Jaya tea party keeps parties on their toes
Pawar pitch for stand-alone Cong
Team flees from Senari rage
Top Democrat to lead US team
Congress caught in phone rate crossed wires
Belgrade seeks Delhi prop in hour of crisis
BJP longs for Rao return

New Delhi, March 25 
The Chennai hurricane sweeps into the capital of intrigue tomorrow bringing in her trail a surging wave of speculation about the fate of the Vajpayee government.

Delhi is asking: Will Subramanian Swamy�s tea party, which Jayalalitha will attend and where Sonia Gandhi is expected to be present, end Vajpayee�s party?

Two contradictory engagements top her itinerary here � the coordination committee meeting of the BJP and its allies on Saturday, where she will be under pressure to pledge support to the Vajpayee government and, Swamy�s much-talked-about high tea on Monday, where she will meet leaders of the Opposition.

Though 10 Janpath is silent, Congress sources indicated Sonia Gandhi will attend. The Congress described the tea party as �not a political event�, but few in the capital are ready to buy this argument.

During her five-day stay in Delhi, the ADMK chief is slated to meet Trinamul Congress president Mamata Banerjee, who is now not averse to an electoral tie-up with the Congress in the West Bengal municipal elections. Swamy has invited Mamata also, but the Trinamul leader said in Calcutta she is waiting to see who else is attending before making up her mind. Mamata�s indecision stands in sharp contrast to her declared resolve to not attend Saturday�s coordination committee meeting.

Sensing that trouble could be round the corner, the Prime Minister acted with alacrity and got his prot�g�, Chandni Chowk MP Vijay Goel, to host a reception for the ADMK chief on Saturday, two days before Swamy�s tea party. Apart from Jayalalitha and Vajpayee, all top BJP leaders and senior Cabinet ministers have been invited. Mamata, again, has declined the invitation. The BJP has taken great pains to cosy up to the lady from Poes Garden. Goel dropped Jayalalitha�s political foes � Union petroleum minister Vazhapadi Ramamurthy and Marumalarchi DMK chief Vaiko � from the guest list to please her.

The BJP leadership decided to convene a coordination committee meeting on Saturday to scotch speculation that Jayalalitha�s Delhi mission was aimed at destabilising the government.

BJP sources said her presence at the will send out a clear signal that the allies are united and there is no threat to the government. They also want to impress upon her that the Opposition demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the sacking of naval chief Vishnu Bhagwat is politically motivated and her party should not support the Congress in Parliament on the issue.

Swamy has invited the entire star line-up of the Opposition. Former Prime Ministers Chandra Shekhar, I.K. Gujral, H.D. Deve Gowda, Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha leaders Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav, CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet and CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan are some of the important guests. The Left leaders are unlikely to attend.

The ADMK chief�s itinerary is full of contradictions. Tomorrow she will share a platform with Gujral on one side and Vajpayee on the other. The programme has run into controversy with DMK leader and former Union minister Murasoli Maran asking Gujral in writing not to share the dais with Jayalalitha.

On Saturday, Jayalalitha will pay a �courtesy� visit to President K.R. Narayanan, while at JNU on Tuesday she will present a paper on Indo-US relations.    

Baramati (Maharashtra), March 25 
The Congress should shun alliances and stand on its own in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, instead of depending on local allies, Congress leader Sharad Pawar has said.

In an exclusive interview to The Telegraph, the leader of the Opposition in Parliament said the Congress would be better off in the event of a direct contest with the BJP. �I have always believed that even to have an alliance with non-BJP parties, the Congress should be strong in these states so that it can dictate terms. Unless you are strong and on your own, your alliance partners will not respect you,� he said.

He cited the Congress-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance in Uttar Pradesh in 1996, when the Congress played the junior partner, getting to contest only 126 of the 425 Assembly seats.

Lashing out at Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, Pawar said: �Some political parties consider Uttar Pradesh their jagir (fiefdom). They do not realise that as a political party, we also have a right to survive and work to strengthen our support-base.�

He said the spirit of the Panchmarhi brainstorming session directed that the Congress be revived in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Punjab, which together send 236 MPs to the Lok Sabha. �Unless we get a substantial number of seats from these states, we cannot get a clear majority,� he said.

The Maratha strongman also reiterated that the Congress will step in only if the Vajpayee government collapses. �If the present government goes, we have no choice but to step in. In the current political scenario it is not easy to provide a viable and stable alternative, but we will try to give one,� he said.

Pawar, however, made it clear that he was against the idea of the Congress taking the initiative to topple the government. �Where are the numbers?� he asked pointedly.

