Virendra Kapoor

Two women, both middle-aged, one trim, the other, er, matronly -- well, they saved the country from another change of government last week.

Under discussion are -- yep, you are right! -- Congress president Sonia Gandhi and AIADMK matriarch J Jayalalitha. The latter, if you remember, had needled Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee endlessly, raising questions about his survival in the PMO.

But last week was anything but normal -- you see, there cropped up something called female chauvinism which prevented Mata Jaya from booting out Vajpayee!

"Amma would have done it," say sources in Poes Garden, "But she was unwilling to pull the plug without first clinching a deal with the Congress about who would head the next government."

And that, precisely, was where the catch was. Amma, you see, is not on talking terms with Sonia. Not after she called the Congress president names in public.

"Jayalalitha was loath to take the lead in establishing direct contact with the Congress boss," sources reveal, "Her amour propre wouldn't allow it."

As for Sonia, she was not convinced about the viability of a Congress-led government at this juncture. She did despatch Congress Working Committee member R K Dhawan to Madras to talk things over with Amma. But Dhawan outsmarted himself: he claimed to have come on his own and not as an emissary of Sonia! A miffed Jayalalitha refused to grant him an audience despite several requests.

"He even sought the help of a controversial Bombay industrialist to get him in, but to no avail," sources claim, "But for this, Vajpayee would probably have been an ex by now..."

Women -- oh, but for them what would the mankind have done!

Heart of gold

Boy George Fernandes, our angry old defence minister, has a heart of gold. Which device he amply exposed to the Madras regiment of the Indian army recently.

Fernandes, if you recall, has been doing his bit, cheering the troops at the front-line. On a recent tour, he hit it off well with a jawan who spoke three South Indian languages while serving him refreshments. On his return to the base that evening, the minister was shocked to learn that the jawan had died in shelling from across the border.

A visibly moved Fernandes, who, unlike his predecessor Mulayam Singh Yadav, uses the defence aircraft sparingly, ordered the body flown to the jawan's home in Tamil Nadu by special plane.

Clearly, the fire-and-brimstone spewing Fernandes is soft and humane inside.

Blurred distinction

Now it is official. What had started some years ago as an aberration in one Bombay-centric newspaper chain has now got implied sanction from no less than the President of India.

On Saturday, June 27, President K R Narayanan played a warm and gracious host at tea to the press corps. This was his first formal meeting with the media. Scores of senior and not-so-senior journalists exchanged pleasantries with him over light refreshments.

Veterans of several such receptions, however, were surprised to find manager-types and PR executives rubbing shoulders with the President. What particularly proved to be an eyesore to hardened journos was the presence of the almost entire managerial team of a foreign television network which has been consistently devising ways to buy official favours.

May be the President too has come to terms with the reality that freedom of the press is in effect the freedom of publishers and managers!

Paying for his honesty

There's an IAS officer called E A S Sarma who, till the other week, was the Union power secretary.

This week, he's the expenditure secretary in the Union finance ministry.

Sarma's summary transfer, from an all-important job to an unimportant one, is, according to officials, because he is honest.

Yes, that's right: because he is honest!

Officials allege that the trouble started when the officer, of the 1965 IAS cadre, known for his expertise in the power sector, resisted attempts by the Hinduja brothers to renegotiate the terms of the 1,000 MW fast-track project in Vishakhapatnam.

The government was not obliged to alter the terms of the counter-guarantee to Hinduja National Power. It was duly signed and sealed by the United Front government. But finding a more favourable regime, the Hindujas insisted on more favourable changes.

But Sarma was in the way...

Now the Hindujas are expected to have it their way, all the way in the ministry.

Power of the press

The one-step forward, two-step backward Union Budget had those odd elements extending group-specific concessions to people close to the BJP leadership.

Among those bestowed with a special favour was a relatively new weekly, whose publisher had managed to get the ears of a controversial chartered accountant close to Lal Kishinchand Advani. Yashwant Sinha's maiden Budget cut the import duty of the art paper used by the weekly drastically!

Following this, the management of the weekly was so enamoured that its voluble editor, who had had no kind word to say about the BJP, discovered overnight sterling qualities about Advani!

But the weekly did not reckon with the guiles of its more established rival. The older publication soon pressed into service its go-getter editor to try and wangle a commensurate reduction in the paper imported by it. Soon the fixer was bullying and bulldozing his way into the houses and offices of senior BJP ministers and finance ministry mandarins. In fact, so enraged was the agent of the old weekly that he exchanged hot, and largely unprintable words, with Revenue Secretary N K Singh in the office of one of the aides to the prime minister!

Now a little bird tells us that the BJP leadership has finally caved in to the pressure. The import duty on the paper used by the older weekly too will be cut. Pending the notification of the said order, the weekly has put on hold the delivery of its imported consignments.

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