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October 11, 1999


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PM under intense pressure over portfolios

Tara Shankar Sahay in New Delhi

The tension among the constituents of the National Democratic Alliance reached explosive proportions early this morning as they mounted relentless pressure on Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to take cognisance of their claims in the distribution of ministerial portfolios.

Despite the 'everything-is-hunky-dory' projection by Vajpayee and his senior Bharatiya Janata Party colleagues, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Trinamul Congress have put their foot down for getting the portfolios of their choice, leaving the prime minister with a tough task as he gets down to the delicate business later today.

Apparently, Vajpayee's assertion yesterday that all the NDA allies will be accommodated in his government has fallen on deaf ears as the allies have kept up pressure to get the maximum possible benefit.

"I am confident that Vajpayeeji will do my party justice in the allocation of ministries," said Trinamul chief Mamata Banerjee at her party office opposite the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in New Delhi. "He gave me a patient hearing and now it is up to him." She refused to elaborate.

According to well-placed Bharatiya Janata Party sources, Mamata is angling for the railway portfolio and also wants a Cabinet berth for senior party colleague and former Union minister Ajit Kumar Panja. Panja himself was bubbling with enthusiasm at the prospect of becoming a central minister.

"After all, the Trinamul Congress is a force to reckon with, especially since it has dealt a body blow to the Marxists in West Bengal," Panja pointed out. "I am sure Atalji recognises our party's electoral performance and he will treat our party accordingly in the distribution of portfolios."

If there were aggressive undertones to the Trinamul leaders' bid for central berths, the DMK's attempts in this direction were equally sharp.

The fact that DMK chief and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi has postponed by a couple of days his party's executive meeting to go into the question of whether it would join the Vajpayee government or not is a clear signal aimed at exerting additional pressure on Vajpayee to concede the ministries of the DMK's choice.

Soon after the electoral results in Tamil Nadu were known, the DMK leadership lost no time in talking about party leader Murasoli Maran's 'bright prospects' in getting the Union industry ministry, apart from various central portfolios for other party candidates.

"By giving the impression that the DMK might go the Telugu Desam Party way and not join the Vajpayee government at all but support it from outside, Karunanidhi and company have only aggravated Vajpayeeji's ponderous task," said a senior BJP vice-president. "The initial euphoria of the NDA's victory at the hustings is over and the pitfalls of a coalition government are surfacing," he emphasised.

Although Vajpayee made it known yesterday that the TDP's not joining his government 'for the time being' would have no effect on its stability, BJP sources indicated that the prime minister was actively engaged in persuading TDP chief Nara Chandrababu Naidu to abandon his stance. It is understood that Vajpayee is even wooing Naidu with some 'plum' ministries but the TDP chief remains adamant about giving the government issue-based support from outside.

The TDP's spectacular victory in Andhra Pradesh -- it has won 29 parliamentary seats -- has given Naidu a massive clout in politics at the Centre but it has also given him a headache of sorts.

According to TDP sources in New Delhi, a overwhelming majority of the newly-elected party MPs are keen on becoming central ministers and this has left the party chief a difficult job about whom to include and whom to exclude. The sources said Naidu would be meeting his party MPs again today 'to sort out urgent matters'.

Relentless pressure is being mounted by the Janata Dal-United leaders for their inclusion in the government. Close aides of JD-U president Sharad Yadav maintained that there were five claimants for Cabinet berths --- George Fernandes, Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramkrishna Hegde, Sharad Yadav and Nitish Kumar.

"Vajpayee will have a tough job in deciding whom he will favour among these,'' they pointed out. They indicated the possibility of Nitish Kumar, former railway minister, being sent to Bihar (the BJP-JD-U combine has bagged 40 out of the 54 seats in the state) in view of the forthcoming assembly elections in the state. It is learnt that Nitish Kumar has reconciled himself to this eventuality.

The Biju Janata Dal, which won 10 seats in Orissa at the expense of the Congress, is likely to get two central portfolios even though it has demanded three.

The Shiv Sena, which won 15 seats in Maharashtra, is said to be in an aggressive mood and reportedly wants three ministries in the NDA government. The talk in New Delhi is that Bal Thackeray's party will get two Cabinet berths and one minister of state.

Om Prakash Chautala's Indian National Lok Dal, which won five seats in Haryana, wants an agriculture-related ministry and Vajpayee is said to be favourably disposed on this issue, especially considering that Chautala is 'politically notoriously volatile'.

However, Vajpayee's own partymen are mounting extreme pressure on him to give them the lion's share in the allocation of portfolios. The BJP headquarters at 11Ashoka Road in New Delhi has been the hub of activity right from early this morning with party leaders ensconced in various meetings.

But in an apparent 'fair-handed' move, Vajpayee has told his party MPs that he will first decide on the ministries for the NDA allies and only then turn his attention to the BJP. Of the seven BJP MPs from Delhi, five want to be in the government -- Jagmohan, V K Malhotra, Madan Lal Khurana, Sahib Singh Verma and Vijay Goel.

Vajpayee's skill in the distribution of central portfolios would determine, to a large extent, the durability of his government.

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