The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Morning vision, nightmare day
Laloo seeks secular pound of flesh

New Delhi, May 20: Laloo Prasad Yadav is threatening to stay out of government and Sharad Pawar is threatening to merge with the Congress.

Welcome to the Prime Minister’s chair, Dr Manmohan Singh. He began the day by outlining his policy vision and went to bed with the nightmare of managing a coalition.

Most trusted yesterday of Sonia Gandhi — the queen as he called her — Laloo Prasad today gave the coalition’s ministry-making efforts a big shake by insisting on the home portfolio. An accused in the fodder scam case and now out on bail, the Rashtriya Janata Dal chief would not admit he has demanded home, saying only that he wants a package for the people of Bihar.

“Our options are open. We may not at all participate in the government and support it from the outside,” he said.

“I have made a lot of promises to the people of Bihar. I have always blamed the Centre for doing injustice to Bihar. Now that a secular government is in office, I have to prove that my promises are being fulfilled.”

Pawar, a former defence minister pressing his case for the same portfolio, told Singh and Sonia that he should be considered a “Congressman” as his NCP would merge with the parent organisation. He had left the Congress making an issue of Sonia’s foreign origin.

But he was told that in an era of coalitions, size would decide the weight of the portfolio. If a party with nine MPs, which is what he has, is rewarded with defence, Laloo Prasad (21) and the DMK (16) will demand more.

Sonia and Singh were having a tough time, not unexpectedly, settling even the ground rules for distributing portfolios.

Each time a name was cleared, opponents ganged up to scuttle his/her chances, offering counter-arguments, citing legal cases or poor health or advanced age and raising the Lok Sabha versus Rajya Sabha debate.

By late tonight, pressure mounted so much that Sonia’s visit to Sriperumbudur to mark Rajiv Gandhi’s death anniversary came under cloud. Singh and a planeload of senior leaders were expected to accompany her. Sources said Sonia may still go but the visit could be short.

The Congress president rushed senior leader Arjun Singh and R.K. Dhawan to Laloo Prasad’s house after the Bihar leader refused to meet M.L. Fotedar. Laloo Prasad told them he had made enough sacrifices for the sake of secularism and it was now time to be rewarded. So miffed was Laloo Prasad that he went back to Patna.

Finance is also a problem. Pranab Mukherjee met Sonia to deny reports he was not keen on serving under Singh. He is ready for home, defence, finance or the post of the Speaker.

Sources said Singh would like to retain finance for the first year and have three ministers of state. But the party feels that in the mad scramble for portfolios, the Prime Minister cannot afford the luxury of doubling as the finance minister. P. Chidambaram is the dark horse for finance.

The allies are eyeing all key ministries relating to infrastructure, such as transport, civil aviation, power and rural and urban development.

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