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Did Advani lie on Kandahar hostage swap?
Published on 28 Aug. 2009 11:11 PM IST
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BJP leader L K Advani seems to have been painted into a corner over his attempt to distance himself from the controversial decision to release three hardcore terrorists, including Maulana Masood Azhar, the dreaded chief of Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Omar Sheikh, who went on to kill Daniel Pearl. In what appeared to be a concerted move on Thursday, two crucial functionaries of the NDA government, Brajesh Mishra, close aide to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and national security advisor, and Yashwant Sinha joined the expelled leader and George Fernandes in insisting that Advani was party to the decision to swap three terrrorists for hostages on board IA flight IC-814. The claim undercuts Advani’s efforts to wash his hands off the Kandahar swap, undermines his “tough-on-terrorism” claims, and can roil the troubled BJP waters further by diminishing his ability to douse the factional feud. Now, barring former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, all other members of the Cabinet Committee on Security in the NDA government that dealt with the Kandahar hijack crisis have said that the former deputy PM was wrong in claiming that the “terrorist-for-passengers” swap was not his idea, or that he had norole to play in the decision to despatch Jaswant Singh on his controversial journey to Kandahar. After spending most of Thursday in stunned silence even when Congress pounced upon the claims of Mishra and Sinha to accuse Advani of lying, BJP hit back in the evening. Party spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad said Mishra’s comments were “misleading and motivated. This is evident as he has chosen to speak 11 years after the event.” Advani remained silent, but sources close to him said that the BJP veteran had said Jaswant Singh had “informed” the CCS of the decision to go to Kandahar and that he did not recall when the decision itself was taken. But the clarifications could hardly stem the damage by the new round of blood letting in the BJP. The claims of Mishra and Sinha is seen as an extension of the conflict between Advani and the Vajpayee camp who resented Advani’s effort to project himself as “Iron Man”. Mishra’s description of Vajpayee as a “statesman” and “organiser” for Advani brought out the simmering tension between the two camps. Speaking to TV channels, Mishra, who is close to Vajpayee, said, “...there was a unanimous decision of the CCS that in order to save lives of 160 plus hostages and the aircraft crew, it made sense to release these three terrorists and get the hostages back.” Asked again if the decision was unanimous, he said, “Of course.” Mishra said that at another meeting of the CCS, “Jaswant Singh proposed that he go to Kandahar to bring back the hostages and he explained that Indian representatives who were negotiating in Kandahar -- diplomats, IB, RAW -- suggested that somebody should be there to take care of any last minute complications. This he informed the CCS and they agreed to send him.” Mishra said Advani was party to this decision. Within hours of Mishra’s revelations, Yaswant Sinha also said, “I agree to what Brajesh Mishra has said.” He said that “the decision was taken in two parts. One is releasing the terrorists in exchange of hostages. Second, was that Jaswant Singh would go to Kandahar.” Sinha said both were unanimous decisions of which Advani was a part. “Advani was present at the meeting,” he said. The double blows delivered by Mishra and Sinha left BJP, already embroiled in a fierce power struggle and dissident crisis, reeling. The party refused to react to the developments and there was no word from Advani who has not made a public statement ever since BJP’s controversy-ridden chintan baithak in Shimla last week. After his expulsion, Jaswant Singh had immediately turned on Advani and said he had previously “covered-up “ for the leader on Kandahar. With all his former CCS colleagues turning against Advani, Congress had a field day with the party demanding that the BJP veteran come clean on his previous claims. The party said Advani needed to apologise to the nation for having misled it. Even last year, when Advani first claimed ignorance about the Kandahar events, Congress leaders had attacked him saying that either the leader had been an incompetent home minister or that Vajpayee did not trust him. The impact of the Kandahar revelations on BJP’s ongoing internal drama are bound to be significant. With Advani, who was already challenged by dissidents, now knackered by attacks over Kandahar, the power vacuum in BJP islikely to deepen. The RSS has been keen that Advani help facilitate a generational shift in BJP with a new president due to be elected later this year and also with regard to a new leader of Opposition. Now, with Advani’s authority crippled, the power struggle will be harder to resolve. It is in the context of the fast-developing situation that Friday’s scheduled press conference of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat will attract considerable interest. The Sangh chief will be expected to address the Advani controversy as well as explain the RSS position on the ceaseless bloodletting in the BJP with former minister Arun Shourie and former chief ministers Vasundhara Raje and B C Khanduri challenging the party brass. Sinha has also positioned himself as a dissident and has been cut up with senior leader Arun Jaitley being named leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha and Sushma Swaraj becoming deputy leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha. As things stand, all the BJP former members of the CCS -- Sinha, Jaswant Singh and Mishra -- are now bitter critics of Advani. The recent expulsion of Jaswant Singh has brought several of these issues to a head. Also under attack has been party chief Rajnath Singh who might yet regret his move to replace Khanduri and press Raje to step down as leader of Opposition in Rajasthan. Khanduri has arrived in Delhi and though he has not said much, he has indicated that he holds the factional fight in BJP responsible for his ouster as CM. The Rajnath camp is watching with bated breath whether Raje steps down by Sunday though it seems she will be tempted to see how things develop in Delhi. The key question is whether RSS will able to step in even now and ensure an end to the open season in the BJP. The RSS itself is now under pressure to stop factionalism and control dissidence before predictions of BJP imploding come true sooner than later.

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