The Congress leader, though, appeared convinced that in the event of snap polls, the Congress will emerge the single-largest party. �We may not get a clear majority if the polls are held immediately, but we will be much ahead of others and be able to form the government,� he said.

Pawar ruled himself out as contender for chief ministership of Maharashtra after the Assembly polls early next year. �I am not at all interested. I want to encourage the local leadership. So many new MLAs have come that now I find a real generation gap in Maharashtra Assembly,� he said.

He also made it clear that he will not make any bid for the top job at the national level if the Congress gets the chance to form the government. �I think Sonia Gandhi has the legitimate and natural right to head the government,� he said.

He said that earlier he had decided to retire from politics at the age of 60, but now has changed his mind. He added, however: �I always believe that public personalities should set the example. They should call it a day before people throw them out.�

On retiring, he plans to devote his time to computer literacy. He is working on an Education-to-Home project which will provide Internet and digital disc facilities to 3000 schools in Maharashtra.    

Patna, March 25 
Art often imitates life. But in tragedy-torn Bihar, realpolitik imitates the comic.

Replaying to a fault a recent cartoon which showed Sonia Gandhi�s �fact-finders� trying to persuade each other to visit seething Senari first, the Congress� Delhi duo � Shivraj Patil and Meira Kumar � took the morning flight to the Capital without visiting the massacre site.

�The administration strongly advised them not to visit the place at this time, for it is in the process of normalising the situation. This was the opinion expressed by some mediapersons and others also. So, the Congress representatives decided to postpone the visit,� said a handout released by the team last evening. It was signed by Bihar Congress chief Sadanand Singh.

By listening to the �administration, the media and others�, the high command has shut out the pleas of the local Congress unit and has lent credibility to charges that the party is literally on the run in Bihar. The state unit of the party had been keen that the team make the trip to Senari. Local leaders tried their best to convince Patil and Kumar of the need for the visit. They wanted the Central representatives to see for themselves how the people felt about the Congress after it bailed out the Rabri Devi government.

Patil, who stepped out of his hotel room only once in the two days he was here, was in constant touch with Sonia Gandhi and was updating her on the situation. Even the handout was sent to Delhi for her approval.

Patil discussed the situation in detail with two leaders � Jagdish Sharma and Ram Jatan Sinha � who hail from the region. Sharma was attacked by irate villagers when he visited Senari last Friday. Sinha had returned without entering the village. Two days later, he went back only to be booed away. The villagers are furious with the Congress for helping reinstall the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) regime. Earlier, too, when seven Bhumihars were killed in Usri Bazar and four in Bhimpura, no Congress leader had dared to visit.

Even a week after the carnage, neither chief minister Rabri Devi nor RJD chief Laloo Yadav has dared to step into Senari. �We want to visit, but they (Bhumihars) don�t want us to go there,� Laloo said.

Today, the Rabri Devi government announced plans for a Rs 110-crore financial package for development projects in Jehanabad.    

Washington, March 25 
Congressman Richard Gephardt, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, will lead a delegation of lawmakers on a long-awaited visit to India to discuss foreign and trade policy.

Gephardt, an eloquent and strong party leader, will arrive in New Delhi on Sunday with nine of his colleagues, some of whom are key voices in US foreign policy. The delegation includes Nancy Pelosi, a Congresswoman from California who has taken an abiding interest in issues relating to India.

Other members include Jim McDermott, a Congressman from Washington state who visited India last month, William Delahunt (Massachusettes), Mark Foley (Florida), Dan Miller (Florida), Mike Thompson (California) and Silvestre Reyes (Texas).

A visit by such a large Congressional delegation assumes importance in light of the recently introduced Brownback-Harkin Amendment in the Senate which seeks to suspend sanctions against India for five years. A similar Bill in the House extends last year�s presidential authority to waive sanctions for one year but does not go as far as the Senate measure.

In their interaction with the delegation, Indian officials will get an opportunity to assess the mood regarding sanctions on Capitol Hill. The visiting Congressmen are scheduled to meet Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, defence minister George Fernandes and other senior leaders of the coalition.

The two sides will exchange views on the state of bilateral relations, with Gephardt likely taking a message back to President Bill Clinton.

Gephardt, who has vowed to take the House back from Republicans in the year 2000, himself has presidential potential. He bowed out of the presidential race this time, deferring to Vice-President Al Gore.

�The purpose of our India visit is to obtain an overview of India�s foreign, economic and trade policies. I am particularly interested in India�s role in the global community as it relates to regional stability and bilateral and multilateral competitiveness and economic relations,� he said in a statement.

�I have long believed that India, as the world�s largest democracy, and the United States, as the world�s oldest democracy, need to have a stronger bilateral relationship,� he added.

