Shell-shocked BJP waits and watches
Hot potato Laloo turns hot cake
Sonia in Bihar dilemma
Bonanza for Chautala, blow for BJP
Fissures in Opp. front on RSS
Kargil panel misled on air surveillance
Govt agrees to talks with lawyers
Mamata’s merry mail skips Kerala
Sonia nods, party frowns on imbalances
Court deals Tansi blow to Jaya

New Delhi, Feb. 25 
After screaming from the rooftops that it was all set to wipe out Laloo Prasad Yadav’s “jungle raj”, the BJP is struggling to inch towards a bare majority in Bihar, even as the prospect of a hung legislature looms large.

“We are waiting and watching the results, but we are still hopeful of getting a majority. Maybe, a thin majority,” said party spokesman M. Venkaiah Naidu.

The Bihar disappointment apart, the BJP is facing a humiliating rout in Haryana — picking up merely six of the 29 seats it contested — and coming a poor second in Orissa.

In both states, its allies —the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) — have fared so well that they are comfortably placed to form a government on their own. Nonetheless, both Om Prakash Chautala and BJD leader Naveen Patnaik have indicated that they would go in for a coalition government.

In the byelections, too, the BJP’s performance is nothing to write home about. It failed to wrest the two Lok Sabha seats of Kannauj and Bellary, which were retained by the Samajwadi Party and the Congress respectively.

The BJP-backed candidate of the Loktantrik Congress Party finished a poor fourth behind Shaitan Singh Shakhya, fielded by former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh.

In Bellary, the combined effort of the BJP-Janata Dal (United) fizzled out as the Congress’ K. Basavanagoud romped home with a margin even bigger than that of Sonia Gandhi.

In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP bagged just two of the eight Assembly seats, one in Rajasthan and lost Jabalpur to the Congress in Madhya Pradesh. The BJP’s only consolation was opening its account in Manipur.

But with the scenario becoming clear, introspection is not its priority. The immediate strategy for the BJP is to explore the possibilities of forming the government in Bihar and Manipur.

Asked why the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) did not fare as well as the exit polls and internal assessments in Bihar predicted, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said: “We will have to find out the reasons.” But he declined to say who the NDA candidate for the Bihar chief minister’s post would be. “I cannot answer that now,” he replied.

Party sources said the BJP’s parliamentary board — its apex decision-making body — is expected to meet on Sunday or Monday to discuss the modalities of government participation.

The sources said the Haryana unit of the party even suspected Chautala’s hand in its fate. State BJP chief O.P. Grover went on the record to say that the BJP would have to rethink its decision to join the Chautala-led government.

“We had said in our campaign that we would form a coalition government. But after the results, we have been forced to reconsider our decision,” Grover said.

However, indications are that the BJP high command is keen on a coalition in both Haryana and Orissa. If necessary, it would prevail on the state units to play second-fiddle to the regional parties. The BJP is even considering joining a non-Congress coalition in Manipur.

Once the trends started pouring in, visibly crestfallen BJP office-bearers immediately called on party chief Kushabhau Thakre, who is still recuperating in hospital after surgery.

Sources said the BJP’s main worry about the poll outcome was that it could upset its equation with NDA constituents even at the Centre. Instead of one Chandrababu Naidu, it might have to contend with several regional satraps, including the exacting Chautala and the yet-untested Patnaik, who has so far basked in the BJP’s shadow but could come into his own now.    

Patna, Feb. 25 
As the television blared figures that kept Laloo Yadav’s fortunes afloat, the man virtually all poll pundits had written off was busy digging out potatoes in the makeshift paddy field of his sprawling bungalow.

“Let me liberate some of these potatoes from their bondage,” he said, sarcastically referring to the NDA slogan that it would liberate Bihar from Laloo’s “jungle raj”.

That his Rashtriya Janata Dal stands to lose around 60 seats from its existing tally is not of much concern to Bihar’s born-again emperor. Instead, he points to his “comeback” after the Madhepura humiliation. It is a one-man show, campaigning on his own he has succeeded in ensuring that the NDA will not get a majority. Even the smile on chief minister-wife Rabri Devi’s face was one of disbelief.

“I never lost faith in the poor people of Bihar. They still trust me despite the hostile campaign,” he says.

Early morning reports from Danapur brought back the grin on Laloo’s face. Around 2 pm, he was told that he was ahead at Raghopur as well. And when he got news of the RJD’s good performance in places where the party was dismissed, the trademark wit that had deserted him began sparkling once again. Scoffing at the psephologists who had predicted doom for his party, Laloo said: “The fools will now lose their business of telling lies.”

