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|October 11, 1999||
Powerful groups out to dislodge Fernandes, Sinha
Josy Joseph in New Delhi
The diversity of the 24-member alliance he heads has begun to unsettle Atal Bihari Vajpayee's cabinet formation plans. Now the process has been further slowed down after powerful groups upped their campaign against the defence and finance ministers.
A section of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, some powerful industrial groups and south Indian political allies are putting pressure on George Fernandes and Yashwant Sinha.
Sources said the possibility of two being reinstated are "very much under consideration", but said a last-minute change in plans is still possible.
According to sources familiar with the process of cabinet formation, Fernandes's return to South Block as defence minister is under threat. A powerful lobby in the RSS has already told the prime minister there was a need for a man from the Bharatiya Janata Party in South Block.
The Sangh Parivar believes senior BJP leaders should retain the core ministries -- such as home, defence, finance and human resource development. Many RSS loyalists in the BJP share this feeling. But, given the nature of the coalition, this is out of the question.
Fernandes's controversial tenure has is forcing several people in the BJP to persuade Vajpayee to do a rethink on the Samata Party leader's presence in South Block. The dismissal of Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat had the Vajpayee government enough trouble, and Fernandes's utterances during the Kargil conflict have also made members of the National Democratic Alliance hot under the collar. There is also the fact that he's been sympathetic to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Burmese rebels.
This has also drawn flak from neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China.
"Any decision on the LTTE -- the Sri Lankan problem -- will be too sensitive for us to handle. The feelings about the Rajiv Gandhi murder and several other issues can backfire on us if we allow these individuals to dictate our policy on Sri Lanka," a senior BJP leader said.
The Myanmar government had earlier this year protested to the Indian government against the support Fernandes extends to Burmese rebel students. The protest was officially handed over during a flag meeting between the sector officers of the Indian and Burmese armies. There is also a strong resentment in the Chinese establishment over Fernandes having said it was India's enemy number one.
Though they ruled out foreign protests influencing Vajpayee's final decision, sources added, "But we cannot ignore them." In the post-Kargil period, with even China acknowledging the problem of Islamic fundamentalism, India is looking forward to better ties with China, ties that Fernandes's reinduction could jeopardise.
Already, many senior officials in the armed forces are against Fernandes, but these are subdued voices. But, in the post-Kargil period, it is learnt that relations between Fernandes and army chief General V P Malik chilled considerably. General Malik is apparently upset that Fernandes and the rest of the political establishment failed to defend the army from criticism.
Fernandes has already expressed his willingness to stay out of the race but sources said there were few options for him. Sources said Fernandes could even be made a powerful minister in the PMO but the BJP may not like the idea.
With several mega-deals and days of sensitive dealing ahead, Vajpayee has a daunting task before him in electing the new defence minister.
Meanwhile, there is also an intense lobbying going on in the capital over the choice of the new finance minister. Incumbent Yashwant Sinha is seemingly upset since a powerful industrial lobby and the BJP's political allies from south India are demanding that he be replaced.
From the five-star New Delhi office of a leading Bombay-based industrial group, major moves are reportedly on to dislodge Sinha. A BJP general secretary close to the RSS, the editor of a newspaper run by the industrial group and several others have been allegedly conspiring against Sinha.
The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Telugu Desam Party too want their candidate as finance minister. The DMK wants to put up Murasoli Maran, while the TDP has suggested the name of former Reserve Bank of India governor and present Andhra governor R Rangarajan.
There are also reports that the finance ministry could be split into two, and that both Sinha and Maran could be accommodated. But a final decision is yet to come through.
And till such time that it is taken, the various groups will continue jockeying for power.
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