The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Singing the wrong tune

If rubbing people up the wrong way were an art form, Natwar Singh of the Congress would be quite a master at it. One of the most well-read among contemporary politicians, Singh must be the least popular man in his party and outside it for the seemingly perpetual “I-know-best” sneer on his face. He was upto his tricks the other day during the Rajya Sabha discussion on the US action in Iraq — chiding the prime minister on his shifting stand on the war in the desert and citing examples from history to him. Even AB Vajpayee, normally pacific and slow to react, was moved to ire. Responding briefly to the substantive point raised by Singh, Vajpayee went on to ridicule the former IFS officer who “was a junior official somewhere in Africa” when he himself was foreign minister in Morarji Desai’s government — Singh’s boss, in other words. Natwar, however, didn’t seem to have been warned. He took on the PM again at the all-party meeting convened on the same issue — and finally drove Vajpayee to anger when he presumed to question even the government’s logical stance that no outside force had the right to change a government in another country. Infuriated, Vajpayee reminded the self-styled shadow foreign minister of the many foreign policy blunders by Congress governments. That snub, delivered in full hearing of all the heavyweights on the Indian political firmament, finally silenced Singh. Appearances being of prime importance in today’s world, Singh should know that it matters less what you say as long as you say it sweetly.

But bitter pills work better

At other times, of course, plain-speaking is quite the best course of action. At the meeting of block level workers of the Congress, one Ratan Singh from Haryana really managed to take his party president aback with his frankness. Speaking from the dais, he told Sonia Gandhi that the infighting between Bhajanlal, BS Huda and Virendra Singh would prevent the party from coming to power and that unless she did something to quell the dissidence, she would not be able to convince voters that she could rule the country. One can only hope that the Congress president, used to sweet nothings from most of her partymen, had the stomach for such advice.

Ticket to new friendships

But Sonia Gandhi may have been looking for just such harsh advice, if her copious note-taking at the meeting of Congress workers is any indication. She stopped only when a block chief from Uttar Pradesh predicted that the Congress would win 60 Lok Sabha seats from the state and proposed Priyanka’s name for state unit president. That she has started to recognize the impossibility of such proposals is not the only evidence of Sonia’s political maturity but also indicates that she is slowly perfecting the difficult art of winning friends — the most important weapon in a politician’s arsenal. First, she managed to get Sharad Pawar to break bread with her, and then she wooed Ajay Singh, the son of VP Singh, Rajiv Gandhi’s bête noir, with the bait of a ticket from Fatehpur. No wonder the father-son duo can’t praise her enough nowadays. Now, if all this would translate into electoral victory for the Congress!

His motto: India first

APJ Abdul Kalam believes in slowly expanding his horizons — he has decided not to take up invitations to the UK, Holland, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and so on, until he finishes his tour of India. He has already done 19 states and his itinerary for the coming months includes Kerala, Chattisgarh, UP, Bihar, Orissa and Jammu and Kashmir. There is another target Kalam has already achieved — that of meeting 100,000 children in his first year in office. By March, he had already done 150,000 youngsters. Not for nothing is he called the president with a difference.

Ministers in the classroom

Arun Shourie has a reputation for being a strict disciplinarian, but, surprisingly, he treats even his junior ministers like errant schoolboys. Recently, Shourie decided his juniors in the commerce and industry ministry — one of them the high-profile Rajiv Pratap Rudi — were up to no good. So he issued instructions that they were not to be given foreign tours as they hadn’t done the work assigned to them. Anybody else in Shourie’s place would have had a word with them instead of recording his displeasure on paper. Somebody should tell Shourie these are ministers, not clerks whose records can be blotted by adverse remarks in their appraisals.

Still musing on the maestro

It takes all kinds to make the world. A leading film critic from Bengal was surprised to receive a phone call from Ashish Vidyarthi, quite a well-known villain in Hindi films. Introducing himself in broken Bengali, the actor said how much he had liked the critic’s interview with Satyajit Ray, recently aired on DD and how much he would like to know more about the maestro from him. Now that’s a serious actor!

And he lived to fight another day

Ever wondered how Subrata Mukherjee has kept his scalp intact through the current Waterloo in which he championed the proposal for water tax against Mamata Banerjee’s opposition to it' This year’s CMC budget session would surely have seen the mayor’s downfall. Apparently, 20 of Mukherjee’s detractors in the Trinamool had arranged with around 61 CPI(M) members to challenge the tax during the budget discussions and upstage the mayor. Just before the issue was to come up, however, Mukherjee went up to Anil Mukherjee, who was managing the house and begged a half-hour recess saying he needed to discuss a few things with didi. He then had a closed-door talk with the CPI(M)’s Nirmal Mukherjee and warned him that his plans wouldn’t go down well with his party higher-ups. In fact, Subrata even threatened to call Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee if he didn’t comply. Whatever be the understanding between the two, Subrata then entered the house and called the opposition barbaric, corrupt and other names. Immediately, the opposition led by Nirmal Mukherjee staged a walk out. And so the great rebellion fizzled out.

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