Virendra Kapoor

Despite grim evidence of the State having withered away in Orissa following the cyclone, the Congress high command has abandoned the idea to replace Chief Minister Girdhar Gamang with a relatively effective Janaki Ballabh Patnaik. In the wake of reports from Orissa that the state administration collapsed after the cyclone and that there was no one to take the relief to the millions rendered homeless, the coterie at 10, Janpath decided to sack Gamang. But at the last moment it persisted with the status quo.


Because it was felt that Patnaik was not a hundred per cent loyal to Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi. And the evidence of his disloyalty?

Well, wasn't he in touch with former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao? The clincher, of course, was that any move to replace Gamang with Patnaik would further consolidate anti-coterie voices within the Congress party.

According to a senior member of the Congress Working Committee, the establishment at 10, Janpath -- Sonia's home -- felt such a step would mark the reversal of all the major pre-poll decisions taken by it. And expose the party leadership to ridicule. The fateful decisions, since duly reversed, included the snapping of ties with Bansi Lal's Haryana Vikas Party after the Congress bailed out his government on the floor of the assembly, and the belated break with Laloo Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar.

Gamang, a tribal Christian, was picked as Patnaik's successor in January after the anti-Christian attacks in Orissa. His dismissal less than a year after his installation would have confirmed the Mohammad bin Tughlak-like nature of the cabal around Sonia.

Hence, it made much of Patnaik's doubtful loyalty to her to thwart his comeback. The Gamang government's failure to cope with the aftermath of the cyclone's devastation can be condoned, but not Patnaik's alleged proximity to Rao.

Such was the paralysis of the state administration that piles of human bodies and animal carcasses still remain to be cleared. State government employees refused to dispose of the bodies. The army had to fly urgent sorties with hundreds of sweepers from the New Delhi Municipal Committee to do the needful.

It is a measure of the central government's loss of faith in the state administration that it has now decided to route relief and rehabilitation material to the victims of the cyclone through reputable NGOs rather than Gamang's government.

Taking readers for a ride?

The prominent box in bold ink on the op-ed page of The Hindu on November 16 said it all. And said it so authoritatively as if the writer of the report, the newly-anointed New Delhi news bureau Chief, Harish Khare, was witness to what the headline said, 'Duke's gaffe embarrasses Queen.'

Khare's Durban datelined report began thus: 'The Duke of Edinburgh has done it again! And the Indian delegation moving with Prime Minister Vajpayee is at its wit's end! At the one to one meeting between Vajpayee and Queen Elizabeth last Saturday, Prince Philip poked his royal nose into what was essentially a diplomatic tete-a-tete between the two countries. The prince is believed to have made the most inappropriate remark when the queen expressed her concern over the death and devastation as a result of the cyclone in Orissa. His remark was to the effect that the Indian authorities should not be too worried about the deaths of a few thousands in a nation groaning under the weight of a population of one billion plus.'

The report further said the queen was stunned by the duke's intervention while 'an embarrassed Vajpayee smiled away the incident.'

The very next day the paper, which prides itself on being a paper of record, boxed a small announcement saying the said story was a 'hoax.' Mysteriously, the denial said 'the story was sent to The Hindu as from Harish Khare in Durban and published as there was no reason to suspect mischief. We regret the error.'

Following the denial, there was speculation about the identity of the actual author and sender of the story. People familiar with Khare's reportage believed he was both its author and sender -- and the denial was his way to hide his embarrassment. Khare from Durban had also reported that the prime minister's bandhgalla suit -- could do with ironing and that he was seated in the third row at the inaugural session of CHOGM.

A devious strategy

With Vajpayee emerging stronger after the recent parliamentary poll, his detractors have devised a devious strategy to try and rock the seemingly stable ruling coalition. The strategy is simple: Try and create a rift between Vajpayee and Lal Kishenchand Advani by showing the latter as a cypher and generally painting the Prime Minister's Office as more powerful than all the ministers put together.

The idea was to show that after Vajpayee, the most powerful man in the government was not Home Minister Advani or any other member of the Cabinet, but his Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra.

A concerted campaign was launched against Mishra which virtually made it out as if he was the deputy prime minister. As part of the same gameplan another report surfaced which said Advani was annoyed with the prime minister for having been bypassed in the appointment of M Rajendran, a former chief secretary of Tamil Nadu, as the new governor of Orissa.

The truth is that the proposal to appoint Rajendran was mooted Advani in his capacity as Union home minister. The file was sent up to the prime minister, who after approving the proposal, forwarded the same for necessary sanction to the President. So much for the Vajpayee-Advani rift over Rajendran.

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