President calls Sonia to test waters
Defection drama jolts Desam
BJP letters of reminder to Narayanan
2000 homeless after city blaze
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, April 20 
On the fourth day since the Vajpayee government?s fall, President K.R. Narayanan called Sonia Gandhi for consultations tomorrow after the Congress officially declared her as the party?s prime ministerial candidate.

A Rashtrapati Bhavan communique late tonight said over the next two days, the President will also meet senior leaders of different parties, mostly those who are not with the coalition led by the BJP, to gauge if the Congress has the support to form an alternative government.

The President?s decision followed the Congress?s first formal initiative to collect letters of support from its allies. The draft of the letters of support being sought by the Congress read: ?We extend unconditional support to a Congress government headed by Sonia Gandhi.? Through this, the party set at rest speculation over who would be its candidate for the Prime Minister?s post.

Several small groups and individual MPs have made written pledges to support a Congress government headed by Sonia Gandhi, but these mean little without similar commitments from the Samajwadi Party, the Left, ADMK and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which hold the key to majority.

As Sonia Gandhi waded into the thick of power politics, meeting an array of leaders to drum up the required support, Sharad Pawar, leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, claimed that the Congress would be able to muster the numbers. ?Chitthi ayegi, sab ki ayegi. There is no problem whatsoever. We will produce all letters once we get an invitation from the President,? he said.

That invitation, though not quite a call to offer proof of support yet, came today. In his first step to tackle the tricky issue of government formation after Saturday?s defeat of the BJP-led regime, the President has chosen to traverse the middle path.

He is not taking the risk of upsetting the BJP coalition any further by making the opening move with an invitation to Sonia Gandhi to form the government.

He is only going to discuss with her how the Congress proposes to reach 272 in a House of 543. The communique said the President has held discussions with legal and constitutional experts over the past few days. He has also received a representation from the rival bloc. The BJP and its allies plan to meet him tomorrow with letters of support from all the parties that backed the government in the confidence vote.

The President?s talks tomorrow with Sonia Gandhi are only being seen as the beginning of a long process during which Narayanan will try to fathom whether an alternative government is possible or if a mid-term poll is the only option. Consultations do not rule out the possibility of the President seeking letters of support from Congress? allies, as he had done in Vajpayee?s case and as the BJP has been demanding.

Narayanan?s decision to hold talks before inviting the Congress gives the party more time to harmonise the discordant notes being struck by leaders like Mulayam Singh, Janata Dal, BSP and a small section of the Left.

Mulayam Singh has so far refused to commit himself to a Sonia-led government, as has the Left rump. But the Congress hopes the BJP?s veiled threat to stake claim again by presenting letters of support to the President will make the fence-sitters fall in line. The call to Sonia Gandhi from Rashtrapati Bhavan may also help.

Hectic behind-the-scenes activities continued in the Congress and non-BJP camps through the day with Sonia Gandhi meeting Jyoti Basu, I.K. Gujral, Laloo Yadav and H.D. Deve Gowda.

The Congress? search for numbers went beyond predictable allies. The party managed to win over a Telugu Desam MP, S. Vijayarama Raju. But it is difficult to see how he can vote for the Congress in Parliament unless, of course, the Desam splits.

Congress efforts to keep all non-BJP MPs on its side suffered a minor setback when former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar openly declared his opposition to a Sonia-led government. ?I am not obliged to support any party or individual unless I see what direction they want to take the country in,? he said.

The Congress today secured about a dozen letters from individual MPs and smaller parties like the IUML, RPI, MIM, Janata Party, Saifuddin Soz, Buta Singh and others. Samata Party MP Kalpnath Rai called on Sonia and declared his support to her but Rai?s problem is the same as Raju?s ? he is bound by the Samata Party whip unless the party itself splits.

Arjun Singh called on Jayalalitha and handed over a file which articulated the party?s stand on various political groups in Tamil Nadu in the context of Rajiv Gandhi?s assassination and the Jain Commission report. The move came in the wake of Jayalalitha?s request to Sonia Gandhi yesterday to clarify the Congress stand vis-a-vis the DMK, PMK, MDMK and Subramanian Swamy. The Congress has given a clean chit to Swamy and the PMK while it keeps the needle of suspicion trained on the role of the DMK and the MDMK.    

