|July 21, 2001|
Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj was not the real reason for the failure of the Agra summit. But the glib Swaraj unwittingly played into the hands of the Pakistani delegation when she spoke out of turn without authorisation. She became the excuse the Pakistanis were looking for to pack their bags and leave Agra without an amicable agreement.
Swaraj was not part of the official delegation to the summit, She arrived in Agra, ostensibly to oversee the media arrangements and to ensure that Doordarshan and All India Radio did a good job of covering the event. That she came to Agra on her own was clear from the fact that there was no booking for her at the Jaypee Hotel where the Indian delegation stayed.
She was more or less at a loose end in Agra, but nonetheless made herself busy doing the rounds of the media centre, inquiring if the arrangements for food/coffee/cold drinks etc were satisfactory. On her rounds she would be followed by the inevitable entourage of I&B officials. Journalists, starved for news, would clamour for information. And that is how Swaraj walked into the Pakistani trap.
She called an official at the Prime Minister's Office, who was not part of the Indian delegation, and asked him how the talks were going. The PMO official mentioned the issues Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee would take up with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. And lo and behold! the minister was holding forth on Doordarshan and other television channels on the summit, omitting in passing the 'K' word.
The rest, as they say, is recent history. The Pakistan delegation latched onto her out-of-turn remarks, first to launch a post-midnight diatribe against India, and then at Musharraf's breakfast meeting with Indian editors.
We hear the normally tranquil Vajpayee ticked off Swaraj, who, expectedly, wept and proclaimed her innocence. Later, her friends in the media orchestrated a salvage operation, but it was too late.
When journos turned advisers
Most of the editors who attended Musharraf's breakfast in Agra did not know it was to be televised. Otherwise, they confess, they would have given a better account of themselves. The one who knew with certainty that the meeting was to be telecast was television anchorman Prannoy Roy. And that may be why he asked the question that pleased most Indians.
Dr Roy questioned the military dictator's credentials to seek the right of self-determination for the Kashmiris. Musharraf was miffed, saying it was a domestic matter, but nonetheless went on to answer at length.
Most of the editors advised Musharraf, with one of them droning on and on until the exasperated general wondered what the question was. One editor declared whether or not the Indian government conceded that Kashmir was the 'core' issue, he and his publication duly recognised its centrality to the resolution of the Indo-Pak dispute.
VVIP numbers wot?
When a public interest litigation in the Delhi high court, challenging the basis on which VIP registration numbers for cars were being allotted by the Delhi government came up for hearing, it revealed interesting facts.
On paper, the policy is that VVIP numbers from the numeral 1 to 9 and then onwards to 100 are allotted only for personal cars owned by high court and Supreme Court judges, senior central and Delhi government ministers, legislators, prominent artistes, etc.
A scrutiny of the records of the last couple of years revealed a different picture. Apparently, the VVIP numbers from 1 to 100 are given to those who own the most expensive cars. The reason being that anyone who can buy a Mercedes or a BMW for Rs 20-odd lakhs would not grudge spending a small fraction of that amount to get a VVIP number like '1' or '7' etc.
Hardly anyone listed in the approved category of luminaries figure in the list of allottees of VVIP numbers.
Sondhi asked to be sacked
Professor M L Sondhi, the controversial chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, had it coming. From day one, he courted controversy by his unconventional behaviour. He defied everyone in the ruling combine, using his self-proclaimed proximity to Vajpayee as a protective shield. Eventually, Vajpayee directed Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi to sack Sondhi.
The maverick had a tendency to let fly without provocation and often did things which embarrassed the powers that be. The last straw was his statement seeking Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha's resignation for the UTI fiasco.
Appointed head of ICSSR in October 1999, he had been bitterly at odds with Joshi, and often defied him publicly. The ICSSR is funded by Joshi's ministry, its annual budget exceeds over Rs 30 crores (Rs 300 million).
A former Indian Foreign Service officer, Sondhi sought premature retirement from the IFS to join the Jan Sangh, precursor of the Bharatiya Janata Party. He first came into prominence in 1967 when he won the New Delhi parliamentary seat on the Jan Sangh ticket. However, he lost subsequent elections and left the Jan Sangh during the Emergency. He returned to the BJP a few years ago and was rewarded with the ICSSR assignment.
Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh
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