Congress sees Prime Minister?s footprints in mud
20 target for Pawar power-play
G8 loads doctrine gun
Shoeless Seshan keeps baiters on toes

New Delhi, Aug. 29 
Campaign ?99 is turning into a high-voltage, though ugly, street squabble over this election?s most famous debutante: Sonia Gandhi.

Barely had the bluster over Pramod Mahajan?s remarks equating her to Monica Lewinsky blown, when defence minister George Fernandes set off another slanging match saying the Congress president?s only contribution to India had been to add two children to its already-bloated one-billion population.

Fernandes? remark, made at a rally in Bellary yesterday, drew belligerent fire from the Congress which sought the Election Commission?s intervention today to put an end to slanderous personal attacks on Sonia by leaders of the National Democratic Alliance.

The Congress? counter-blast now is not merely aimed at unapologetic Sonia-baiters like Mahajan and Fernandes; the leadership is blaming Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee for blessing the anti-Sonia tirade and contributing to vitiating the tenor of the campaign.

?George Fernandes has the explicit blessings of Atal Behari Vajpayee in using language of the most horrendous kind, for if Vajpayee had any objections he would have issued a clarification. This attack is part of a conspiracy by the Vajpayee-Mahajan-Fernandes triumvirate to drag the national discourse down to the gutter,? Congress spokesman Kapil Sibal said in a long and angry statement this evening.

?We would have liked Fernandes to be dismissed but that would be too much to expect from Vajpayee who is his political father. Fernandes? remarks are an insult to Indian motherhood and to Indian children.?

During the last elections Sonia Gandhi, then only an ordinary member of the Congress and still out of the electoral fray, had opened an acrimonious battle with the BJP, labelling Prime Minister Vajpayee a ?liar? at a public meeting in New Delhi?s Ram Lila Maidan. But this time Sonia has been the one at the receiving end. Apart from NDA leaders questioning her Indianness and her commitment to India, Sonia and her family have also been targets of personal attacks.

Mocking Priyanka for campaigning with her mother, Fernandes said in Bellary yesterday: ?What is this I love Bellary, my mummy loves Bellary?? He also called Congressmen eunuchs for not being able to find another leader.

Vajpayee has mildly disapproved of attacks on Sonia but stuck to the NDA?s position that she remains a ?foreigner even though she is an Indian citizen?. He has also said that Sonia should be barred from any high office.

Responding to Sonia Gandhi?s charge of corruption against the PMO, Vajpayee today said he ?cast it aside with the contempt it deserved?.

Sibal?s response to Fernandes today read like a chargesheet. He alleged that the defence minister was in league with militant outfits that were killing Indian jawans in the Northeast, that he was in cahoots with the assassins of Rajiv Gandhi, that he was intellectually dishonest and financially corrupt. Sibal also alleged that Fernandes was a ?booth capturer? and ?dubious fund-collector?.

To turn the tables on the NDA?s campaign against Sonia, Sibal labelled Fernandes an anti-national and a threat to national security as defence minister. ?Only because Fernandes? heart bleeds for Prabhakaran is he so belittling of the IPKF saga. LTTE mouthpieces mention Fernandes with almost the same reverence as Prabhakaran. He has intimate links with insurgents, militants and people with dubious causes that require some explanation.?    

Mumbai, Aug. 29 
For Sharad Pawar, it?s 20 or nothing.

If he makes the 20-mark, Pawar believes he will be in a position to dictate terms in the 13th Lok Sabha.

Pawar has seen the clout Jayalalitha wielded with 18 MPs, Mulayam Singh with 20 and Laloo Yadav with 17. Even the Samata Party and Telugu Desam, which had 12 seats each, were important players in the dissolved House.

Opinion polls are giving Pawar?s party between 14 and 18 seats in Maharashtra. Outside the state, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) can only hope to win from Tura in Meghalaya, where P.A. Sangma is contesting.

There is a big difference between 14 and 18, admit Pawar?s supporters. Eighteen might just be enough, but 14 could be a disaster. Not only would Pawar have less clout, his position as senior partner in the alliance with Mulayam would also come under threat. It is crucial that his party gets more seats than the Samajwadi Party.

Pawar has launched an aggressive campaign, hardselling his image as a ?proud? son of the soil who rebelled against the leadership of Sonia Gandhi.

But it is unlikely to sway the committed votebanks of either the BJP-Shiv Sena or the Congress. He could hurt the Congress, but in the process is likely to help the BJP-Sena combine.

The four-month-old NCP cannot hope to poll more than 30 per cent of the total votes in Maharashtra. Even that might be an ambitious target.

Pawar?s best chance is in the western sugar belt, which has 12 of the 48 seats in the state. Poll pundits are willing to give Pawar eight of these seats.

But in Mumbai, which has seven seats, Pawar may not score at all. In the coastal Konkan region, he can at best pick up one of the five seats. In Marathwada, he is not likely to win more than four. Two seats might come his way in Vidarbha. The NCP is expected to do only slightly better in Khandesh or north Maharashtra.