April 20 
The numbers game turned into a public spectacle today with a Telugu Desam MP appearing at the Congress headquarters and proclaiming support to a Sonia Gandhi-led government.

?Even if it leads to my disqualification from the Lok Sabha, I will vote in favour of Sonia Gandhi,? Desam MP S. Vijayarama Raju said at a Congress press briefing.

Criticising the style of functioning of Desam chief N. Chandrababu Naidu, Raju also appealed to other party members to support a Congress government.

He claimed three more MPs from the 12-member Desam would break ranks. If they do so, he can escape action under the anti-defection law.

Jolted by Raju?s audacious move, which coincided with Chandrababu Naidu?s 49th birthday, the Andhra Pradesh chief minister mounted an anti-poaching offensive.

He said ?special arrangements? are being made to bring back all his MPs to Hyderabad tomorrow immediately after the budget vote. The chief minister sent a team of aides to Delhi to keep a close watch on his flock.

?Raju had assured me twice on the phone during the day that he was not joining the Congress. His action later in the day is an example of the inhuman and undemocratic act of Congress horsetrading,? Chandrababu Naidu said in Hyderabad.

He also attacked Sonia Gandhi, saying ?she is behaving as if she is born to be in power?.

Though the Desam projected a united front, only two of its MPs turned up at parliamentary party leader Yerran Naidu?s breakfast meeting today. As news of Raju?s switch spread, an emergency meeting of Desam members was held at Andhra Bhavan in New Delhi.

The issue also threatened to spill to the streets as a group of Desam MPs, led by Yerran Naidu, demonstrated in front of the Congress headquarters against the alleged ?horse-trading?. The Congress later termed it ?most objectionable and keeping with fascist tendencies?.

Amid the drama in public, the Congress kept up the tempo of its closed-door initiative to find support. The race assumed more urgency today with the two Left minnows refusing to budge and former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar striking a discordant note. Mulayam Singh Yadav, too, is keeping the party on tenterhooks.

With just a wafer-thin margin between the two sides in the Lok Sabha, the Congress cannot afford to keep out any of these intransigent members unless it manages to split some of the BJP allies.

The Congress is now pinning hopes on the Samata Party and the PMK. Other vulnerable groups include the Biju Janata Dal, the Akali Dal and the Trinamul Congress.

Samata MP Kalpnath Rai?s meeting with Sonia Gandhi today has raised hopes in the Congress. Rai has said he ?would do everything possible to avoid mid-term polls?. A Samata source said three more rebel MPs are with him and the group was looking for one more to split legally.

The PMK, which has four MPs, is being wooed by the ADMK. Sources said PMK leader S. Ramadoss had assured Jayalalitha of his support if a new government was installed. A decision is likely to be taken tomorrow at the party?s meeting in Chennai.    

New Delhi, April 20 
Stepping up the war of nerves with their rival camp, the BJP and its allies will meet the President tomorrow with letters of support from all the parties which backed the government in the confidence vote.

?We are going to the President with fresh letters from all our supporting parties, with 270 members, and tell him that it would not be fair to invite anyone with less than this number,? information minister Pramod Mahajan said after a Cabinet meeting. He explained that the BJP and its allies were not staking claim afresh but merely sought to draw the President?s attention to the fact that they had the backing of 270 MPs.

Mahajan claimed that barring the Haryana Vikas Party (HVP), all others have sent their letters of support, including the DMK and the Indian National Lok Dal. He was confident that even the single-member HVP would submit its letter, although the MP, Surendra Singh, has reportedly abstained from the allies? meetings.

The crisis management has already run into trouble, with one Telugu Desam MP proffering his vote to the Congress and another ally, the PMK, still to finalise its stand.

That the announcement was made by Mahajan indicates that Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has fallen back on his confidant to keep the flock together. Samata Party chief George Fernandes was earlier the government?s spokesman on matters related to allies.

