Mamata torn between Bengal and India
Sonia’s mamta clears tracks
Sangh unites Opposition in uproar
PMs in Kargil report line of fire
Clinton prefers goodwill to Goa

Mamata Banerjee will choose between Kalighat and Country today.

It is a Hobson’s choice. She succeeds Nitish Kumar who went down as railway minister of Bihar; before him Ram Vilas Paswan narrowed the portfolio’s focus so much bureaucrats still call him railway minister of Hajipur.

Should Mamata Banerjee take this narrow gauge, she must know small tracks are for short runs. If she chooses otherwise, the Mamata Express might steam into Kalighat and Country at the same terminus.

As Mamata rehearsed her speech on Thursday, she was acutely aware that back home she will be measured for her commitment to the state; for her sense of responsibility to the portfolio; for her risk management skills.

“It’s a risk I have taken. Someone will have to take the risk,” she had said after taking over.

Ever since, she has been under intense pressure from her party. Her enemy, the CPM, has been daring her to present a budget that will gift a bonanza to Bengal, even if that must be at the cost of sustaining the cash-strapped railways. But it realises, too, what a difficult ask it is to balance the reformist with the populist.

“Neither reformist nor populist,” says Anil Biswas, the CPM state secretary. “We want Mamata Banerjee to be true to her railway-related promises in the manifesto of her so-called Bengal package.”

A government source said Mamata has tried to be both railway minister of India and of Bengal. But in the end, she will probably be a little partial to her constituency. Of about 10 new projects, half a dozen are expected to have an impact on Bengal.

As India’s railway minister, the counter pressures are equally daunting: the TDP wants two new trains in Andhra; Yashwant Sinha wants new trains from Hazaribagh; BJP MPs from UP want a special train for pilgrims to Ayodhya; DMK wants a new Chennai-Delhi train.

Some of these demands have been incorporated in the budget.

After sifting through the wants and wishes, Mamata will have discovered what the railways really need are safety measures and new technology. Even late Thursday night, the budget think-tank was working on these.

“In the past five years, we have had more than 500 accidents because we have not invested adequately in advanced security systems. We cannot afford to have even one additional new project,” says a railway ministry secretary.

The reformist in Mamata will want to deal with such urgencies. To make the railways safer, she will need to raise funds. To raise funds, she will need to tap resources. Leasing out railway property — expected to be the biggest reform — and increasing passenger tariff are probably just two ways to make the railways safer even if that means being unpopular in the short term.

But the populist in Mamata is refusing requests from the Planning Commission and the finance ministry to raise fares. She has also just forced the Prime Minister to rethink the hike in cooking gas price. Can she let that image be sullied by a harsh budget?

“Mamata is the best thing that has happened to the railways,” insists R.C. Acharya, former Railway Board member. “She will be pragmatic. There will be some goodies for West Bengal but I doubt if she can really go beyond pushing through three or four projects pending for years.”

To the boys in Kalighat, that is likely to fall short of what they expect of didi, with Calcutta civic polls in June and Assembly elections next year. Mamata can only point to Gaisal and tell them that the accident near the North Bengal station not only killed hundreds but also claimed a railway minister — Nitish Kumar quit.

She could tell them it must be Country. And that includes Kalighat.    

New Delhi, Feb. 24 
After threatening to take an unparalleled step of boycotting the railway budget presentation, Sonia Gandhi today asked hawks in the Congress not to “spoil Mamata Banerjee’s big day”.

However, party floor managers have demanded “some gesture” from the government to resolve the stand-off over its agitation against the RSS.

Congress hardliners were for “drastic action” but the old guard preferred to wait for government “feelers” for a rapprochement.

While a final decision on strategy will be taken tomorrow morning, indications are that the Congress will continue its protest without blocking the rail budget. However, if the government hardens its position, the Congress will also revise its strategy.

The leader of the Opposition, known to have a “soft corner” for the minister, opposed the idea of spoiling “Mamata’s big day”.

Sources said Mamata’s “secular credentials” and the possibility of a future alliance between the Trinamul Congress and the party influenced Sonia’s stand.

