Battle for Bihar reaches Laloo citadel
Atal quotes Kashmir price for talks
Jittery Sonia in unity drive
Scholars gun for history panel boss
Bengal faces SC fire on convicts
Swiss nightmare haunts Naidu dreams

 
 
BATTLE FOR BIHAR REACHES LALOO CITADEL 
 
 
FROM SANKARSHAN THAKUR
 
Muzaffarpur, Feb. 19 
The arena has shrunk now to just the top layer of north Bihar, but the battle hasn’t suffered for intensity. On the contrary, the field has become more crowded with armies, their war cry shriller, peaking to a new pitch, their arsenal exploding to exhaust.

Bihar hasn’t been won or lost yet, at least not on paper. The clincher will the vote for 108 seats on Tuesday. These are the seats on which dominance has helped Laloo Yadav to rule Bihar for 10 uninterrupted years. These are the seats that his challengers need to snatch away if they must end what they now famously call “jungle raj”.

Laloo’s north Bihar citadel is, of course, under siege of an awesome alliance of forces — a verily impregnable phalanx of upper castes, the lesser, essentially non-Yadav, backwards and Harijans advancing to the premature drumbeat of victory.

The BJP-led alliance is now in possession of the social equation that once made the Congress invincible in the state. It has the upper castes and Harijans, and in place of the Congress’ Muslims, it has a handy slice of the backward vote. Even Yadavs in places have broken away from their hero and embraced what they see as the winning combination.

For all the scandal and stagnation that marked Laloo’s decade in power, it is not any major desertion in his ranks that is leading Laloo to defeat in these elections. It is merely the consolidating of forces against him over the past few years. With the BJP and the Samata Party and then the Janata Dal (United) combining, the index of unity against Laloo has registered all too sudden a spurt.

The first political manifestation of the changing arithmetic was the Lok Sabha election of 1999 when Laloo’s tally fell dramatically from 17 to 7.

That despite the fact that it retained more than 27 per cent of the vote. The change was not so much in Laloo’s vote. He hadn’t lost much, but his opponents had gained much more. Together, they had nearly 40 per cent, enough to take the shine off Laloo’s rainbow coalition.

The Muslims and the greater number of Yadavs are still with him for sure, but the shrill ascendancy of the adversary has smothered their enthusiasm, blunted their ardour. They are no longer the tumultuous wave that would swell on its own and deposit their Laloo bhaiya in power.

Laloo’s supporters in towns and villages of north Bihar are still to be found, but not in the gallant, even arrogant occupation of the listening posts. They are mostly in retreat, subdued. “This time, things are different. It is for all to see we are with Laloo because we have nobody but him, but Laloo will not make it,” said a Muslim trader on the Motihari-Muzaffarpur road.

When Laloo arrives among them, they still turn up and they still do their sloganeering and pledging. But they return from the rallies not like the apparatchik of a victorious army but like the cadres of a demoralised regiment. Their loyalties are intact, but they no longer trust their besieged general will win.

The preparations for the daily battles for north Bihar begin in an almost convivial air on the crowded Patna helistrip, where rival leader gather each morning to depart for the campaign. Sharad Yadav or Nitish Kumar could be greeting Rabri Devi in the VVIP lounge as they await the revving of their machines; Laloo could be making a light-hearted crack at Advani or Arjun Singh, each obviously disconcerted in the other’s company, each defusing the uneasy air with doses of formality.

But soon as they fly their different ways, they are freed of formality and at liberty to indulge in day-long crossfire — on and on relentlessly till they have run out of energy and their machines have run out of fuel.    


 
 
ATAL QUOTES KASHMIR PRICE FOR TALKS 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, Feb. 19 
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee today asserted that Pakistan must first return occupied Kashmir for talks to resume.

“We have categorically said no to a dialogue till Pakistan returns the land it occupies in Kashmir. We want to tell the world that Delhi will not hold any dialogue with Islamabad till the condition is fulfilled,” Vajpayee said at an election rally in Darbhanga, Bihar.

The verbal duel continued with Pakistan military ruler Pervez Musharraf accusing India of “war-mongering”.

“Pakistan’s armed forces are fully prepared to counter any aggression,” he said in Multan.

Vajpayee’s statement comes hours after French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine described the situation in the subcontinent as “dangerous” due to the Kashmir dispute.

Vedrine, on a visit to the country, also urged India to return to the negotiations table and hoped that the nuclear twins will be able to devise confidence-building-measures.

The French minister’s remarks on what Delhi perceives as a sensitive issue came as a surprise. Vedrine was believed to be here on a mission to improve relations with Delhi and hold talks on how the two sides can help to build up a multipolar world to check Washington’s hegemony, but his comments followed the US’ purport. Vedrine also said France will be happy if the US can help India and Pakistan to return to the talks table.

Vedrine, on his arrival in Delhi on Thursday, had said India should resolve the Kashmir dispute if it wants to emerge as a global power.

President Bill Clinton, due to visit South Asia in March, has described the subcontinent as the “most dangerous place in the world” and expressed his desire to play peacemaker with the consent of both India and Pakistan.