Gephardt has been planning a trip to India for nearly two years but at least three previous attempts were unsuccessful because of various reasons, such as elections in India and foreign policy crises in Washington.    

New Delhi, March 25 
The Congress seems to be caught in a dilemma on how to react to Trai�s defiance of the Centre�s directive to put on hold the telecom rate hike and notification of its March 9 order in the Gazette of India.

While official spokesperson Girija Vyas says the party wants the hike to be rolled back, its leader in the Rajya Sabha Manmohan Singh wants the government to respect the order and back telecom regulators who sought the hike.

The doublespeak came even as the ministry of telecommunications circulated a draft Cabinet note suggesting the Cabinet curtail Trai�s powers to fix telephone rates. The notification in the gazette would mean that the new rates � increased rental and local call charges and cut rates for overseas calls � would come into effect from April 1.

Vyas said: �Our party has asked for an immediate roll-back of the tariff announced on March 9 and notified on March 15. When Jagmohan (communications minister) announced in Parliament that telecom tariff will be kept in abeyance, it is the responsibility of the government to keep it in abeyance.�

In sharp contrast, Singh, speaking at a function organised by an Internet company, said: �Government should respect the tariff order since it was passed by a regulatory body created by the Parliament. If the government wanted to avoid the present imbroglio it should have consulted the regulator before the order was passed.�

Singh said, since the order has been notified, it is the government�s responsibility to respect and honour the order because Trai was empowered with tariff-fixing authority by a Parliament Act, adding however, he did not fully agree with the order.

Meanwhile, sources said the Cabinet will meet next week to discuss the Cabinet note sent by the ministry of communications. �The government and Parliament are seized of the matter and there is no need to react to every development,� Jagmohan said. The parliamentary consultative committee on communications, too, has pressed for an emergency meeting to discuss the issue.

The telecom commission, scheduled to meet today to discuss the issue, deferred the meeting for Monday in view of a holiday today.    

New Delhi, 25 March 
Pushed to the wall under massive Nato airstrikes since last night, Yugoslavia today turned to India and �other friendly countries� for help to build international opinion against �unprovoked and naked aggression� by the US and its allies.

An emotional Cedomir Strbac, Yugoslav ambassador in Delhi, described the Nato strikes as �totally unprovoked and unprecedented in the history of contemporary international relations. Yugoslavia had been defeated in the past, but it never had allowed itself to be enslaved. �We will fight as long as it is necessary not to be enslaved,� he said. The envoy drew a parallel between Kosovo and Kashmir. Just as Kashmiri separatists were being aided by Pakistan, so were the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) by countries which were supplying them with drugs and money, he said.

Strbac strongly rejected reports that his government had turned down the Western peace plan, saying no such plan had been discussed. �We are committed to settling the present crisis though negotiations. But it has to be honest negotiation and not just going through the motions, as was done recently in Rambouillet,� he said.

Desperately seeking friends, the Balkan republic welcomed all Indian statements made before and after the Nato strike. India has demanded an immediate end to the strikes, saying they violated the UN charter and international law.

�No country, group of countries or regional arrangement, no matter how powerful, can arrogate to itself the right of taking arbitrary and unilateral action against others; that would be return to anarchy where might is right,� Indian ambassador, Kamalesh Sharma, told the UN Security Council in New York early today.

Without naming any country, Sharma said it was particularly disturbing that neither international law nor the authority of the Security Council was being adhered to by countries who �claim to be champions� of the rule of law.    

New Delhi, March 25 
Former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao today found an unexpected ally when the BJP said it hoped the discredited Congress leader would �regain� his lost position in national politics.

BJP vice-president J.P. Mathur said he was happy that Rao, who had gone to the US for treatment, was back and in better health. �He always played a crucial role in Indian politics, and one hopes, with his health recovered, he would regain his position in the country�s politics. I have great regard for Rao and expect him to serve the nation in any capacity he would like to,� he said.

The BJP did not hold its daily press briefing today, but Mathur�s statement is being seen as a ploy to drive a wedge between Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Rao.

Rao, who was removed unceremoniously as party president by Sitaram Kesri with Sonia Gandhi�s support, is considered soft on the BJP.

Hardliners in the BJP and the RSS are trying to �rediscover� Rao, hoping he would be able to challenge Sonia Gandhi�s leadership. They are trying to undermine the Congress chief�s authority, highlighting her �perceived� failure to handle the Bihar situation.

According to some reports, a section of Congressmen accorded Rao a �rousing� welcome on Tuesday night when the former Prime Minister came back from the US. The reports said some 56 politicians turned up to meet Rao, who has remained in political wilderness since the urea and JMM pay-off scams.    


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