Congress floor managers claimed they had already received “feelers” from the government to resolve the stalemate. But the party wants more. “We have several options, such as renewing our stir after the presentation of the railway budget. A public rally will be held on March 6 and we are, in any case, taking the matter to the peoples’ court,” a senior leader said. He added that the party was against creating a constitutional crisis.

As the Congress is seeking support from the Left and floor co-ordination, Sonia is offering sops to them, too. She has promised to make common cause with the Left on economic issues and even indicated revision of the party’s stand on reforms.

“It is a tightrope walk. Congressmen are getting increasingly jittery about reforms and there is a need for left-of-the-centre policies,” said a CWC member.

At another level, the stand-off between the Centre and the Congress has come as a blessing in disguise for a beleaguered Sonia. By and large, Congress MPs are happy that their leader has finally got into the “agitation mode”.

After courting arrest on January 30, Sonia today sat on a dharna outside Parliament. She even raised the slogan: “RSS raj nahin chalega .”

Congress MPs witnessed a different Sonia today. She tried to interact with all members, spoke to Rajesh Pilot and Jitendra Prasada and took Jaipal Reddy to the Speaker’s chamber for talks. “There was no coterie,” said a beaming MP.    

New Delhi, Feb. 24 
Gujarat’s decision to allow employee participation in the RSS rocked Parliament today, forcing presiding officers in both Houses to wrap up for the day.

The Opposition, led by the Congress, repeatedly cried “ban RSS, RSS murdabad, RSS hai hai”. They demanded withdrawal of the decision, admission of an adjournment motion on the issue and suspension of question hour to discuss it even as Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi disallowed the motion.

When the bedlam reached a crescendo, the Speaker adjourned the House for the day and convened a meeting of the Business Advisory Committee to thrash out the issue.

The meeting was a damp squib as the Congress, CPI, CPM, RJD and the ADMK walked out, protesting against the attitude of BJP leaders at the meeting.

BJP members V. K. Malhotra and B.C. Khanduri had justified the chair’s ruling disallowing a discussion. Congress leaders Madhavrao Scindia and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi retaliated by leading a walkout. “Your attitude is not encouraging, so why should we sit in the Business Advisory Committee. Let the government do what it wants,” said a Congress leader.

Talking to reporters, Scindia said: “I am the mover of the motion. I am not aware of the chair disallowing it.”

Sources said Congress chief Sonia Gandhi later met Balayogi and conveyed to him the “party’s sense of hurt”. They said the party was “intrigued as to why the chair did not see merit in its viewpoint”.

Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan, however, said the government was not averse to a discussion under rule 193, which does not require voting. “If you want to discuss Gujarat and the RSS, we are ready, but why insist on a specific rule?” he asked.

The minister said the government did not know why the Speaker rejected the Congress motion, but added: “If you go by parliamentary history, very few adjournment motions have been admitted.”

Government sources said the objection to the motion was mainly on three counts: the Centre had no role in the Gujarat order; the matter is before the state high court; and the last three lines of the motion read: “... participating in the activities of the RSS whose basic philosophy runs counter to the letter and spirit of the Indian Constitution.”

The Lok Sabha was first adjourned 10 minutes after question hour started and for a second time soon after the lunch as Opposition members stormed the Well of the House.

Amid the cacophony, defence minister George Fernandes tabled the Kargil report.

In the Rajya Sabha, deputy chairperson Najma Heptullah adjourned the House for the day when it met after lunch with the Opposition unrelenting on its demand for a discussion.

Foreign minister Jaswant Singh said the government was ready to discuss any issue anytime but would not allow “usurpation” of question hour by the Opposition.    

New Delhi, Feb. 24 
The BJP-led government has ordered a thorough review of the national security system, including areas covered in the report of the Subrahmanyam Committee that inquired into what led to the Kargil intrusions.

The decision was included in the brief action taken report attached to the probe team’s voluminous findings tabled in Parliament today. An appropriate body will carry out the review.

The report provides the Opposition, especially the Congress, with ample ammunition to pound the government. It makes several references to the failure of the Centre and the political establishment to act on time.

The Opposition will have to read between the lines to identify the lacunae as pointed out by the three-member committee. As reported by The Telegraph earlier, the army and the intelligence machinery take the brunt of the criticism.

