fernandes owing to personal and political reasons.

As the turf war reached a flashpoint on Sunday, the defence minister offered to quit as party president. But faction leaders ruled out a split in the party.

Kumar has been warming up to Janata Dal (United) president Sharad Yadav and speculation is rife that a breakaway Samata group, led by the railway minister, may merge with the JD(U) before realignment of political forces for the 2004 Lok Sabha polls.

Serious merger moves were aborted earlier as neither Yadav nor Jaya Jaitly, then Samata president, was willing to step down from their respective posts to pave way for the merger.

Kumar, who was earlier annoyed with Fernandes for appointing Jaitly party president, is now miffed with him for indulging Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee. When Fernandes was not averse to her reinduction in the railway ministry, deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani had come to Kumar’s rescue.

Both Fernandes and Kumar have endeared themselves in many ways to the BJP top brass and the Sangh parivar. While Fernandes has been a Sangh favourite, Kumar solicited and received support from Advani in his fight against Mamata, especially after his controversial decision to bifurcate Eastern Railway.

Though Mamata had an excellent rapport with Fernandes and his partyman, minister of state Digvijay Singh, who was her deputy in the railway ministry, she was detested by Kumar and his supporters. Kumar’s camp also believes he was deliberately kept out of the NDA meeting in Patna on January 2 when the political strategy against the “encounter” deaths of three youths was discussed.

Satish Kumar, Samata general secretary and Kumar protégé, along with state vice-president Shyam Sunder Singh Dheeraj had walked out of the meeting, chaired by Fernandes. They had protested against the party’s failure to invite Kumar and said that any leader showing disrespect to Kumar would have no place in the party.

Fernandes’ supporters countered that Kumar spent “five days in Patna and on the day of the encounter he was in the city”, yet he did not take the initiative to call a meeting. Kumar is also the chairman of the state NDA.

“Kumar returned to Delhi on January 2 while Fernandes flew to Patna to meet the relatives of the victims and address a press conference,” said a senior party leader, ridiculing the charge that Kumar was deliberately kept out. “Some leaders suggested an NDA meeting and Fernandes agreed.”

According to sources, the Kumar camp’s demand to sack Bihar Samata president Raghunath Jha and state spokesperson and national council member P.K. Sinha is considered a bid to humiliate Fernandes for both are close to him.

Jha, state president for almost three years, will complete his term in March. “Can't they wait for two months'” a party leader said.

To add insult to injury, a Samata state council meeting has been convened in Patna on January 19 to elect a new state chief. This time neither Fernandes nor Jha has been invited; Kumar is an invitee.

Last week, Satish Kumar had decided to sack Sinha as spokesperson. The move was challenged by Shambhu Shrivastwa, national general secretary and Fernandes’ troubleshooter. He said according to the party constitution, a general secretary had no power to remove a member of the national council.

In Bihar, the Samata’s main base, Kumar has a majority support in the 30-member legislature party. But of the 12 Lok Sabha members, only five are with the railway minister.

In the 14-member parliamentary party (12 Lok Sabha, 2 Rajya Sabha), both camps are evenly poised with both Upper House members supporting Kumar.

The Fernandes camp is at a loss to understand why Kumar is trying to “humiliate” the defence minister by insisting on Jha’s sacking.

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