The bungalow, desolate till noon with only Rajya Sabha member Prem Gupta giving Laloo company, began filling up with jubilant partymen.

They said all the criminals fielded by his rivals were winning. Dhummal Singh, wanted in connection with 174 murders, is ahead as are Suraj Bhan from Mokama and Rajen Tiwari from Motihari.

“The jungle rajwallahs will be busy quarrelling with these goons. How can they form the government?” Laloo guffaws.

He is unruffled when workers tell him that the RJD will not get a majority on its own. “Maramat karna aata hai (I know how to repair a fractured mandate). Fractured legs can be cured by secular medicine. With secular allies, I can turn a fractured mandate into a solid one,” Laloo says.

Party colleague Taslimuddin calls him from Kishengunje to say that in some constituencies, the Congress had surged ahead. Unperturbed, Laloo tells him not to lose heart. “They will all lose finally,” the boss says in a reassuring tone.

Laloo, however, is keeping his cards in the sleeve of his white kurta. “I will stake claim to form the government,” he says. Where will he get the numbers from? “Don’t worry,” he adds mysteriously, “I have friends.”

But he refuses to say whether he will take over as chief minister.

“As far as my party is concerned, we have a chief minister. There is no vacancy. But if my MLAs want to rethink on this, they are free to,” Laloo says, hinting he is not averse to taking back the baton from his wife.

Barking orders over his mobile phone asking party workers to stay put at counting centres, Laloo leaves the potatoes and walks towards some pumpkins dangling over the fence. “See how they are hanging ominously like the NDA’s fate,” he says and breaks out into a hearty laugh.

Laloo has had the last laugh.    

New Delhi, Feb. 25 
Sonia Gandhi today began pondering the uneasy option of extending support to Laloo Prasad Yadav to keep “communal forces at bay”.

The Congress chief is under pressure from party members in Bihar not to align with Laloo. The matter will be thrashed out by the CWC as party leaders want clarity in the leadership’s stand on coalitions, particularly in view of the Panchmarhi declaration and the A.K. Antony Committee report.

Having earned a reprieve in the leadership tussle, Sonia wants to focus on rebuilding the party, but is under pressure to change her style of functioning and infuse fresh blood. With organisational polls round the corner, younger leaders want her to clear the “deadwood”.

A former CWC member and party MP wrote to her, pointing out that the Congress fared badly in states where it had “bungled” in the past: supporting the Bansi Lal government, bailing out the Rabri Devi regime and changing chief ministers in Orissa.

The party’s economic policy is also under attack and the leadership might be forced to take a “left-of-the-centre” posture.

If the Congress decides to back a government headed by Laloo, the Antony report and the Panchmarhi declaration will have to be overruled. In fact, support to the Rabri regime was cited as a key factor in the party’s Lok Sabha debacle.

Congress members want Sonia and the party think-tank to reopen the debate on coalition politics. “Ekla chalo re is not relevant today. Let us have a pragmatic approach. Let us set guidelines, ground rules and norms to deal with such situations,” an MP said.

Though the results had nothing much to cheer about for the Congress, party MPs were happy that the BJP had suffered a jolt. “The BJP has suffered everywhere,” said a leader.    

Chandigarh, Feb. 25 
The Haryana BJP may refrain from joining the new government led by Indian National Lok Dal leader Om Prakash Chautala due to its dismal performance in the Assembly polls.

The BJP and the INLD had contested the polls together. While the BJP contested 29 seats, the INLD fielded nominees in 61. Till midnight, the INLD had won 46 of the 87 seats for which results had been declared.

“The results are very hard to digest. We have been done in by INLD rebels who ran their campaign saying they still had Chautala’s support,” a senior BJP leader said. He added that senior leaders of the party would meet soon to discuss the cause of the poor showing and deliberate on whether to join the Cabinet.

However, Chautala brushed away fears that the BJP might refrain from joining his Cabinet and instead give support from outside. “The next government in the state will be an INLD-BJP one. We fought the elections together and will form the government together,” he said. INLD leaders, however, said even if the BJP decides to support Chautala from outside it would not hurt them.

“We will get support from Independents who were denied tickets to accommodate the BJP whose demands were far-fetched. The results have proved that Chautala has shed his pro-Jat image in the state and the sooner the BJP realises that the better, an INLD leader said.    

New Delhi, Feb. 25 
After stalling parliamentary proceedings yesterday by demanding a discussion on the RSS agenda in Gujarat, the Opposition today was divided over the rule under which the issue should be addressed.

