Virendra Kapoor

There can but be one answer to who is the most controversial of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's men.

Ram Jethmalani.

The minister for urban welfare had crossed swords with Kiran Aggarwal, the secretary in his ministry, who questioned some of his decisions. A protracted war followed, at the end of which Aggarwal found herself disposed unceremoniously to another department.

Now, however, Aggarwal seems to be duly vindicated. The Central Bureau of Investigation has virtually endorsed the stand she took.

The CBI report submitted to Vajpayee recently says that Jethmalani's order to hand over a prime piece of plot to Pavan Sachdeva -- yes, of the MS Shoes Ltd, well, fame -- would result in a loss of over Rs 600 million to the exchequer.

Aggarwal had opposed the move tooth and nail. For which the minister stripped her off all powers and arbitrarily delegated the same to the additional secretary.

Another questionable order the CBI has indicted the minister for pertains to the acquisition of some land in Delhi belonging to the Sitaram Bhandar Trust, owned by the Birlas. Over 60 hectares was to be acquired way back in the '60s. The first instalment of the compensation had been paid, but the trust sought to challenge the acquisition order in a Delhi court.

Even before the matter could be settled legally, Jethmalani stepped in. And sought to reverse the nearly-three-decade-old acquisition order on the ground that the Delhi Development Authority no longer needed it.

As could be expected, this again found Aggarwal on his back. She fought valiantly, but the minister shook her off.

Now the CBI has upheld her objections and panned the minister for seeking to bestow undue benefits on the private trust.

Central Vigilance Commissioner N Vittal, to whom a copy of the CBI report was forwarded, meanwhile, has written to Vajpayee about it. Said he: since the matter involved a Cabinet minister only he (the PM) was competent to take "suitable action".

Vajpayee, for compelling political reasons, may not be able to drop Jethmalani. But in all likelihood, he will move the minister out of urban welfare. And reverse Jethmalani's questionable decisions.

Junketing MPs

Ever since a political quirk landed him the prestigious office of the Lok Sabha speaker, G M C Balayogi has gone places. Literally. In just under a year, junkets have flown him all over the country.

The trouble now is that many MPs are following his example -- of course, at considerable expense to the taxpayer.

Parliament's Public Accounts Committee has decided to visit some of the choicest foreign locales. Since the PAC has 22 members -- 15 from the Lok Sabha and seven from the Upper House -- a couple of Indian missions have expressed their inability to tend to the diverse needs of so many hon'ble members simultaneously. The maximum number, a big mission in Europe has said, it can cope with at a time is 15.

That in turn raised a ticklish issue: Which 15 should be on the junket?

The PAC secretariat sought guidance from the Speaker. And he up he came with a brilliant idea: Take one from each group represented in the PAC...

Meanwhile, the hon'ble MPs hate the idea of being accorded the status of state guests. For, then, they stand to lose the per diem allowance -- foreign TA, DA, etc.

Unanimity on Ratnas

The Vajpayee government has been rather generous in conferring the Bharat Ratna. But not many people know the decision to give the highest civilian award was taken by just two people. Namely, President K R Narayanan and Vajpayee.

The prime minister suggested Amartya Sen immediately after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad termed the Nobel Prize to him as a 'Christian conspiracy.' Narayanan fully endorsed the PM's suggestion.

On the eve of Republic Day, the prime minister mooted giving the Bharat Ratna to sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. The President and PM were in agreement on both counts this time as well.

Strike for pension

Perfectly in tune with the numerous conflicts in and around the Union government, two of Vajpayee's men are at odds. Over extending the pension scheme to the Navodya schools all over.

The warriors are Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha and his counterpart in human resource development, Dr Murli Manhor Joshi.

Dr Joshi wants pension benefits to the 140,000 teachers in the 38,000 schools. But Sinha says no -- no money.

Joshi's counter is that several institutions have already been granted the benefit. For instance, the Indian Homeopathic Research Centre. Why, then, deny the benefit to Navodya teachers?

Sinha, however, remains unconvinced.

To convince the finance minister, the 140,000 Navodya teachers are readying to strike work just when the examination season gets underway.

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