The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Samata worry for Atal

New Delhi, April 11: The ongoing tussle between Samata Party factions led by defence minister George Fernandes and railway minister Nitish Kumar has put Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a spot.

Lok Sabha MPs and Fernandes supporters Raghunath Jha and Brahmanand Mandal wrote to the Prime Minister two days ago, seeking action against Kumar, even as the two ministers had two rounds of meetings on Wednesday and Thursday to avert a split in the party. The MPs allege that they have stumbled upon a “big” scam in the railway ministry involving Kumar.

The Prime Minister, sources said, will tread cautiously as it is a sensitive matter involving an NDA minister. But the two MPs, it is understood, will not give Vajpayee more than 10 days to take action against Kumar. If he does not take action, they may go public with the allegations and this may create further problems not only in the Samata, but also for the NDA government.

Fernandes removed Jha, in the first week of January, as Bihar unit president at the behest of the railway minister to avoid a split in the party. Kumar also got Mandal suspended from the party for criticising him. However, much to his consternation, the party revoked Mandal’s suspension three days ago, without consulting him.

Sources in the Kumar camp believe that by revoking Mandal’s suspension, Fernandes wants to send a message that he, too, can hit back.

On April 5, Kumar’s supporters had convened a meeting of the state council where a resolution was introduced criticising Fernandes for “anti-party activities”. Of the 28 MLAs present at the meeting, 25 endorsed the resolution.

“The allegation of a scam in the railway ministry and bringing it to the notice of the Prime Minister is also part of a counter-strategy by the Fernandes camp to put Kumar in the dock. It may be a ploy to force the railway minister and his supporters to accept a truce,” said a Kumar supporter.

Though nobody in the party is willing to throw light on what transpired at the meetings between Fernandes and Kumar, efforts are on by the defence minister to get the proposed state executive meeting by the railway minister’s supporters in Patna on April 13 called off or at best deferred.

Sources in the defence minister’s camp discount the talk of an imminent split in the party. Of the 12 Lok Sabha MPs, eight are with Fernandes, they claim, and hence Kumar cannot not split the parliamentary party. But Kumar could split the Bihar legislature party with 25 out of 28 MLAs supporting him.

Kumar has been talking to Janata Dal (United) president and Union food minister Sharad Yadav about a merger. But earlier attempts were scuttled, according to the railway minister’s camp, by then Samata president Jaya Jaitly, who did not want to lose her grip over the party.

According to the plan, while Yadav will be the president of the merged parties, Kumar will confine himself to Bihar to eventually replace Laloo Prasad Yadav. But this script may have to be rewritten in case the BJP loses its clout in Delhi in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, said a party insider.

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