The Prime Minister said he had gone to Lahore in February last year on a “goodwill mission” to strengthen bilateral ties, but Pakistan betrayed India by starting the Kargil conflict.

“We gave a befitting reply to Islamabad’s misadventure and drove out Pakistani intruders from Kargil with full vigour,” he said.

The victory had antagonised Pakistan which was “now showing its anger”, he added.

Vajpayee’s remarks, while aimed mainly at the domestic audience, were also a signal to the West, particularly to the US and France, both permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

After the Kargil intrusions, India had made it clear that talks with Pakistan cannot resume unless it created “the right atmosphere”, implying Islamabad has to stop terror export to Kashmir and the Northeast.

The military coup in Pakistan, which brought Pervez Musharraf to power by overthrowing Nawaz Sharif’s government, gave an additional reason to delay the resumption of dialogue.

But the hijacking of the Indian Airlines airbus from Kathmandu, for which India blames the ISI, appears to have hardened Delhi’s position.

The government’s image took a beating following the Kandahar militant-for-hostage swap.

The frequent statements from the US and now France to resume dialogue with Pakistan have only made things more difficult for Delhi to return to the negotiations table as it will strengthen the views that India is doing so under pressure from the West.    


 
 
JITTERY SONIA IN UNITY DRIVE 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, Feb. 19 
Faced with a threat to her leadership from within the Congress, Sonia Gandhi plans to invite Opposition leaders for a meeting to draw up a common strategy to counter “the BJP unleashing its hidden agenda of the Sangh parivar”.

Sonia’s move for Opposition unity is two-pronged. She wants to tell disgruntled Congressmen that she is serious about her battle against the BJP. Sonia is also trying to say that as Opposition leader and AICC chief, she would lead non-NDA political parties.

Sources close to Sonia said that the Congress chief was “sincere” about putting up a joint fight against the BJP over issues ranging from participation of government employees in RSS activities to the Constitution review panel to “culture policing” by the VHP-Bajrang Dal combine.

Sonia’s managers are not too confident about the participation of two parties: the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party. Both Mulayam and Pawar, who had questioned Sonia’s foreign origin, are severely opposed to the Congress chief.

Congress leaders admitted that Sonia was worried over the disquiet in the party which is likely to gain momentum after February 25 when results of the Assembly polls in Bihar, Haryana, Manipur and Orissa will be out.

Some Congressmen plan to question Sonia’s leadership in case of poor showing. The dissidents are confident of a dismal performance with poll surveys having predicted a grim scenario for the party in Bihar and Orissa.

The rebels are planning to take up two issues. They will bring up the one-man, one-post norm, asking Sonia to leave one of the two posts of Opposition leader or party chief.

In Congress parlance, the gesture would mean virtual exit for the leader.

The second ploy is to force her to review the party’s economic policy. As a large number of Congressmen are uneasy over economic reforms, the pro-changers plan to first challenge Manmohan Singh and pressure Sonia to take a U-turn on economic policy.

Dissidents said if the leadership defends “Manmohanomics”, they will force her to review and if Manmohan offers to quit, they will declare it their victory as the former Union finance minister, representing the “clean” and “liberal” face of the party, was considered close to her.

A prominent CWC member who is among the dissidents said he would ask Sonia to convene a CWC meet after the Assembly polls to discuss the party’s stand on economic issues, indicating that the rebels have done their homework and chalked out their strategy for the budget session of Parliament.

Some Congressmen, however, said efforts to dislodge Sonia would not be easy as there is no successor. “The Congress is allergic to the idea of democratic succession. So I do not see much happening,” a former MP said, alleging rebels and dissidents were merely putting pressure on Sonia.    


 
 
SCHOLARS GUN FOR HISTORY PANEL BOSS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Feb. 19 
The row between the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and a section of historians has escalated with Sumit Sarkar and K.N. Panikkar demanding an apology from the council for its “totally unwarranted” attack on Partha Sarathi Gupta.

In a television interview last night, council deputy director P.K.V. Kaimal had accused Gupta, who passed away recently, of making “howlers” in the volume edited by him. Enraged by the attack, the late historian’s friends and colleagues addressed a joint news conference this morning.

“We are here to defend Gupta’s reputation. It is cowardly to attack a man who is not there to defend himself,” said Sarkar.

Gupta had edited the first volume of the Towards Freedom project covering 1943-44 and the council has described his work as just “bulk without merit.”

In its factsheet, the council was severely critical of the volume and Kaimal in his interview last night repeated that Gupta had reduced Gandhi to a “mere footnote” and was “biased” in his selection of documents.

The Towards Freedom project is a compilation of documents of the freedom struggle edited by nine modern historians under the general editorship of S. Gopal.

There seems to be no let up in the war of words between the council and the historians. Gupta’s widow Narayani Gupta, present at the news conference, read out from the 1943-44 volume, countering the council’s charges.

“There is one whole section ‘Gandhi’s charisma’ in the volume. This was the period when Gandhi was in jail and his role in active politics was much less than in the earlier years,” she said.

