Atal fires Agni in adversity
Vajpayee bid to salvage diplomacy laurel
DMK holds out double-edged assurance
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, April 11 
Opening itself to Opposition taunts of a Clintonesque Wag-the-Dog syndrome and risking a fresh burst of global outrage, the Vajpayee government today drowned its domestic sorrows for a moment by test-firing the intermediate range ballistic missile, Agni-II.

The missile, with over 2,500-km range, can cover entire Pakistan, strike targets deep in China and carry nuclear as well as conventional warheads.

The sophistication and reach of the missile indicated that it was designed to meet any threat from China, rather than Pakistan. The first missile in the Agni series, the 1,500-km Agni-I itself can reach most Pakistani missile sites.

The extraordinary media spectacle that followed the missile launch was capped by a television address to the nation by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Basking in the blaze of the lift-off, the Prime Minister used the limelight to hardsell the achievements of his government and quoted Guru Govind Singh to assert that ?when I am obliged to fight, I fight to win?.

Vajpayee and his frontline advisers tried hard to portray the test-firing as another milestone in the mould of last May?s Pokhran II, but the Prime Minister himself strayed from the theme hardly minutes into his speech.

Vajpayee did not make any explicit reference to either the stand-off with Jayalalitha or the crisis confronting him, but a touch of anxiety made it to his speech when he implored that the need of the hour is ?unity and stability?.

The Opposition was quick to smell a diversionary tactic behind the missile trial and claimed it was intended at preparing the ground for a glorious exit of the BJP-led government, if the need arose.

?They want to keep their balance sheet intact and are sending a message to the electorate that they are being forced out of office for no wrong-doing,? said a senior Congress leader, referring to Vajpayee?s move to chart the government?s achievements.

But, barring the Left, most Opposition parties said little in public, other than grudgingly lauding the move, indicating the government has managed to throw them off-track at least for a day, and, more important, on the eve of Jayalalitha?s supposedly make-or-break trip to Delhi.

Even the ADMK ? which, without realising that the test has been carried out, criticised the Centre earlier in the day for softpedalling the issue ? later spoke with caution and congratulated the scientists, claiming many of them are from Tamil Nadu. The party limited its criticism to questioning the timing of the launch.

The Left, which also complimented the scientists, was more categorical. ?It is similar to Bill Clinton ordering bombing of Iraq when he was faced with impeachment proceedings,? CPM politburo member Sitaram Yechury said.

Others drew a parallel to the Hollywood movie, Wag the Dog, in which a US President engineers an external showdown in a bid to ride out a domestic storm.

A hesitant Congress was the last to react to the test. Spokesman Ajit Jogi framed a statement to suggest that it was the result of an endeavour that had been going on for over 20 years, since the time the Congress spelt out its missile programme. Unofficially, however, the party?s leaders questioned the timing and wondered why it was necessary at this particular date, given that the government?s very survival was in question.

The government?s logic that this was no diversionary tactic rang hollow because relationships with Pakistan and China have of late shown signs of normalising.

The government did not elaborate on the ?security concerns? that triggered the test, but said it had to be carried out today because of a technical deadline ? ?missile window? in defence parlance. If the deadline had expired, it would have been difficult to conduct the test after the onset of monsoons, the government said.

But the Opposition said the government had more than enough time earlier and claimed in private that the exercise was planned only last week, after the crisis erupted in the coalition.

Though low on details, the government went on a public relations offensive, firing on all cylinders. ?It was a text-book launch,? crowed information and broadcasting minister Pramod Mahajan, who announced the test first. ?Today is a great day for India,? a beaming Fernandes, accompanied by Pokhran hero A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, told reporters after returning from the test site in Orissa.

Leaving a trail of white smoke and tracked by naval ships, the 20-metre-long missile soared from the Inner Wheeler Islands at 9.42 am. Carrying a 1,000-kg payload, the missile reached its target in 11 minutes as scheduled. International shipping and airlines were warned to stay out of the test zone.    

New Delhi, April 11 
Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee and his deputies today waved the nationalist flag with gusto, but they also displayed a matching zeal for salvaging the single-most marketable asset of the BJP-led regime: its diplomatic track record.

In his address to the nation after Agni-II was test-fired, Vajpayee pegged the launch as a clear example of India?s ?self-reliance? in security matters and asserted that it symbolised a ?resurgent? India?s ability to declare ?yes, we will stand on our own feet?.?

The Prime Minister argued that ?in a rapidly changing security environment, India cannot depend on others to defend her. We have to develop our own indigenous capabilities.?

Defence minister George Fernandes also nailed the test to the nationalist plank. ?I don?t think we need to be told by anybody about restraint. When it is a question of our national security concerns, there will be no compromises,? he said.

But beneath the sound bites meant for the domestic gallery was couched diplomatic sobriety that betrayed the government?s eagerness to limit possible damage to the fruits of Vajpayee?s bus diplomacy to Lahore and external affairs minister Jaswant Singh?s painstaking post-Pokhran talks with the US.

?The test-firing of the Agni missile is a purely defensive step. It is not meant for aggression against any nation. Rather, Agni is proof of our determination to strengthen our national security so comprehensively that we can defend ourselves,? Vajpayee said.

