Atal?s Davids eye Goliath?s price
Cong & NCP set up talks, kicking and screaming
Navratri curfew to abort teen wild nights

New Delhi, Oct. 9 
Even as Atal Behari Vajpayee is looking for an auspicious date and time to be sworn in for his third stint as Prime Minister, his allies have begun jockeying for plum Cabinet posts.

The non-BJP parties, which make up roughly 40 per cent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), are already indicating their preference for the weightier ministries. BJP sources, however, said the party would try and retain the ministries of home, finance, external affairs and human resources development.

The 22-member block led by the DMK, including the PMK, MDMK and ADMK(MGR), has demanded five Cabinet posts and four posts of ministers of state. DMK sources said Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi has told the Prime Minister he would like senior MPs Murasoli Maran and T.R. Balu to get the communications and petroleum portfolios, and a third MP to be made minister of state.

The DMK?s allies, including the one-member ADMK(MGR), are also demanding Cabinet berths. The BJP leaders were initially reluctant to accommodate single-MP constituents in the government. But it later dawned on them that since the norm was broken last time to induct Maneka Gandhi and may have to be bypassed again to oblige her, especially since she has retained her seat with a huge margin, other MPs too may have to be placated.

BJP sources admitted that the 20-member Janata Dal (United) was likely to throw up problems as it has five contenders for top posts ? George Fernandes, Ramakrishna Hegde, Ram Vilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar and Sharad Yadav.

Fernandes, Hegde and Nitish were senior ministers in the outgoing government, Sharad has emerged as a ?giant-killer? after vanquishing Laloo Yadav in Madhepura and Paswan?s Dalit votes contributed significantly to the landslide victory in Bihar.

The 16-member Shiv Sena, BJP sources said, was also likely to flex its muscles since it has more than doubled its tally. The Sena was content with just one Cabinet post in 1998 but its demands are likely to escalate, especially since it faces the prospect of losing the Maharashtra government.

Sena chief Bal Thackeray has been wary since reports of a tacit understanding between the BJP and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) began to do the rounds. It was speculated that the parties would come together in the event of a Sena rout. But the Sena won more seats than the BJP and the NCP both in the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections, forcing the BJP to hang on to Thackeray for survival.

BJP spokesman M.Venkaiah Naidu today denied that the party had offered the post of deputy Prime Minister to Sharad Pawar and Lok Sabha Speaker to his colleague P.A. Sangma in lieu of the NCP?s support to the ruling alliance in Maharashtra.

Mamata Banerjee?s decision to join the government may pose its own share of problems as she is believed to have asked for two Cabinet posts and one of minister of state. Mamata has made no bones about her preference for the railway portfolio, which belonged to Nitish Kumar in the outgoing government. She is also keen on the surface transport ministry, which the DMK is already eyeing.

The BJP may have the added problem of who to induct from Punjab, with the Akali Dal returning just two low-profile MPs, unlike last time when it had a heavyweight like S.S. Barnala. But sources said the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) contingent from Haryana may recompense the loss of Punjab and enable Vajpayee to maintain the balance of representation from the north-west.

Vajpayee will have to do a fair bit of jugglery to get the right mix of region, caste and gender from among his own MPs. The BJP has an enhanced presence in Rajasthan, Bihar, Maharashtra and Orissa. While Uttar Pradesh ? where the BJP suffered its worst reverses ? will be represented by Vajpayee and Murli Manohar Joshi, MPs from Rajasthan and Maharashtra, who helped turn around the party?s fortunes, are expected to voice their demands for plum posts, a BJP source said.    

Mumbai, Oct. 9 
Amid a swirling cloud of confusion, the Congress and Sharad Pawar?s breakaway group tonight headed for talks in a bid to break the deadlock in Maharashtra.

??We have received a communication from Pradesh Congress president Prataprao Bhosle...We have got the nod for talks with the Congress from our high command,?? said Chhagan Bhujbal, state chief of Pawar?s Nationalist Congress Party.

The NCP has formed a seven-member committee to negotiate with the Congress. In Delhi, Pawar hinted that he was not averse to a pact with the Congress, saying that the Lok Sabha results had vindicated his stand on Sonia Gandhi?s foreign origin. ??After the Congress seats have been whittled down to 112, the issue is no longer alive,?? he said.

But in a twist to the tale, Bhujbal added that though the NCP was holding talks with Congress leaders tonight, it was also keeping its options open.

