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June 5, 1999
Vajpayee ignores clamour for Fernandes's head
George Iype in New Delhi
Notwithstanding the mounting pressure from Opposition parties and coalition partners to sack Defence Minister George Fernandes because of his blunders on the Kargil crisis, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is reportedly in no mood to divest his friend of the crucial portfolio.
Official sources said Vajpayee and Fernandes held a meeting on Friday where it was decided that the defence minister would not make public statements about any controversial issues relating to Operation Vijay in Kargil.
The prime minister is said to have warned Fernandes that some of his comments have created unsavoury controversies and so he should be more cautious when talking about the sensitive defence mission.
Fernandes said some of his statements had been misquoted and presented out of context to create needless controversies.
Ever since Operation Vijay was launched on May 26, the defence minister has gone from one controversy to another, forcing senior defence officers and diplomats to warn the prime minister that it could demoralise the troops fighting the Pakistani intruders in Kargil.
Fernandes first said that neither the Nawaz Sharief government nor Pakistan's notorious Inter-Service Intelligence had a role to play in the infiltration of insurgents into the Kargil sector.
He also suggested that India was willing to offer safe passage to the militants, if such a proposal cropped up during the foreign ministerial summit originally scheduled for next week.
Such comments from the defence minister have forced the Bharatiya Janata Party, its coalition partners and the main Opposition Congress to demand his removal.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi met Vajpayee three days ago to protest against Fernandes's statements and demand his removal.
On Friday, former prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral wrote to Vajpayee urging him to move Fernandes to another ministry.
Sources said the BJP leadership also wanted Vajpayee "to shift Fernandes to another ministry" as his statements since the Kargil operations began have embarrassed the government.
BJP leaders complained that such remarks from the defence minister amounted to demoralising troops fighting the intruders in Kargil.
The BJP's coalition partners like the Trinamool Congress, the Biju Janata Dal and the Shiromani Akali Dal have also told the prime minister that Fernandes should be divested of the defence portfolio in the government's interests.
"We do not want more blunders from the defence minister as it will create further controversy and send the signals that the government is politicising the Kargil crisis," a BJP official said.
BJP sources said the party wants the prime minister to take over the defence ministry as it is unlikely the Kargil operations will end soon.
Since he took charge of the defence ministry last year, the firebrand unionist has been in the thick of controversies -- first for labelling China as India's biggest potential enemy, then for sacking navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat.
But sources said Vajpayee is no mood to sack him for two reasons.
First, Fernandes has been Vajpayee's adviser and political trouble-shooter in the past 14 months.
Secondly, shifting Fernandes at this juncture would give the impression that the Kargil operation was a miscalculated move and the defence ministry had failed to detect and prevent the armed intrusion by Pakistani soldiers and Afghan mercenaries across the Line of Control.
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