While the Congress insisted it should be under rule 184, which requires voting, the CPI and the Samajwadi Party — to the relief of the government — agreed to a discussion under rule 193 which does not require a vote. Earlier, the Opposition staged a walkout after Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi rejected their adjournment motion.

Uproarious scenes also forced the adjournment of the Rajya Sabha without transacting any business for the second consecutive day. Sources said Balayogi had received five notices, including one from BJP member Kirit Somaiyya, for discussing the issue under rule 193.

Ruling that the Gujarat decision allowing employees to join the RSS merited only a discussion and not an adjournment motion, Balayogi said he would allow a full debate on Monday.

When deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed made an announcement to this effect, the Congress, Muslim League and the Republican Party of India protested, saying they wanted the debate to take place under rule 184 to censure the Gujarat government. Pointing out that he was only conveying the decision of the Speaker, Sayeed said Balayogi has admitted notices by CPI leaders Indrajit Gupta and Geeta Mukherjee for a discussion under rule 193.

Home minister L.K. Advani and defence minister George Fernandes rejected the Opposition’s contention that the issue was a fit case for admission of an adjournment motion. They quoted rules to assert that the Centre had no role in the decision.

The Lok Sabha will have a special discussion on the issue on Monday.

Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia said the RSS was “spreading poison throughout the country and going against the basic tenets of parliamentary democracy”. He said he was appalled that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had given it a “clean chit”.

Charging the Centre with abdicating its responsibility and remaining a mute spectator, Scindia said the Centre had the authority to veto the Gujarat decision.    

New Delhi, Feb. 25 
Officers of the Research and Analysis Wing had misled the Subrahmanyam Committee during their depositions.

K. Subrahmanyam, who headed the panel that inquired into what led to the incursions, today said the Vajpayee government had deleted two paragraphs from the Kargil report on the army top brass’ demand for launching air strikes against the Pakistani intruders as early as May 8, 1999.

Replying to a question on what RAW’s response was to queries about surveillance by Aviation Research Centre spy aircraft within and across the Indian side of the Line of Control in 1998 and 1999, Subrahmanyam said: “They told us that, according to established practice, ARC operated only two sorties a year in the region. These sorties, they said, were carried out on specific requirements.”

The army’s Aviation Corps hardly carried out any winter air surveillance operation. Committee member Lt Gen. (retd) K.K. Hazari said the helicopters were antiquated and given to vibrations, making the task of aerial reconnaissance difficult.

He scoffed at the RAW response, indicating that the committee members were not satisfied with the explanation because reconnaissance missions were a must as Pakistan will always remain “the target country”.

“The sorties were not adequate and no priority was given to the job,” Subrahmanyam said. Agency insiders insist there is no bar on using the aviation centre aircraft even round-the-clock, if need be. “Of course, those at the helm then did not feel the need to carry out routine missions,” an official said.

The RAW explanation was provided by Arvind Dave, then agency chief who was appointed Governor of Arunachal Pradesh after the Kargil war, and the aviation centre director. Asked whether he had any knowledge on whether the 11 aircraft under RAW’s command were being used elsewhere during 1998-99, Subrahmanyam said: “We did not ask them that.”

The Subrahmanyam Committee members had no clue that when ARC aircraft should have been used for continuous aerial reconnaissance and collecting ELINT (electronic intelligence), innumerable flights took off from Dum Duma in Assam for Udaipur to transport teak for the house of a top RAW officer (since retired). The log entries at Dum Duma show how many flights took off for Udaipur.    

New Delhi, Feb. 25 
The government today agreed to begin talks with striking lawyers on its decision to amend the Civil Procedure Code and said it was ready to set up a judicial inquiry into Thursday’s police action.

The Delhi government has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident in which 80 lawyers and 25 policemen were injured.

Law minister Ram Jethmalani told the Lok Sabha that the decision to initiate dialogue with lawyers was taken after representatives of the bar council met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on Friday and expressed hope that the strike would be called off as the issue was “more or less” settled.

“I intend to approach the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to make available a that the commission can be constituted,” Jethmalani said in the House after expressing “regret” over the incident.

Congress members Madhavrao Scindia and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee, Geeta Mukherjee of the CPI and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Yadav, who had raised the issue, asked the government to clarify the motive behind the decision to amend the code.

West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu has written to Jethmalani, urging him to reconsider the move. Basu said the amendment, which bars litigants from appealing before a high court division bench once defeated before a single bench, will hit the people of his state as “the circuit bench of the Supreme Court in the eastern region is yet to be set up”.