BJP sources alleged that Fernandes was being propped up by Vajpayee?s detractors in the Sangh parivar to lead an alternative if the Congress camp failed to get its act together. The ?alternative scenario?, scripted some months ago by the anti-Vajpayee camp, envisaged Fernandes at the head of a ?secular? government, supported by the BJP from outside ? a repeat of the V.P. Singh experiment of 1989. BJP sources claimed with a ?secular Christian? Prime Minister, additional numbers could have come from unexpected quarters like the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal.

Samata sources corroborated this version and added that Fernandes had even approached Samajwadi chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. Mulayam, sources said, was offered the post of deputy Prime Minister. Fernandes and commerce minister Ramakrishna Hegde were in touch with Janata Dal leaders. Samata sources said I.K. Gujral and Ram Vilas Paswan met Fernandes and Hegde over dinner last night.

The sources said wide reporting on the ?George-as-PM? scenario in the southern papers had sent some BJP allies into a tizzy. Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu phoned Fernandes and advised him ?to move cautiously, step by step?.

Once Vajpayee?s confidants got wind, they swung into action. Mahajan, sources said, took the initiative to hold meetings of the allies and pass resolutions reposing faith in Vajpayee. For the record, the BJP strenuously denied that efforts were on to remove Vajpayee, who hosted a dinner tonight for the 269 MPs who backed him, as coalition head.    

Calcutta, April 20 
Nearly 400 shanties were burnt in a devastating fire at Jhoro Bustee near Charu Market in Tollygunge this afternoon.

The fire, which left about 2,000 people homeless, injured six. They were admitted to M.R. Bangur Memorial Hospital. Five of them were discharged. A 35-year-old woman is still in hospital.

Nineteen fire tenders fought the blaze for 90 minutes and brought it under control around 4 pm. Traffic on Deshapran Sashmal Road was thrown out of gear for two hours.

Sixteen-year-old Sahadeb, whose shack was burnt, said the fire might have started from a kerosene stove. It broke out around 2.30 pm from the middle of the cluster of shanties made of bamboo poles and polythene sheets and spread in seconds, fanned by the April breeze. Most of the residents were either eating or asleep when the fire crackled into life in the still afternoon heat. As the tongues licked at their homes, the slum-dwellers ran for safety.

?The fire spread so fast that the people had almost no chance of saving their belongings. They were busy running for their lives,? said a fireman.

As fire-fighters sprayed jets of water on the acrid remains, the slum-dwellers wandered about, prodding at the blackened cinder, hoping to retrieve even a little of what they seemed to have irretrievably lost.

Tarachand Das, who had a cycle repairing shop adjacent to the slum, was asleep when the fire broke out. He could only watch helplessly as his shop was reduced to ashes. ?A few makeshift godowns of waste paper and plastic in the slum made the fire worse,? Das said.

The leaves of trees along the slum were shrivelled. Even a billboard on the railway bridge across Deshapran Sashmal Road had been charred.

The illegal Jhoro Bustee had come up over the past few years on railway land along the wall the Calcutta Improvement Trust has built on the perimeter of the Dhakuria Lakes.

The wall divides Rabindra Sarovar and the railway tracks running from the Tollygunge railway station to beyond the Lake Gardens station, a stretch of a few kilometres. The residents, largely from South 24-Pargana villages, worked mostly as domestics.

A few hundred similar slums dot the land along the railway tracks and canals in different parts of the city. Several shanties, like those along the Narkeldanga canal, were burnt recently. Though the administration promises to make the slums fire-proof or relocate the dwellers after every disaster, little has actually happened.

Mala Roy, the Trinamul Congress councillor of adjacent ward 87 who visited the spot, said the slum-dwellers had been caught unawares by the fire.

Locals said some of the shanty-dwellers had tapped electricity from overhead CESC lines to operate television sets, lights and fans.    

Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky. Not much change in day temperature.
Temperature: Maximum 36.7?C (1?C above normal)
Minimum 27.4?C (2?C above normal)
Relative humidity: Maximum 87%
Minimum 49%
Rainfall: Nil
Sunset: 5.56 pm
Sunrise: 5.15 am

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