The BJP-Sena campaign against Pawar has been muted. But afraid of losing Muslim support, he is not responding to the saffron overtures.

Pawar?s supporters are not losing hope yet. They say his campaign is only just picking up and the party could well win 20 seats. ?Twenty, at least, could be 24,? state party president Chhagan Bhujbal said.

The Nationalist Congress is hoping the Vajpayee-led alliance will not reach the 273-mark and that there will be another round of political realignments. In such a scenario, Pawar might stand a chance of making a bid for prime ministership or, at the very least, play kingmaker.

Pawar himself claims he is not in the race for the Prime Minister?s post. He said a few days ago he was willing to support a Congress government minus Sonia Gandhi.

Once the elections are over and if he gets close to 20 seats, Pawar can begin discussions with Jayalalitha, Mamata Banerjee, Biju Janata Dal and Telugu Desam to form a broader front.    

New Delhi, Aug. 29: 
India is likely to come under mounting pressure to dismantle its nuclear programme when the G8 task force meets in New York on September 7 to discuss Delhi?s draft doctrine and non-proliferation in South Asia.

The US had severely criticised India?s nuclear draft released this month on grounds that it might spark an arms race in South Asia. The task force is likely to back the US and renew its demand that India and Pakistan dismantle their nuclear programmes.

The task force was set up by the G8 at its Birmingham meeting in June last year a few weeks after the tit-for-tat nuclear tests by India and Pakistan.

Apart from the G8 nations ? the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia ? the task force includes representatives from China, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, Australia and Ukraine, all of whom have a strong stand on the South Asian tests.

One of the main objectives of the task force is to implement the UN Security Council resolution calling for dismantling the Indian and Pakistani nuclear programmes. The resolution also urges both countries to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty without further delay or pre-conditions.

India has rejected the resolution and said the task force lacks a mandate. ?Why should we take cognisance of it? Who has approved its setting-up?? South Block officials asked.

Foreign ministry officials tried to play down the US reaction and said the criticism was due to lack of proper understanding of the text. They said the draft aimed at generating a debate on the nuclear issue and conformed to India?s policy of transparency on issues of national importance.

The officials said foreign minister Jaswant Singh, who will be in New York for the UN General Assembly meet, will speak to US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and other senior officials of the Clinton administration to clarify India?s stand.

Ukraine, the chairman of the task force, Argentina and Brazil have been forced to give up their nuclear programmes. Australia has been among the sharpest critics of the South Asian tests, and China has consistently sought the implementation of the UN resolution. Beijing today repeated the appeal to Delhi and Islamabad.

Delhi feels the task force was set up to legitimise Islamabad?s stand that South Asia is a nuclear flashpoint and unless a solution is found to the Kashmir dispute, the security environment in the region may fast deteriorate.    

Gandhinagar, Aug. 29: 
Maybe it is the heat. But for some reason known only to himself, T.N. Seshan is campaigning barefoot. Through muck and dirt, from village to village, Seshan hums, guffaws and snorts his way along his campaign trail. All without shoes.

Seshan?s opponent in Gandhinagar, L.K. Advani, does not seem to be much bothered by Seshan?s novel ploy. The BJP is trying to project him as small fry, as someone over whom there is no point losing sleep. ?It is no go for him,? said BJP spokesman Bharat Pandya, complacence personified.

The BJP is taking care to appear unfazed. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee dismissed queries on Seshan?s candidature with a disdainful flick of his wrist and a long closed-eyed silence. ?It is too insignificant a question,? he said. But it is clear that the BJP is not taking Seshan lightly. The party has pulled out all stops to halt Seshan in his tracks.

The BJP first accused him of being anti-Narmada. They brought out photocopies of an article which quoted Seshan as saying that the Sardar Sarovar project should be scrapped. But the former chief election commissioner gave back as good as he got. ?Being a humanist, I had said that the project should not forget the plight of poor tribals whose villages would be submerged. My contention was that rehabilitation should be complete. Only a mad man will oppose the project,? he said, checkmating the BJP?s move.

The BJP then accused Seshan of being power-hungry and a manipulator. ?He is just a power-hungry bureaucrat-turned-politician. No one should take him seriously,? chief minister Keshubhai Patel said. Seshan called a press meet the next day and after the mandatory khem cho (?How are you? in Gujarati), said: ?I am just a poor servant, a civil servant who is hungry for the love of the people.?

State home minister Haren Pandya accused Seshan of violating the code of conduct by addressing a group of co-operative workers in Gandhinagar without the permission of the government. Seshan folded his hands and said: ?I am sorry if I broke any rules.? The election commissioner was placated, Seshan emerged unscathed.

Seshan ? who looks odd in his Gandhi cap and tricolour scarf ? came out with a clincher on Raksha Bandhan day. The BJP had been harping on Seshan being an ?outsider? and telling the electorate: ?He cannot understand you, nor you him.? To counter that, Seshan had 70 women tie rakhis on his wrist. The ?new bhaiyya? of Gandhinagar, brimming with smiles and enthusiasm, offered pedas to his happy ?sisters?. ?I am one of you,? he told them.    


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