A council member and Delhi University teacher, Pritpal Bhatia, joined the historians in protesting the ICHR’s insistence on getting the volumes edited by Sarkar and Panikkar scanned by a review committee. “I had protested the appointment of a review committee and given a dissenting note in the council meeting,” said Bhatia.

The historians rebutted council chairperson B.R. Grover’s statement that S.Gopal was “bedridden” and therefore in no position to scan the volumes. “We must not exaggerate Gopal’s illness. In any case he has already gone through our volumes,” said Sarkar. Endorsing him, Panikkar said, “What Grover has said about Gopal’s health is just half truth.” Both said they had not heard from Grover and the news that the publication has been stalled had come from the Oxford University Press and not the council.

Chances of a truce seem remote as Grover has already made it clear he will not get in touch with the historians.    


 
 
BENGAL FACES SC FIRE ON CONVICTS 
 
 
FROM R.VENKATARAMAN
 
New Delhi, Feb. 19 
The Supreme Court has come down heavily upon the West Bengal government for not paying heed to the condition of life convicts and directed it to reconsider the cases of six inmates.

The six had moved the apex court after their release appeal was rejected by the state government.

The division bench of Justice G.T. Nanavati and Justice S.N. Phukan said even the “socio-economic condition of the convict’s family” should be taken into account for premature release and fixed five guidelines for the purpose.

The judges said a police report should be called to determine the following factors:

Whether the offence is an individual act of crime without affecting the society at large.

Whether there is a chance that crime would be committed again.

Whether the convict has lost his potential to commit crime.

Whether there is any purpose in confining the convict any longer.

The socio-economic condition of the convict’s family.

“The government did not pay sufficient attention to the conduct record of the petitioners while in jail, nor did it consider whether they had lost their potential to commit crime.

Thus the orders of the government (of West Bengal refusing premature release) suffer from infirmities and are liable to be quashed,” the judges ruled.

The court pointed out that Section 4 of the state rules on premature release say the government “shall take into consideration — (i) the circumstances in each case; (ii) the character of the convict’s crime; (iii) his conduct in prison and (iv) the probability of his reverting to criminal habits or instigating others to commit crime”.

If the state government is satisfied that the prisoner can be freed without any danger to society, it may order his release under Section 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

“It is the settled position of law that life sentence is nothing less than lifelong imprisonment, and by earning remissions a life convict does not acquire a right to be released prematurely. But if the government has framed any rule or made a scheme for early release of such convicts, then those rules or schemes will have to be treated as guidelines for exercising powers under Article 161 of the Constitution (power of Governor to grant pardon, suspend, remit or commute sentence in certain cases),” the bench said.

It said the six convicts who petitioned the Supreme Court had completed a detention of 20 years, including remission earned.    


 
 
SWISS NIGHTMARE HAUNTS NAIDU DREAMS 
 
 
FROM G.S. RADHAKRISHNA
 
Hyderabad, Feb. 19 
Chandrababu Naidu was left with a bit of egg on his face at lunch today.

The chief minister — rather the chief executive — of Andhra Pradesh was hard-selling his futuristic balance-sheet of the state’s finances at a conference here.

But Naidu was brought down to earth when a visiting Swiss minister informed him that such tall claims would land a politician either in jail or in hospital in Switzerland.

Pascal Couchepin, minister for economy, had a good laugh listening to Naidu’s Vision-2020: a scenario in which the state’s gross domestic production goes up seven times in the next two decades. The document was prepared for the state government by management consultants McKinsey.

“If I make impossible promises even during a normal period I will be sent to either a hospital or to jail,” Couchepin told a select audience of industrialists at a hotel here during a luncheon meeting. “I cannot think of making such figures and claims even in election speeches in Switzerland.”

An embarrassed Naidu tried to counter this by arguing that the figures projected were not exaggerated. He cited the huge rise in turnover of a Hyderabad-based drug company and asked the Swiss minister: “If a company can, why not a state?”

Couchepin was not impressed. “Such performance is good enough for a company but not for a state,” he replied. However, he did praise Naidu’s efforts as “concise, clear and simple”.

Couchepin’s remarks have also pushed to unfamiliar territory Naidu’s publicity team, which never fails to remind people of the accolades he won in the foreign media.

The rebuff from the Swiss minister is the second critical comment on Naidu’s programmes for development and administrative reforms. The World Bank team which visited the state a fortnight ago had also expressed unhappiness with the pace of reforms. The bank, which was to release another tranche of funds, withheld the money, asking the government to stick to its schedule.

Naidu has made no bones about the present financial crunch in the state. He has dropped hints at many public meetings that he was compelled to increase power, water and transport tariffs and also cut subsidies to raise cash for development.

The state’s external debt has reached an all-time high of Rs 27,500 crore and the budgetary deficit for 1999-2000 is likely to touch Rs 3,700 crore. The state finance minister has said on the record that there was no proper accounting for nearly Rs 1,300 crore spent on various programmes.

Recent delegations from the US and the UK have asked Naidu to be specific about growth charts and targets when seeking funds. The British delegation had criticised the subsidy raj and the sloth in reforms. Caught in the web of political compulsions, the government has put these issues on the back-burner till the budget.    

 

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