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|September 15, 2001|
The prime minister, having recovered his sang froid, is once again in communicative mode.
The flurry of interviews in recent days were carefully planned. The Indian Express was granted the first in a series of interviews scheduled with senior editors. Express Editor Shekhar Gupta naturally evoked envy in his peer group with the capital's largest-selling daily, The Hindustan Times unable to hide its pique.
HT commented that Atal Bihari Vajpayee had spoken to quite a few Hindi newspapers as well. The fact is Shekhar was granted an exclusive interview while the editors of some half-a-dozen Hindi papers were herded together for a chit-chat over chai and pakoras. What is more, the Express interview yielded a nugget or two of hitherto unknown information. Like the bit about President Clinton wanting Vajpayee to fly down to Washington at the peak of the Kargil war so that he could tell then Pakistan premier Nawaz Sharif in his (Vajpayee's) presence to back off from Indian territory. But Vajpayee refused, firmly asserting that he would not step out of India till his troops had cleared the aggression in Kargil.
One editor cut up with the PM for having denied him the privilege of a one-to-one interview ahead of everyone else was Prabhu Chawla.
The editor of India Today, the country's largest selling weekly newsmagazine, no longer registers on the antenna of the Prime Minister's Office thanks to Chawla's ways. Chawla and his magazine have been sharp in their criticism of Vajpayee and his government in recent weeks. That may partly explain the PMO's decision to treat Chawla as a non-person. The major reason, as one PMO source put it, was that Chawla wanted to 'appropriate Vajpayee and the PMO' exclusively for his magazine.
Vajpayee also met a group of editors under the aegis of the Editors Guild. While nothing of interest emerged from this meeting the exchanges were marred by the insistence of one member of the Guild to harp on her favourite peeve. Mrinal Pande repeatedly complained about Hindi being given step-motherly treatment by Doordarshan, despite polite attempts by Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj and the prime minister to move on to another subject. Eventually, Vajpayee had to sternly tell her to let go so that they could engage in more fruitful discussion.
Singh, Sinha, Shourie
Notwithstanding the claim in a New Delhi newspaper which claimed that Home Minister L K Advani had suggested that Arun Shourie replace Yashwant Sinha as finance minister, the fact is Advani firmly told the prime minister that any change in the finance ministry at this juncture would send a wrong signal to the country. Since a corporate czar wanted Sinha removed from the finance ministry, Advani argued, shifting him would convey the feeling that the government was vulnerable to pressure from the industrial house.
Indeed, Shourie's name was floated by the industrial house in question. The prime minister was not averse to the idea till Advani advised him against it.
Interestingly, Shourie and the controversial N K Singh, the IAS officer who on superannuation was made a member of the Planning Commission, are on the best of terms. Shourie is said to have helped Singh get the extension at the PMO at the end of which he helped him become a Planning Commission member. Singh has been only too keen to see his friend as finance minister. Incidentally, Singh and Sinha had a famous falling out a couple of years ago and since then they are hardly on speaking terms.
Ambassador sans Ambassadors
America's new ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, may have presented his credentials to President K R Narayanan only on September 14, but he has already undertaken official tours outside the capital.
Until he presented his credentials, India could not officially accord him the status of ambassador. But this did not prevent Blackwill from visiting Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan in the short time he has been in India. The state governments in Gandhinagar, Jaipur and Mumbai were hard put to decide on the status of Blackwill's visits since the protocol department at the ministry of external affairs insisted he could not be officially accorded ambassadorial treatment.
The three governments in order to get round the official bar showed the expenses incurred on Blackwill's visit under a separate head. According to protocol rules even state chief ministers were not expected to grant Blackwill an audience, but nonetheless he called on the chief ministers concerned. Blackwill travelled in armoured cars owned by the US mission, shunning the regulation state government Ambassadors. The armoured cars reached ahead of Blackwill's arrival at a airport and ferried him around till he got back into the plane.
The income tax raids on a liquor manufacturer in Bhopal earlier this year yielded a diary maintained by the distillery's owners. The diary reportedly listed among others the name of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh as one of the recipients of huge sums of money. A payment of Rs 100 million was listed against Singh's name while an entry of Rs 20 million stood against the name of the state excise minister. Singh told the state assembly he had written to the prime minister to ascertain the truth in the matter.
But this columnist learns Singh's letter to Vajpayee is so vague that the latter has merely decided to file it. Instead of seeking a CBI probe into the tell-tale entries in the said diaries seized from the Bhopal distiller, Singh wrote about the need to end the campaign of vilification. The ever-obliging Vajpayee has decided not to act in order not to embarrass his good friend!
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