Basu rejects Prime Minister feeler from Congress
BJP springs rerun gambit
Letter key to President?s door
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, April 18: 
As the Congress embarked on the tricky task of government formation, the party?s leadership fell back on the persuasive powers of CPM leaders H.S. Surjeet and Jyoti Basu to convince the Samajwadi Party, the RSP and the Forward Bloc to support a minority government from outside.

The Congress also asked Basu if he would head an alternative coalition government. But he refused. Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sharad Pawar today called on Basu, along with Pranab Mukherjee, and asked him if he would lead a third front government with outside support from the Congress. It was evident the offer had come from Sonia Gandhi herself.

Basu, who had termed an ?historic blunder? the CPM?s decision to ignore an offer to head a coalition three years ago, declined immediately. He said he was too old and his health was failing.

The offer indicates the Congress is keeping all options open. The party believes a minority government headed by Sonia Gandhi is the safest way to keep the disparate anti-BJP flock together.

The Congress will explore the option of heading a coalition only after it receives an invitation from President K.R. Narayanan to form the government and is unable to get its allies to agree to a minority government. Till then, the party plans to maintain a strategic silence as it hopes this will force the potential allies to fall in line.

There is a strong view that the Congress need not get entangled in a messy coalition and should, instead, back an acceptable third front leader as Prime Minister. The first choice for this was Basu.

Sonia Gandhi has begun crucial discussions over telephone. She spoke to Basu, Surjeet, Jayalalitha, Laloo Prasad Yadav and senior party leaders today. Though 10 Janpath insiders admitted the task before her was far from easy, they were confident it would be accomplished.

The Congress said it was waiting for the President?s invitation, after which it would ask friendly parties to draft letters pledging support to a Sonia Gandhi-led government. The party drew comfort from Tamil Nadu chief minister and DMK leader M. Karunanidhi?s assertion today that he would not oppose the next government because he did not want early polls.

Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, who persuaded National Conference leader Saifuddin Soz to vote against the Vajpayee government, is now in touch with Karunanidhi. The DMK could use this opportunity to patch up with its former third front allies, with which it fell out because it supported Vajpayee?s trust motion.

The Congress camp got another boost when Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh convinced former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar to back a government led by Sonia Gandhi. He had said yesterday he would oppose such a formation.

The Left has said it might be able to turn around the RSP and Forward Bloc, which have reservations about supporting a Congress-led government. Both have already shown signs of a reconciliation.

Surjeet is also confident of getting Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav to agree to back a Congress minority government. But even this afternoon, Mulayam Singh?s confidant Amar Singh insisted his party should have a say in government formation.

Neither the Congress nor the ADMK has divulged the nature of talks between the two parties. The first task before Sonia Gandhi is to iron out a ?functional relationship? with the ADMK, in view of Jayalalitha?s insistence on sharing power and the Tamil Maanila Congress? refusal to back any government that includes her party.

Sonia Gandhi is likely to meet Jayalalitha tomorrow to discuss the revival of an MGR-type alliance, according to which the ADMK will give the Congress unconditional support from outside at the Centre in return for similar backing in Tamil Nadu. The Congress chief also has to win over Mayavati, who does not see eye to eye with Mulayam Singh.

Asked about the composition of the alternative government, Congress leader Arjun Singh said: ?We don?t want to act without the initiative from the President.? He admitted the task of government formation was not easy. ?All I can say is that it will be completed.?

Arjun Singh, Sharad Pawar, Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, K. Karunakaran, Digvijay Singh, Kamal Nath, R.D. Pradhan, P.J. Kurien, Ajit Jogi and Vincent George are part of a close-knit group which is working round-the-clock to muster support for a Sonia Gandhi-led government.

On a day marked by slow and complex negotiations among non-BJP groups, the Congress think-tank was also working overtime on splitting BJP allies like the Samata Party, the Biju Janata Dal and the Trinamul Congress and toppling the Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh.

The Congress is eyeing the Kalyan Singh regime to accommodate two potential allies, Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party. ?If we manage to dump the Uttar Pradesh government, it will give us more political space. The equations between the BSP and Samajwadi would change and give us some scope for manoeuvering. If one of them heads the next government in Uttar Pradesh, the other can be part of coalition government at the Centre,? a Congress leader said.    

New Delhi, April 18: 
Just a day after the Vajpayee-led coalition was defeated in Parliament, the BJP today said it was not averse to staking claim again to form the government.

In a tactical ploy aimed at further confusing the Opposition and keeping its own flock together, party spokesman M. Venkaiah Naidu said: ?The President definitely has the option of calling Vajpayeeji to form a government.?

The BJP top brass met at Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee?s residence this evening and concluded that there are only two options: either the BJP government is reinstated or the parties go back to the voters.

