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|October 16, 1999||
Sharad, Paswan back Hegde to clip Fernandes's wings
Tara Shankar Sahay in New Delhi
Spurred by political ambition, Janata Dal (United) politicians Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan are supporting party dissidents against Defence Minister George Fernandes, who is under fire for allegedly getting former commerce minister Ramakrishna Hegde excluded from the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
"Everybody knows that Fernandes used his proximity to the prime minister and Home Minister [L K] Advani to keep Hegdeji out. This is intolerable, because Hegdeji is second to none in importance in the party," said a party MP from Bihar. "Our partymen have taken stock of the situation and we have arrived at the conclusion that the defence minister is responsible for the insult to Hegdeji."
He underscored that the JD-U partymen's disenchantment with Fernandes's "palace intrigue" grew after party chief Yadav's visit to Hegde to express sympathy at the latter's exclusion from the Council of Ministers.
The Yadav-Hegde meeting lasted 40 minutes and exacerbated the fury of those JD-U MPs who failed to find a berth in government and pointedly took up cudgels on the former commerce minister's behalf.
Telecommunications Minister Ram Vilas Paswan and Surface Transport Minister Nitish Kumar also extended their sympathies to Hegde, underlining their distress at the "injustice". This paved the way for the lunch hosted by Jai Narayan Prasad Nishad, MP from Muzaffarpur, where all JD-U members opposed to Fernandes were invited.
"Of course we discussed Hegdeji's exclusion from the Council of Ministers and of course we discussed who was responsible for it. If the defence minister thinks he is all-powerful, the partymen will tell him, this far and no further," Nishad told rediff.com.
He made no secret of the fact that there was much resentment in party circles against Fernandes. "We will chalk out an appropriate strategy to ensure that Hegdeji's prestige is restored," he promised.
Nishad, who joined the JD-U after leaving Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal, is also aggrieved at not getting a place in the new government. He has mobilised to his cause other aggrieved JD-U MPs like Nawal Kishore Rai, Dinesh Chandra Yadav (MP from Saharsa), Prabhunath Singh (Maharajganj) and D P Yadav (Jhanjharpur).
Significantly, all these men are angry at being excluded from government, and are using Hegde's exclusion as an excuse to lash out at Fernandes who is seen by them as the cause of their woes.
"I have won from Maharajganj thrice despite Laloo Yadav's goondaraj. This was acknowledged by the BJP leadership too. Hence my exclusion from the Council of Ministers even this time is highly improper," said Prabhunath Singh. "Since the needle of suspicion points at Fernandes, something has to be done about it," he declared.
Prabhunath Singh, a Rajput, is furious that another member of the community, Digvijay Singh, has got a ministerial berth, "apparently at my expense".
For Sharad Yadav and Paswan, the Hegde controversy has come as a godsend to cut Fernandes to size. After the JD-U's inclusion in the National Democratic Alliance, Yadav's political fortunes got a boost when he managed to defeat the RJD chief in Madhepura.
As the 'tallest' Yadav in the JD-U, Sharad Yadav sees himself as the inheritor of Laloo Yadav's mantle and political primacy at the Centre as well as in Bihar. "Sharadji knows that Fernandes is the only stumbling block in his way to greener pastures in the NDA. The present controversy has given him a handle to undo the defence minister's mischief in the central ministry-making," said another JD-U MP from Bihar.
The MP contended that while the "anti-Fernandes movement is at an ebb right now", it could escalate unless Vajpayee expands his council.
Paswan is equally keen to curb the defence minister's clout in government. With arch enemy Laloo Yadav out of the way, he thinks nobody can upset his position as the 'undisputed dalit leader' in the NDA. But knowing that the defence minister does not like any challenge from within the JD-U, Paswan has also joined the anti-Fernandes chorus.
Meanwhile, Fernandes's Samata colleague, Nitish Kumar, has watched with growing disquiet how the defence minister, despite belonging to Karnataka, has consolidated his position in Bihar where he has been re-elected from Nalanda for the fourth time.
Though Kumar shared political prestige with Fernandes in the last Vajpayee government, the defence minister's ever-greater proximity now to the prime minister and the home minister has pushed Kumar closer to the anti-Fernandes lobby within the JD-U.
Hegde himself has just told reporters that he will take his partymen into confidence on his future plans. He has maintained silence on reported moves to give him either the Planning Commission deputy chairman's slot or a gubernatorial assignment.
Thus far, Fernandes has kept mum on the nascent rebellion. His close aide and party general secretary Jaya Jaitley too has kept away from the controversy. But Fernandes loyalists in the party, while acknowledging the "murmurs of protest" at Hegde's exclusion, said his stature in the government is unassailable. "All those making a noise against the defence minister, including senior JD-U ministers, know that Georgesahib has tremendous clout. If need be, he can have some ministers dropped in the next reshuffle," they warned.
ALSO SEE: Ramakrishna Hegde's interview
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