Jethmalani brushed away Opposition fears that the government was trying to open the legal profession to foreigners. “I have repeatedly explained there is no proposal at present before the government, even tentative, for unrestricted entry of foreign lawyers into India or for periodic examination for practising lawyers,” he said.

The minister added: “The dates for notifying the coming into force of the CPC Amendment Act has not been fixed”.He said the government wanted an inquiry because of conflicting versions from the lawyers and police. “The guilty will be punished more severely than you can imagine,” Jethmalani added.

In Delhi, advocates struck work in subordinate courts and the high court. However, the Supreme Court remained unaffected though a section of lawyers were seen wearing white protest bands on their black robes.    

New Delhi, Feb. 25 
She shook her head in disgust at the sheer unfairness of it all. The hysterical MPs from Kerala had just described her budget as an “unjust, regionally discriminatory plan” and walked out of the House.

Samajwadi Party members, too, had trooped to the Well and accused her of ignoring the needs of Uttar Pradesh.

Amid the uproar, Mamata Banerjee tried to explain that she had tried to meet every demand. “You cannot satisfy everybody. And it isn’t a Bengal budget, it isn’t,” she mumbled.

Her National Democratic Alliance colleagues were more encouraging. But the congratulations for presenting a popular budget were muted. News of the disaster in Bihar had just arrived.

Not all were downcast, though. Home minister L.K. Advani walked over to join the crowd that surrounded Mamata. Uma Bharati exuded warmth as she embraced her. Telugu Desam leader Yerran Naidu said a big “Thank You”. The Tamil representatives were overwhelmed.

Her black shawl wrapped around her Rs 200 sari, she would have felt the tingling sensation of having gifted the nation a please-all and truly historic rail budget. But the MPs from Kerala and those led by Raj Babbar marred her big day.

As the protests threatened to drown her speech, Mamata tried to make everyone see — her voice cracking — that it was the best budget under the circumstances.

“I have announced two new trains for them. Let them choose the terminal stations. I’ll give it to them. They should understand,” she repeated.

She had walked in quietly at 2 pm, without the railway minister’s special budget briefcase. The House was seething already with tension between the treasury benches and the Opposition.

Mamata was smiling. A nervous smile, perhaps. And immediately before she rose, her forefinger moved fast from her forehead to her chest. A Bengali’s fervent prayer to Ma Kali, maybe.

But there were few faux pas. Mamata Banerjee, the elite would have to accept, has come a long way. Her accent was a trifle Benglish but she no longer stumbled.

It was going alright. Her speech was suitably punctuated by applause from the treasury benches and from a growing band of admirers in the Opposition.

Sonia Gandhi encouraged her with a smile. Vajpayee nodded in appreciation. The decision to gift 100 jobs to the families of Kargil martyrs drew thunderous applause.

But suddenly, questions began to be asked. Somnath Chatterjee inquired in his gruff voice: “Aren’t some of these projects old?” An MP from Uttar Pradesh was turning restive. There was no mention of the rail link he had demanded. Members from Kerala were getting fidgety, too.

Hai, hai. Sab ke liye hai (There is, there is something for everyone),” Mamata kept assuring the protesters. She moved on to a shairi (verse) on the Kargil martyrs. “Jo shaheed huey hai unki zara yad karo kurbani.”

But poetry would not move the Kerala MPs. They would not accept this budget. For them, it was too full of Bengal. “We know it now. You cannot fool us anymore. There is nothing in your budget for Kerala,” they shouted, rushing to the Well.

A chit came from the Prime Minister that she should announce two new schemes for Kerala. She did so. The Kerala MPs stood for a while debating. They could not decide on any two projects. So they staged a walkout.

Her poise shaken, Mamata continued bravely. But the spirit was missing — she had realised that her omni-pleasant budget had not struck the right chord in every heart.    

New Delhi, Feb. 25 
A muted Opposition today reacted cautiously to the railway budget presented by Mamata Banerjee.

Mamata seemed to have taken the wind out of the Opposition’s sails by not hiking passenger fares and only raising freight rates. Most parties targeted the freight hike and said it will fuel price rise. Anticipating that the freight hike will increase the price of fertilisers, the CPM said: “There is a steep increase in the rates of chemical fertilisers and this is an anti-farmer move.”

The main Opposition party, the Congress, said the increase in freight charges will have a “cascading” effect on the economy. “There are serious regional imbalances and no plans for railway or passenger safety,” said Congress spokesman Ajit Jogi. Congress president Sonia Gandhi, however, seemed appreciative of the budget and kept nodding her head in agreement while Mamata was presenting the budget in the House.