But the political masters have not been spared either. For instance, the panel is critical of the reluctance of successive Prime Ministers, including Atal Behari Vajpayee, to share information on the nuclear threat posed by Pakistan.

The report says: “Successive Prime Ministers failed to take their own colleagues, the major political parties, the chiefs of staff and the foreign secretaries into confidence on the nature of Pakistan’s nuclear threat and the China-Pakistan nuclear axis.

“The Prime Ministers kept the intelligence and nuclear weapons establishments in two watertight is quite likely that this secretiveness on their part and the country’s inability to exercise its conventional superiority could have confirmed Pakistan in its belief that its nuclear deterrence had indeed been effective in Kashmir since 1990 and it could therefore pursue the proxy war and the Kargil adventure...”

Even if the government gets away by arguing that not just Vajpayee, but his predecessors be- ginning with V.P. Singh would also have to take the rap, it cannot escape the charge that it has persisted with a national security adviser who doubles as principal secretary to the Prime Minister.

Without naming Brajesh Mishra, the committee says: “...this can only be an interim arrangement. The committee believes there must be a full time national security adviser and it would suggest that a second line of personnel be inducted into the system as early as possible and groomed for higher responsi- bility.”

The government has been accused of neglecting reports from the joint intelligence committee. “JIC reports do not receive the attention they deserve at the political and higher bureaucratic levels...there is no system of regular, periodic and comprehensive intelligence briefings,” the panel says.

The committee believes the intrusions could have been avoided “had the army followed a policy of Siachenisation to plug unheld gaps along the 168-km stretch from Kaobalgali to Chorbatla. This would have entailed establishing a series of winter cut-off posts with communications and other logistic support and specially trained troops to hold these positions and undertake winter patrolling despite risk of cold injuries and avalanche casualties”.

In its action-taken report, the government claims to have “carefully considered these recommendations”.

The committee has suggested a thorough review of the intelligence gathering mechanism and urged the government to publish a white paper on the nuclear programme.

The committee says the government should take an active interest in occupied Kashmir as its “fate cannot be divorced from any consideration of the Kashmir question”.    

New Delhi, Feb. 24 
In the battle of nerves between security agencies and lobbies fighting to determine US President Bill Clinton’s itinerary in South Asia, the first round has clearly gone in favour of India.

New Delhi has put its foot down against a proposal from Washington which would have seen Clinton arrive in Goa on March 20 and travel to the capital a day later.

The Indian protest over Clinton’s unusual itinerary was triggered by reports from the Indian Embassy in Washington that the Goa visit was a curious American way of balancing India against Pakistan once again.

Lobbies in Washington favouring a presidential stop-over in Pakistan have been suggesting that Clinton should make a short halt in Lahore and not visit Islamabad to minimise the impact of his trip to Pakistan without giving the impression that Pakistan is altogether out of America’s foreign policy radar screen.

To balance this, they have also been suggesting that Clinton should start his India trip from Goa — and not New Delhi — just as he would not be landing in the Pakistani capital.

However disingenuous this proposal may have been, it found favour with the US administration. As a result, a presidential advance party visited Goa, scoured possible locations for an overnight halt and even made tentative bookings at a hotel.

When the Americans discussed the proposal with South Block, Indian officials would, however, have none of it. They unequivocally told their US counterparts that the goodwill trip would lose some of its goodwill if Clinton did not first land in New Delhi like all other visiting heads of state.

Although the Indians did not mention Pakistan, they left the Americans in no doubt that their ham-handed attempt to equate India and Pakistan to the point of being silly would not be tolerated.

The Americans have now given in and the luxury hotel in Goa has been told that the rooms — in fact, the entire hotel — could be released.

As a result of the Indian insistence, Clinton will now arrive here on March 19, a day earlier than announced in the initial itinerary released simultaneously in Washington and New Delhi. He will then travel to Dhaka on a day’s visit on March 20, when the entire North India will celebrate Holi. The substantive part of the visit will, therefore, start on Ma-rch 21 when he returns to Delhi.

Although details are still being finalised and are subject to change, the US President is expected to spend two days in the capital, travel to Hyderabad on March 23 and then to Mumbai on March 24.

He will leave India from Mumbai on March 25, possibly for Lahore en route to Washington.    


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