Smarting under demands that Pawar must first apologise for his remarks against Sonia before entering into a pact, the NCP, which has 58 MLAs in the new Assembly, went on the offensive and kept up the pressure on the Congress. ??We had earlier wanted to form the government with the Congress. But now our doors are open to all,?? said NCP leader Vasant Chavan.

The party is also peeved by Bhosle?s unilateral visit to Raj Bhavan yesterday to stake claim on the government. ??You cannot take us for granted. All the friendly alliance parties, including the Janata Dal (Secular) and Samajwadi Party, are upset with the Congress for not taking them into consideration,?? fumed Bhujbal.

In an apparent reply to Pawar?s barb yesterday that the Congress was not showing enough interest in cobbling together a government, the party today made the first move by sending the talks missive to the NCP. The Congress also signalled that it was ready for a compromise with the NCP chief, with Bhosle saying that the ??issue of insisting on an apology from Pawar as a condition was talks?? was a closed chapter.

??Some people raised the demand for apology in their individual capacity,?? he said. ??As far as I am concerned, the issue is over.??

Though the Sena-BJP combine, which has 125 members in the House of 288, is yet hopeful of a last-minute breakthrough, it seems to have realised that it has a Herculean task at hand in mustering the numbers.

The party postponed its decision to meet Governor P.C. Alexander and stake claim as amavasya is believed to be inauspicious.

A scheduled meeting to elect the leader of the Sena legislature party was also called off. While deputy chief minister Gopinath Munde and other Sena-BJP leaders were present, the combine?s head honchos ? BJP leader Pramod Mahajan and Sena chief Bal Thackeray ? did not turn up at Sena Bhavan. They instead met at the Thackeray residence, Matoshree.

Hectic parleys are expected once Pawar, who was in Delhi, reaches Mumbai tonight.

But even as it proceeded to hold discussions with the Congress, rumblings surfaced within the NCP on supporting the party.

Former chief minister Sudhakarrao Naik, who is on the panel set up to negotiate with the Congress, said he was against any truck with his former party. ??It is not only a question of pride, but also a question of Pawar?s political career,?? he said.

In Delhi, Pawar scoffed at reports that he had been offered the deputy prime ministership in return for his support to a Sena-BJP government.    

Ahmedabad, Oct. 9 
Like many of her friends, 20-year-old Nandita Panchal did not head home after the garba (dancing) got over at 2 am during last year?s navratri revelry. She spent the night at one of her boyfriend?s farmhouse on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Two months later, she was hurriedly married off by her parents after she had an abortion.

Nandita is not the only one. Gynaecologists have reported that the number of abortions in the state ? particularly in cities like Ahmedabad and Vadodara ? went up by 25 per cent in the first few months after the nine nights of revelry during the navratri festival.

Worried by the ?degeneration of Gujarati society,? the government has clamped down on the timings and licences to hold garbas during the festival this year. The usual celebrations were from dusk to dawn. The police had brought forward the deadline to 1.30 am last year. This year, the deadline was made 1 am. Though the strong dandia organisers? lobby succeeded in pushing back the deadline to 1.30 am by a civil application in court, the government is keen to ensure that ?society does not degenerate any further?.

With the festivities just two days away, state education minister Anandiben Patel has asked women?s groups to conduct moral policing to stop the ?spate of abortion cases? after navratri. Expressing shock at the fact that the sale of contraceptives have risen during the festival, the minister said everyone must see to it that the relevance of navratri, a celebration dedicated to the goddess Amba, does not die.

The only time of the year when parents allow their teenaged children unlimited freedom, not objecting even if they come home after daybreak, is during the festival. Hotels do roaring business. Rooms are often rent out on an hourly basis. Youth spend nights in cars, clubs or farmhouses.

Expectedly, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which has been at the forefront of wars against ?corrupting western values?, has been happy to utilise an opportunity for moral policing. The VHP?s Gujarat strongman Narendra Togadia said parents should be more careful unless they want to see ?our future being wasted away?.

?Even conservative estimates suggest that the number of abortion cases go up by 25 per cent after navratri,? said gynaecologist and abortion specialist Hansa Shah.

Another gynaecologist Pravin Patel said: ?The number of abortions could be much greater. There are many who go out of the cities for their operations. And abortions are not the true yardsticks of the promiscuity that is rampant during the festivities.?    


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