Swadeshi spin to Pawar party
Sonia to campaign in Goa election
Atal come-hither to Congress discards
Bomb blast before Prime Minister touchdown
Sachin returns on nation?s call
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, May 21 
?Free? of the Congress, Sharad Pawar today made the first moves towards setting himself up for a key balancing role in the next Lok Sabha which he thinks will remain splintered.

Pawar, who has postponed his visit to the capital with an eye on consolidating fully in Maharashtra, is planning to a launch a party with a ?swadeshi? spin ? the Swadeshi Congress or the Nationalist Party ? and will press for a polarisation on the issue of Sonia Gandhi?s foreign origin.

At the same time, the Pawar group plans to start talks with ?like-minded? parties to form a ?third? non-BJP alternative. Pawar is in touch with the Left, the Samajwadi Party, the Trinamul Congress, the Telugu Desam and Chandra Shekhar to set up such a front. His colleagues ? Purno Sangma and Tariq Anwar ? are also claiming that many more Congressmen may join their fold in the days to come.

The Pawar faction is claiming that a considerable section of the Maharashtra Congress has lined up behind him. ?In fact, we would be the first one, ahead of the BJP and the leftover Congress. Many more Congressmen will join us,? said a rebel leader but could not substantiate his claim.

Sonia loyalists feel there are a few ?suspects? among top leaders who could still switch sides. However, the loyalist camp feels that if she resumes active interest in party affairs, they will be either forced to fall in line or be purged.

Congressmen who are seen as Pawar?s sympathisers said many outside Maharashtra would not be willing to leave the party because elections are round the corner. ?In states like Rajasthan and Kerala, the Congress symbol of the hand plays a key role. If we leave the party, we will be deprived of the Congress? organisational set-up and support base,? a fence-sitter said.

About 11 of the 33 Congress MPs from Maharashtra in the dissolved Lok Sabha are siding with Pawar. But the figure is unlikely to go up with other Pawar-loyalists like Gurudas Kamat refusing to join him.

Pawar supporters claimed that many Congress members, including senior leaders, will consider switching sides after the polls. ?Imagine a scenario, if the 13th Lok Sabha ends up being a hung House, the Congress under Sonia Gandhi will not be able to stitch together a coalition with parties like the Samajwadi and the Left. Pawar has a lot more acceptability. Some CWC members are also supporting us,? Sangma said.

The Pawar camp is trying to wean away some of the BJP?s allies, such as the Trinamul, the National Conference and the Biju Janata Dal. It is also eyeing the Telugu Desam, the ADMK, a section of the Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party.

The BJP continued to keep its cards close to the chest and remained mum on suggestions that it may join hands with Pawar, fuelling speculation of a possible alignment.

But Pawar and the BJP have been bitter enemies in Maharashtra and the BJP will have to dump the Shiv Sena if it wants a deal with Pawar. Besides, a section of Pawar?s supporters is reluctant to forge an alliance with the BJP.

Speaking on behalf of the expelled leaders, Sangma said: ?We have to have a forum or a front. Consultations with supporters and well-wishers from the Congress and outside will be completed in a week?s time.?

He claimed that the Congress was heading for a split. ?You will see what happens in the next few days or weeks,? he said, adding that a realignment of political forces was bound to happen.

Sangma, who had authored a document on how to revitalise the Congress under Sonia Gandhi, termed the Congress ?a great institution belonging to the people of India. It does not belong to any individual or family,? he said.

Sangma scoffed at the Congress? charge that the revolt had strengthened the BJP. ?It is the BJP which is strengthening us,? he said quoting Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee?s statement that only Indian-born citizens should occupy high offices. Sangma, however, rejected charges of a nexus between the three and the BJP. ?There is no understanding with the BJP,? he said.    

New Delhi, May 21 
In the first indication that despite having quit presidentship of the Congress she plans to involve herself in campaigning for the party, Sonia Gandhi will visit Goa on May 28-29 to canvass for the June 4 Assembly elections.

Stepping up pressure, the Congress Working Committee tonight summoned an emergency meeting of the AICC on May 25 here to get a resolution passed pleading Sonia Gandhi to take back her resignation.