The ruling BJP praised the budget. Party spokesman, M. Venkaiah Naidu said: “It is one of the most popular budgets. There is no burden on the people.”

National Democratic Alliance partners, the DMK and TDP members also hailed the budget, kept thumping the table and tried to quieten those who were raising a ruckus during Mamata’s presentation.

PM call for hardsell

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee today urged the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) constituents to project the rail and general budgets in a “positive” light and highlight their “pro-people and pro-development” thrust. He also cautioned his allies not to allow the Opposition to “succeed in their baseless propaganda”.

Addressing a meeting of the NDA MPs this morning, the Prime Minister reiterated that the government was willing to have a debate on “any and every issue” provided that the time and format were decided by the Speaker after consulting the Business Advisory Committee.

Vajpayee said the government was ready to have a discussion on even the controversial Constitution review panel.

“All of you know that this was an important commitment in our common manifesto. The terms of reference and the non-partisan composition of the commission have no scope whatsoever for any controversy about the government’s intent in constituting this panel,” the Prime Minister said, dispelling doubts on the BJP’s “hidden” intent to push through the RSS’ agenda.

In an attempt to prepare the NDA for some “tough” announcements in the general budget and pre-empt any dissent, Vajpayee said: “We all know the accumulated problems in the economy, especially in physical and social infrastructure areas. When a patient suffering from a serious illness is to be cured, the doctor sometimes has to administer strong medicines.”

He added that if the medicine was the “right” one, it would have the “desired effect of curing the patient. But if the treatment is postponed for too long, the doctor will be guilty of worsening the patient’s condition”.

Employing the medical analogy, Vajpayee maintained that the national economy was “best with many problems and distortions”, it was the government’s duty to cure it and make it healthy to fulfil popular aspirations.

“I urge every NDA constituent and each one of you to systematically communicate the progressive content of the government’s actions,” he stressed.    

New Delhi, Feb. 25 
The Supreme Court today ordered that trial against ADMK chief Jayalalitha in the Tansi case should continue under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

Ruling on a petition by the Tamil Nadu government, the division bench of Justice K.T. Thomas and Justice M.B. Shah said in an interim stay order that the Madras High Court should not have interfered with the trial.

The state government had sought a stay on the high court order that quashed charges against Jayalalitha even while the trial was on.

The former chief minister has been accused of misusing her position to buy up land belonging to the Tamil Nadu Small Industries Corporation (Tansi).

The Supreme Court said the trial should continue but the judgment should not be pronounced till the government’s special leave petition was disposed of.

In its petition, the DMK government said the high court had committed a grave error in holding that the code of conduct preventing ministers from purchasing public property “cannot operate as statutory”.

The code was formulated under Articles 162, 166 and 154 of the Constitution and hence had the force of law or a statute within the meaning of Article 13(3) of the Constitution, it pleaded.

The petition also countered the high court’s view that any breach of the code would not amount to an offence under Section 169 of the Indian Penal Code. The Section debars public servants from buying public assets.

Since the correctness of the high court’s interference itself is in question, the Supreme Court ordered a deferred judgment till this issue is settled.

During her term as chief minister, Jayalalitha had purchased 2.98 acres of Tansi land for Rs 1.68 crore. The purchase allegedly violated Section 169 of the IPC and the government code for ministers.

The order quashing the graft charges by Justice Thangaraj of the Madras High Court came while the case was being tried by the special court and deposition by prosecution witnesses was almost over.

The Supreme Court petition by the state government said other offences were also committed by Jayalalitha in the Tansi purchase.

She had paid Rs 1.68 crore for property worth Rs 4.42 crore, causing a loss of Rs 2.74 crore to the exchequer. A stamp duty loss of Rs 43.09 lakh put the total loss at Rs 3.07 crore.

Moreover, the property was never auctioned as claimed but purchased by submission of tenders, the government said.

Case against Naidu

The Supreme Court today admitted a special leave petition seeking sanction to criminally prosecute Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu for corruption.

A division bench of Justice S.P. Bharucha and Justice Ruma Pal admitted the SLP by Congress leader Y.S. Rajasekara Reddy while issuing notices to all respondents, including Naidu, the Andhra Governor , former Union minister P. Upendra and the special judge for economic offences.

Advocates for the petitioner said Naidu, who had declared in 1988 his yearly income was only Rs 36,000 per annum, showed Rs 19.29 crore as the total worth of his wealth in 1999. “In 11 years, the high brow chief minister has accumulated so much wealth.”    


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