After the meeting, Naidu told reporters: ?We concluded that going by the present arithmetic, no alternative is possible. The developments since yesterday are proving our stand. Leaders who said they will not take even a minute to form another government are not able to come up with an alternative.?

Asked if the BJP would stake claim within the next few days to instal another government, Naidu said: ?First we will see what they (the Opposition) do. No concrete proposal has been considered.?

The meeting stressed that before any party is allowed to form the government, ?it is incumbent on the President? to ask it for letters of support from allies, as he had done in the case of Vajpayee.

The BJP added that the President should ensure the numbers add up to more than 270, the present effective strength of the BJP and its allies, including Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi who belongs to the Telugu Desam. ?Anything less than this would bring into question the legitimacy of any so-called alternative arrangement,? said Naidu.

The new twist to the numbers game was given by home minister L.K. Advani who, BJP sources said, felt this was the only way to reinforce the impression that the Vajpayee government had been defeated by just one vote and was still in the reckoning for power.

Sources said Advani felt this would keep the Opposition on its toes and lull the BJP?s allies ? especially those susceptible to Opposition machinations like the Samata Party, Trinamul Congress and Biju Janata Dal ? into believing that Vajpayee may be back in the hot seat again.

Samata leader George Fernandes wrote to President K.R. Narayanan, asking him to invite Vajpayee again to form the government. ?Inviting any combination of less than 271 would tantamount to a mockery of the Constitution and the parliamentary system of government,? he said in the letter.

Commenting on the economic implications of the Vajpayee government?s fall, Naidu said: ?The stock markets have crashed, wiping out more than Rs 40,000 crore of small investors? money. Investor confidence has been shaken. The rupee is under pressure, losing to the dollar by the day. Industry is in a tizzy. Every citizen in India is feeling cheated and insulted by the hijacker of their mandate.?

BJP sources claimed the President had called Vajpayee this morning to ?seek his help in the passage of the budget?. ?But Vajpayeeji politely turned down his request, saying he no longer held the office of the Prime Minister,? one of them said.

The BJP will observe April 23 as ?anti-betrayal? day, calling upon all non-Congress and non-Left forces to come together.    

New Delhi, April 18: 
President K.R. Narayanan is likely to invite the Congress tomorrow or the day after to find out if it is willing and able to form a government

The Congress Working Committee, which met last night, decided that the party would not stake claim on its own and would wait for an invitation from Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Once the Congress makes it clear it is ready to head a government, Narayanan may insist that the party submit letters of support from all its allies, including those backing it from outside.

Outgoing Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani had urged the President to direct the Congress to secure the support of its partners in writing when they met him yesterday. Vajpayee had obtained similar letters when he took over last year.

Speaking to reporters outside Rashtrapati Bhavan after Vajpayee gave in his resignation, Advani said the Congress must prove it has the support of more than 270 MPs, the BJP-led coalition?s strength in the present Lok Sabha. ?Otherwise it has no right to assume power,? the home minister stressed.

But more than the BJP?s argument, the President will fall back on what has become a convention now. In 1996, when the United Front government assumed charge, all the partners had gone to Rashtrapati Bhavan with letters pledging support to H.D. Deve Gowda as Prime Minister. Then Congress president P.V. Narasimha Rao, too, had sent his letter to President Shankar Dayal Sharma.

Had Jayalalitha not given her support to Vajpayee in writing, the ADMK?s letter withdrawing support to his government would not have assumed the significance it did.

In these days of tricky coalition politics, when democracy has been reduced to a numbers game in Parliament, the President cannot but verify the grand total at the command of a party before asking it to assume power or continue in office. A letter of support makes things easier and helps clear the murky political scenario.

Narayanan is in touch with top constitutional experts and is discussing his responsibilities with them. He is consulting attorney-general Soli Sorabjee and leading jurist K.K. Venugopal, among others.

The President devoted a substantial part of the morning trying to ensure a decision on the budget. He discussed the issue with senior Congress leaders Sharad Pawar, Pranab Mukherjee and Manmohan Singh, and called Vajpayee for his opinion.

So far, there has been little criticism of the President?s advice to Vajpayee to seek a vote of confidence. Though there is resentment in the BJP camp, the protests have largely been stifled. The MDMK, however, condemned Narayanan?s decision today. Party chief Vaiko said the President had acted wrongly in directing Vajpayee to move a confidence motion when Parliament was in session. Vaiko claimed that former President R. Venkataraman agreed with him that Narayanan had taken a hasty step. Venkataraman has moved close to the BJP over the past few years.    

Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky. Not much change in day temperature.

Temperature: Maximum 37.4?C (1?C above normal)
Minimum 27.2?C (2?C above normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 90%
Minimum 43%

Rainfall: Nil

Sunset: 5.55 pm
Sunrise: 5.16 am

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