All party MPs in the dissolved Lok Sabha have been invited as part of the damage-limitation exercise. ?It will be a strong message of unity and our resolve that there cannot be a Congress without Sonia Gandhi,? an AICC office-bearer said. The move to call all sitting MPs is also aimed at keeping the flock together at a time when the Sharad Pawar group is threatening to make inroads.

The AICC leader claimed that Sonia Gandhi today appeared to be more receptive to the idea of resuming an active role, though not as party president. ?She seems to be considering what to do next instead of just being impassive,? a party leader said.

Partymen were, however, unsure of her next move. Only a handful of them exuded confidence that she will come back as president at the May 25 meet. ?Let us not forget that she is extremely image conscious. Sonia Gandhi would not like her adversaries to brand her resignation a drama or a gimmick,? he said.

Sonia Gandhi stayed away from all party functions on Rajiv Gandhi?s eighth death anniversary, but called on former AICC chief Sitaram Kesri to express regrets over his manhandling by party workers. Early today, she visited Rajiv Gandhi?s samadhi at Vir Bhoomi and then asked activists at a Youth Congress camp to call off their hunger strike.

Congressmen across the country are drawing solace from the news that Sonia Gandhi is at least willing to campaign for the party. Making it clear that they would not accept any other leader as the party president, hopeful members said her involvement was perhaps a sign that she was ?thinking over? appeals to relent.

Some Congressmen feel it is significant that she has not tendered her resignation as chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party. Confirming this, AICC spokesman Ajit Jogi said: ?She has not resigned from that post.?

Senior leaders said Sonia Gandhi agreed to campaign in Goa after the state unit pleaded with her to bail out the party, which is engaged in a four-corner contest with the BJP, Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and breakaway Congress factions.

A Goa Congress delegation cited Sonia Gandhi?s resignation letter, which said she would continue to be an ?active member of the Congress?. The leaders pleaded: ?Please take back your resignation and even when you are considering such a possibility, please do not forget about us.?

Earlier, leaders met at Madhavrao Scindia?s residence to urge Sonia Gandhi to call an early session of the AICC. They later met her to convey their decision.    

May 21 
Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has virtually extended an alliance proposal to Sharad Pawar by strongly criticising his expulsion by the Congress Working Committee.

In a hard-hitting statement distributed in Calcutta before he boarded the flight for Imphal, Vajpayee said: ?The CWC?s decision yesterday to summarily expel three senior leaders from the party is highly deplorable. Far from inviting and initiating a rational debate on the issues raised by Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar in their letter to the Congress president, the party?s leadership has suppressed it with the desperate act of expulsion.?

The outburst is unusual, as Vajpayee seldom comments on the affairs of the Congress. After the rebel troika wrote their letter last week, even other BJP leaders have been guarded in their comments. The statement from the Prime Minister himself implies that the party is willing to encourage the anti-Sonia band both within and outside the Congress.

Vajpayee observed: ?This shows that the Congress has nothing but contempt for internal democracy, whose cornerstone is debate based on freedom of thought and expression.

?Yesterday?s decision of the CWC, therefore, is now no longer an internal party matter. It smacks of fascism and deserves denunciation from all those who hold democracy dear.?

Without referring directly to the issue of Sonia Gandhi?s eligibility to lead the nation, Vajpayee said it ?convinces nobody? that the present turmoil in the Congress is ?BJP-inspired?.

?The issues raised by Pawar have been echoed by important leaders of all political parties,? the statement said.

With the expelled Maharashtra leader about to float his own front, the BJP has indicated that it has an ?open mind? on an alliance with the new outfit.

The party is aware that it is difficult at this stage for Pawar to shed his ?secular? credentials. Besides, he may have to fight for space with the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in his home state.

The saffron leadership would be elated if Pawar could be reconciled to sharing a platform with the ?secular? partners within its coalition, like the Telugu Desam, DMK, Trinamul Congress and the Samata Party.

But this may take time because in Uttar Pradesh, Pawar is courting Mulayam Singh Yadav, who is not yet prepared to be seen in close proximity with the BJP for the sake of his own survival.

Though Vajpayee?s statement soundly supported Pawar, the BJP stopped short of openly extending a hand to him. The party remained ambiguous, with spokesman Venkaiah Naidu saying: ?We cannot say what will happen in the next few months. We have not yet applied our minds to the issue.?

