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Centre flags down Heptulla's US trip

September 28, 2004 21:35 IST
Indian Council of Cultural Relations chief Najma Heptulla is fast learning that it does not pay to criticise Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, quit the party, cross over to arch-rival Bharatiya Janata Party and hope to prosper.

Her refusal to quit as the ICCR head and make way for a nominee of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government has brought her grief as was reflected in its recent decision not to grant her permission to visit the US for a function in the Indian embassy in Washington.

Heptulla sought permission from the government to visit the Indian mission in Washington, where she was to unveil a statue of Mahatma Gandhi on his birth anniversary - October 2.

She had also made arrangements to visit the Indian embassy in Rome to witness a Kathak dance performance by noted exponent Shila Mehta, who is empanelled with the ICCR, sources said.

However, the government did not give clearance for her proposed tour with Congress sources contending that it was a 'tit-for-tat' for her volte-face. Heptulla became the ICCR chief in 2000 when she was still in the Congress. But on learning that she could be deprived of a Rajya Sabha seat, she began kow-towing with the BJP, which she gradually joined.

That's how her alienation with the Congress started. Her joining the BJP caused much consternation among Congress members, especially when she took to criticising Sonia in whose party she had spent almost four decades.

Toeing the BJP line, Heptulla said just before the 2004 parliamentary polls that the Congress chief could not know the spirit of India by embarking on roadshows.

However, Sonia elicited tremendous response during her roadshows and election observers attributed them to the party's victory over the BJP at the hustings.

Infuriated Congress leaders including Anand Sharma hinted that Heptulla's jettisoning the Congress for the BJP for clinging to power was not surprising.

Congress workers, however, emphasised that the party high command would teach her an appropriate lesson if it came to power. That is what seems to have exactly happened although the government is tight-lipped about it.

The prime minister's office has not cleared the ICCR chief's foreign trip and there is precious little that she can do about it. "You will remember that there is some controversy about her (Heptulla) overspending from the funds of the Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson. It came to light several weeks ago. I think we don't want such wasteful, purposeless expenditure," pointed out Congress secretary Wasim Ahmed referring to Heptulla's proposed foreign tour.

Heptulla's only 'insurance' is that she has a five-year contract as the ICCR chief and she knows that she can go to court if the UPA government tries to remove her. With her contract due to expire in 2005, she knows that she has some more time to head her organisation.

But she also knows that the remainder of her term as the ICCR chief will be constricted and claustrophobic because the Manmohan Singh government is in no mood to forgive or forget the omissions and commissions of a former party member.
Tara Shankar Sahay in New Delhi