Virendra Kapoor

Pout still firmly in place, former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao is back in action.

At state investitures and banquets you can see him without squinting. More to the point, you will see Congress bigwigs -- party chief Sonia Gandhi included -- treating him with utmost deference.

What has wrought this change in Rao's status? Not long ago he was persona non grata with most Congressmen, and Sonia had made little attempt to conceal her disdain for him.

Seems an astrologer recently predicted that Rao stood a good chance of becoming prime minister all over again. This may well be one of those wild ones that most soothsayers come out with to keep their influential patrons in good humour, but the fact is that it has worked wonders for Rao.

As for Sonia, she has another reason to be nice to the old man: former Congress president Sitaram Kesri, whom she had flung unceremoniously out of office, is spewing venom against her with newfound vigour. So it makes sense trying to keep at least one of her two immediate predecessors in good humour.

Chacha Kesri, for his part, never misses an opportunity to remind his interlocutors that under Sonia the Congress bagged the lowest number of seats in any parliamentary election.

"We got 32 seats less now than when I was the party chief. Yet no one asks her to resign!" Chacha grumbles to anyone who lends him an ear.

Wise friends, foolish sycophants

Such is the air of comradeship between Rao and Sonia now that when the latter heard the government was about to reconstitute the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts Trust she asked the former to intercede on her behalf.

Sonia is said to have told Rao that since he enjoyed a good rapport with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he should try and prevent the trust's impending recast.

Rao was only too glad to help. He spoke to the prime minister. PM's Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra, Attorney General Soli Sorabjee and former Union finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh met to discuss the matter.

The government was more than willing to meet Sonia half way. Very well, it said, she could complete her 10-year term as trust president. But other trustees should offer their resignations so that the trust could be reorganised.

Both Rao and Dr Singh were happy with the compromise. But former Union minister and a IGNCA trust member Ram Niwas Mirdha would have none of it. He was all for confrontation.

Sonia, unfortunately for her, yielded to Mirdha's firespitting and despatched him for talks with the government. Mirdha, keen to get the Congress nomination to the Rajya Sabha, spoilt the good work done by Rao and Dr Singh, threatening the government with dire consequences should it press ahead with the reconstitution of the trust.

Pointedly, thanks to Rao's personal intervention, Vajpayee had ordered that the negotiations between Sonia's representatives and the government should be handled in the Prime Minister's Office. Union Minister for Culture Ananth Kumar had no role to play in these parleys. But because Mirdha behaved in an unbecoming manner, the latter hurried with the order, sending the entire trust packing. That he let Sonia continue for the few remaining months of her 10-year tenure was the only concession he made.

Clearly, Sonia had failed to distinguish between good and bad advice -- between that of arguably the two most cerebral members of the party and a run-of-the-mill Jat leader from Rajasthan.

In the name of the Internet

It has the making of a controversy that can embarrass the Vajpayee government no end.

Behind the proposal to float a Rs 10-billion company to take information technology to the remotest parts of India, there lies a keen financial objective. The proposed company, Sankhya Vahini India Limited, is supposed to be a joint venture of the Government of India and IU Net, a United States-based company.

Contrary to the claim that IU Net is a subsidiary of the Carnegie Mellon University, we have it on good authority that the latter's financial stake is minimal. The chief motivator for the Sankya Vahini India is a former adviser to the Government of India. Indian educational institutions are being denied the chance to invest in the new company on the ground that they have no investible funds of their own.

This, when some private educational trusts are flush with funds and would like to invest in Internet technology.

On his way out

The hottest buzz in town is that Secretary in the PMO N K Singh is being moved out of his all-powerful perch.

Where he will be despatched to is a matter of speculation. But there is near unanimity that wherever he is sent, this great survivor would yet again land on his feet.

There is some talk of finding him a sinecure in Geneva. Those who know Nandubabu -- yep, that's how he is known to friends -- readily concede that even in that rarefied atmosphere of secret banks and bankers, the Bihar cadre IAS officer, who cut his teeth as an assistant to the late commerce minister Lalit Narain Mishra, will flourish.

The reason cited for Nandubabu's fall from grace is former deputy director in the Enforcement Directorate Ashok Aggarwal's confessional statement. He is said to have told the Central Bureau of Investigation that he bypassed his immediate superior, then ED Director M K Bezbaruah, because of his boss's boss. Namely, Singh.

Singh, Aggarwal is said to have said, was then the revenue secretary and issued contrary orders to him.

Heads or tails, Maneka loses

Maneka Gandhi feels that everyone is unfair to her.

The minister of state for social justice and empowerment is exasperated with the ministry of information and broadcasting for the latter's failure to revive her favourite show on pets, Heads and Tails.

The half-hour weekly show was temporarily taken off the air on the eve of the last parliamentary poll. This was in keeping with the Election Commission directive that barred any programme featuring politicians in the electoral fray.

Soon after the election, Maneka politely reminded the DD bosses to revive her show. But to no avail. She then complained to her old friend and Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Arun Jaitley.

Jaitley, for reasons known only to him, is stringing her along, saying neither yes nor no.

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