He indicated that the BJP was keeping its options open, saying ?at present?, the question of an alliance did not arise.

If Pawar does not lean towards the BJP, the party will have to guard its own flock. The expelled Congress leader has been in touch with some saffron allies like the Trinamul Congress and the Telugu Desam.

According to BJP sources, some Maharashtra leaders are interested in an understanding with Pawar for two reasons: penetrating the rural sugar belt where he has a solid base, and dumping the Sena which they feel has become a ?liability?. The sources said since the BJP did not have a leader of Pawar?s ?stature? in the state, an alliance in the Assembly polls would also be beneficial.

But some others feel the BJP should stick to the Sena because of the ?ideological affinity? and the fact that the Sena is its oldest ally. If they separate, the Sena could cut into their Hindutva vote base.

The BJP is also eyeing Sangma as a ?potential vote-catcher? in the tribal-dominated pockets of the Northeast.    

Imphal, May 21 
A bomb blast by Manipur National Liberation Front (MNLF) militants minutes before Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee?s arrival and the recovery of explosives from another location forced tightening of security arrangements and shifting of the venue of his public rally this morning.

Isolated Meitei militants of the Imphal valley have been regrouping themselves over the past six months. They came together to float the MNLF in March this year. These extremists have not yet launched a separatist agitation, but are complaining against the long neglect of Manipur and the Centre?s readiness to enter into a dialogue for peace with the two Naga rebel groups. The youth belong to former People?s Liberation Army (PLA), People?s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak and United National Liberation Front groups.

At a public rally in the evening at the Open Theatre, Vajpayee expressed his willingness to have a free and fair exchange with this outfit. He regretted it has taken up weapons instead of opting for peaceful, democratic means.

Security sources said the reason for the blast ? which occurred before Vajpayee?s aircraft landed at Imphal airport ? was not clear. It was apparent that the Prime Minister was not the target because the bomb went off at least 300 metres from the Imphal Airport Road which was part of Vajpayee?s route. The insurgents seemed to have been in search of publicity rather than anything else.    

Mumbai, May 21 
Putting Indian cricket before private grief, Sachin Tendulkar boarded a flight to London around 2 am on Saturday to rejoin India?s hunt for the World Cup.

Sachin will now play in the match against Kenya on Sunday. This was the news Indian cricket fans have been waiting for with bated breath ever since Sachin had to rush back to Mumbai on his father?s death on Wednesday, when India threw away the match against Zimbabwe and all but dashed hopes of staying in the World Cup.

Earlier in the day, Mumbai Cricket Association official Ratnakar Shetty, who met the little champion at his Bandra home along with Ajit Wadekar, chairman of selectors, said: ?Sachin said he would get over his loss (death of father Ramesh Tendulkar) and return to England immediately for India?s group match against Kenya. Sachin told us that he was very keen and eager to play the rest of the World Cup matches.?

Raj Singh Dungarpur, chairman of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, also spoke with Sachin on the phone from England, a PTI report said.

Confirming that Sachin will join the team tomorrow, Dungarpur said: ?It is the gesture not just of a great cricketer, but of a true patriot.?

The board president quoted Sachin as saying: ?First I had to attend my family?s call, now I want to fulfil my nation?s call.?

Dungarpur said despite the grief over the death of his father, Sachin had made the decision for the cause of the team and country. ?...Best thing is for him to come and help India reach the super six stage,? he added.

As soon as Sachin said he was ready to return to England, officials scrambled to find a place for him on the first flight. But Shetty said Sachin told them he would make his own travel arrangements.

?He told us that he would arrange his tickets through his elder brother Nitin, who is a purser with Air-India,? Sharad Diwadkar, executive secretary of the BCCI, said.

BCCI secretary Jaywant Lele told The Telegraph from Baroda, where he had gone to attend India coach Aunshuman Gaekwad?s uncle?s funeral: ?I have assured him that all expenses will be borne by the board.?    

Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky with possibility of light rain accompanied by thunder towards afternoon or evening. Not much change in day temperature.
Temperature: Maximum 34.1 (2?C below normal)
Minimum 24.9?C (2?C below normal)
Relative humidity: Maximum 95% Minimum 60%
Rainfall: 0.5 mm
Sunset: 6.10 pm Sunrise: 4.56 am    

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