In a message addressed to critics in the West, the Prime Minister reiterated that ?India remains committed to minimum deterrence, to no-first-use of nuclear weapons and its policy to never use them against non-nuclear weapon states?.

Vajpayee pointed out that as per international norms and in keeping with the Lahore Declaration, India had informed Pakistan, the five nuclear powers, Germany and Japan on Friday of its intention to test Agni-II.

Foreign secretary K. Raghunath had held a meeting with ambassadors and high commissioners of important countries based here and briefed them on the test.

But this did not stop the US, Pakistan and Japan from expressing displeasure and lodging protests against the missile test.

After the Prime Minister?s speech, a spokesman at his office scoffed at suggestions that Pakistan foreign minister Sartaj Aziz?s sharp reaction showed that what had been achieved by the bus diplomacy had been quite undone by the missile test. The spokesman cited the Friday alert as evidence of the strong bond between Pakistan and India since the bus trip.

Apprehensive that the fresh round of criticism from abroad might lead to another batch of sanctions, the Prime Minister said despite the punitive measures imposed on the country after Pokhran II, his government had achieved all-round progress.

In bid to prove that the missile trial decision was taken before the Lahore trip, Vajpayee said in his speech he had announced in Parliament in last December itself the intention to carry out the test.

PMO sources later said the exercise had to be rescheduled at least thrice owing to various reasons.    

New Delhi, April 11 
Before the curtain rises tomorrow for the final act in the ongoing political drama, the DMK today gave some cause for cheer to the beleaguered Vajpayee regime by announcing its decision to stay away from any coalition that included its arch rival, the ADMK, and its chief Jayalalitha.

All major players are assembling in the capital tomorrow to broker a deal that might install another coalition government to replace the BJP-led alliance. The secular parties are bent on carrying to its logical conclusion the game set in motion by the unpredictable Jayalalitha. The hectic parleys among the senior leaders will be significant. In the next 72 hours, West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu will have a dialogue with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who, in turn, will meet the ADMK chief.

On behalf of the Left, both Harkishen Singh Surjeet and A.B. Bardhan will try and overcome Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav?s qualms about lending unqualified support to a Congress government and thereby, have his support base eroded in Uttar Pradesh. The Left will try to steer both Mulayam Yadav and fellow Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha leader Laloo Prasad Yadav in the direction they have planned: have a Congress government in charge, even if it means lending support from outside. Neither Laloo nor Mulayam as yet favours staying out of a coalition government.

On the other hand, senior Congress leaders were today suggesting that the Congress-ADMK relationship revert to the proven MGR formula adopted when the ADMK founder was still in saddle. The formula allowed the Congress to obtain unqualified support from the Tamil party at the Centre, while the Congress lent similar support to the party at the state level.

A loophole in this logic is that the ADMK is not in power in Tamil Nadu at the moment. And it might enjoin upon the Congress the onerous task of easing the DMK government out if and when it assumes power. While the Congress is adamant that there is no question of giving such an ?impossible? assurance to Jayalalitha, it is not exactly averse to fulfiling another of her major demands ? accommodating her trouble-shooter, Subramanian Swamy, in a Congress-dominated Cabinet.

Even the DMK?s decision to dissociate itself from any coalition of which the ADMK is a part did not sound too disheartening to the Congress. The party insisted this decision was quite expected and there was nothing unusual. A senior leader said the DMK is never saying it will not vote against the Vajpayee government. It might still help dislodge the government on the floor of the House and yet abstain from voting when a new Congress-run government seeks the confidence of the House.

The leader pointed out that this is the course which the Left has charted out for the DMK and Karunanidhi has not yet turned down this option. The minorities in Tamil Nadu have always favoured the DMK and Karunanidhi is keenly aware of his political compulsions.

Nevertheless, Karunanidhi?s statement that the ?DMK will not be part of any government at the Centre which has the support of the ADMK? and his subsequent question: ?How can the DMK be in any front with which ADMK is associated?? was welcomed by BJP leaders on a day when the government had to test-fire Agni to add to its list of achievements that can be placed before the electorate.

Confirming that Vajpayee had spoken to him over the phone last night and enlisted the support of the DMK?s six MPs, Karunanidhi, however, did not make it clear in categorical terms which way those MPs would vote. All he said was that he had to maintain distance from whichever alliance Jayalalitha is associated with.

But the DMK is not averse to a Sonia-led Congress government at the Centre, provided the party did not fall back on Jayalalitha?s support, Karunanidhi said. He added that his party had not yet distanced itself from its United Front allies, including the Tamil Maanila Congress and the Left, and if necessary, might consult them within the next two days. The final decision on how his party MPs will vote will be taken at a meeting of the party?s executive within the next 72 hours.

That Mulayam Singh Yadav is keen to have his party and the Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha as an integral part of any future non-BJP government was evident from the statement he made in Lucknow today. Mulayam said if the Congress did not stake claim, the Morcha would do so and would obviously seek the support of the secular parties, including the Congress.    

Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky. Possibility of thunderclouds towards afternoon or evening. Not much change in day temperature.

Temperature: Maximum 35.1?C (1?C below normal)
Minimum 26.4?C (1?C above normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 92%
Minimum 55%

Rainfall: Nil

Sunset: 5.52 pm
Sunrise: 5.23 am

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