Rabri and Nitish race for numbers
Assam minister killed in Ulfa car ambush
Pakistan slaughters signal squad
Azhar knows he’s got to score: Sourav
Calcutta weather

Patna, Feb. 27 
Rabri Devi of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Nitish Kumar of the National Democratic Alliance are set to fight the uphill battle for the chief ministership of Bihar with their insufficient armies. While Rabri Devi was unanimously chosen leader of the RJD legislature party tonight, a meeting of NDA leaders in New Delhi picked Union agriculture minister and Samata Party leader Nitish Kumar to wage its campaign for power.

Nitish Kumar was selected, even though his party fared poorly in the elections, because the BJP, the core of the NDA, withdrew from the race for chief ministership, probably realising that the odds on forming a government in Bihar were low.

Though both the RJD and the NDA are far short of a majority in the deadlocked new Assembly, on paper, the RJD has a better claim to getting the first chance at government formation.

The RJD-CPM combine has secured 125 seats in the Assembly, three more than the NDA. The RJD chief, Laloo Prasad Yadav, has said his party would formally stake claim tomorrow as the single largest group in the Assembly.

Nitish Kumar, too, is arriving in Patna tomorrow morning to begin efforts to muster enough numbers.

“I am the leader of the single largest party and the largest formation so the right to being called first is mine,” Laloo asserted.

But NDA leaders in Patna disputed Laloo’s claim on power and said they were confident of proving their strength on the floor of the House.

The NDA too, however, was equally lost about where it will muster the required numbers from. “We are talking to various parties, we are sure we will be able to get support,” BJP leader Sushil Modi said.

Though the RJD moved fast to elect Rabri Devi as its House leader, the NDA was initially bogged down on the issue. JD(U) leader and communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan, it appeared, had raised objections to Nitish and demanded that a Dalit be made leader of the alliance’s legislature party. The issue was finally resolved at a meeting at the Prime Minister’s house.

But even with the support of 12 JMM legislators and most of the Independents, the NDA’s numbers don’t add up.

Laloo has a similar problem. Most of the non-NDA groups have declined to support an RJD government. These include the Congress, the CPI and the CPI(ML).

The Congress kept its cards close to its chest because a number of partymen in Bihar was privately threatening to cross over to the NDA, if the party backed Laloo. The CPM, Laloo’s ally, could step in tomorrow and try to turn the Congress around.

In a House so deadlocked, the possibility of the Assembly being placed under suspended animation cannot now be ruled out. Although Governor Vinod Pande is still silent — the results have not been formally notified yet — he is known to have had informal consultations with legal and constitutional experts on the possibilities that could be explored in case he felt no party or formation was in a position to provide stable government to the state.

The Governor may not straightaway invite the single largest party or formation to form a government. He may ask them to prove their strength with letters of support.

Keen to be invited, the Laloo camp is bound to protest any such demand from the Governor and argue that the floor of the Assembly is the best place to prove strength. Laloo, in fact, has been repeatedly emphasising that the test of strength should be held on the Assembly floor rather than in Raj Bhavan.

One of the factors the NDA is banking on is a split in the Congress, particularly of the bloc of upper caste MLAs who may rebel in case the party decides to either back or remain neutral to the RJD.

The main activity in the NDA camp shifted to New Delhi this morning. The NDA strategy session at the Prime Minister’s residence was preceded by another at home minister L.K. Advani’s house.

The last round was convened after A.B. Vajpayee flew back to Delhi, cutting short his daylong visit to Lucknow.    

Guwahati, Feb. 27 
Bursting out of a deceptive shell, the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) today killed a senior minister, Nagen Sarma, by blowing up his car.

Ulfa “chief of staff” Paresh Baruah claimed responsibility for the murder of the public works and forest minister, saying over phone that it was “an answer” to the joint operations of Indian and Myanmarese forces against the outfit. However, the army has denied that such an operation had been launched.

Sarma, who was also the general secretary of the ruling Asom Gana Parishad, was killed in an ambush around 1.45 pm at Nij Banhjani village of lower Assam’s Nalbari district, known to be a stronghold of the Ulfa.

Though the Ulfa has been lying low for some time, intelligence agencies had alerted the state government last year that three Cabinet ministers, including Sarma, were vulnerable to attacks, especially by the banned organisation.

Sarma is survived by his wife and a daughter. The Asom Gana Parishad has called a 12-hour state bandh on Tuesday.

In another incident in central Assam’s Nagaon district, Lt. Mayeker Mahendra Atma was killed in an encounter with the Ulfa. Three Ulfa activists — Tridip Bhuyan, finance secretary of the outfit’s central zone, Rajani Bordoloi and Dhan Bora — were also killed in the shootout.

The minister was proceeding towards Dakhin Nalbari College to attend a function when a bomb, planted on the road, exploded and ripped apart his vehicle about 100 metres away from the educational institution.

The minister, whose car was the third in a convoy of four, and four others died on the spot. Unconfirmed reports said the rebels, hiding in a bamboo grove, opened fire soon after the explosion. The police have recovered a fuse wire about 100 metres long from the grove.

The legs of Sarma, sitting in the rear, were severed, while those in the front seat — bodyguard Sarat Baruah, personal assistant Makhan Barpatra Gohain and driver Mantu Deka — suffered internal injuries.

The rebels fled the site of the ambush before other guards could recover from the shock. The police picked up several persons from the area for interrogation.

The explosion left behind a crater about 10 feet in diameter and three feet deep. Electric poles and transmission wires in the vicinity were damaged by the impact of the blast.

The chief minister, Prafulla Mahanta, who was away in Kokrajhar attending a session of the Bodo Sahitya Sabha, cut short his visit and rushed to the spot of the ambush. The attack “will not deter the government from its stepped-up offensive against militancy”, Mahanta told The Telegraph tonight.

The Ulfa’s central publicity secretary said in a statement that “all those who had taken part in the Assam agitation were responsible for the ills plaguing the state today”.

Sarma was the general secretary of the All-Assam Students’ Union from 1977 to 1979. He was also the adviser to the organisation from 1979 to 1985 — the period of the Assam agitation.    

New Delhi, Feb. 27 
Pakistani forces beheaded an Indian soldier and burnt seven others manning a warning post in the Naushera sector of Jammu and Kashmir, defence sources said.

The dead include a junior commissioned officer. The army said around 20 Pakistani soldiers raided the “early warning station” — crucial because it is surrounded by Pakistani army positions on three sides — around 4.30 am on Sunday.

The warning station, armed with communications equipment, alerts the army on any significant troop movements on the other side.

Brigadier Randhir Singh of 16 Corps, based in Nagrota near Jammu, said one body was headless and three had been charred beyond recognition.

“This is barbarous and an act of madness by Pakistani troops,” he added. During the Kargil flare-up India had levelled torture and mutilation charges against Pakistan.

The brigadier said one body had been dragged across the LoC by the Pakistanis. Of late, whenever Pakistanis trespass into Indian territory, they carry back bodies to claim that the killings were the result of a successful repulse of an intrusion operation.

Pakistan tonight denied that its troops were involved in the raid.

“The situation along the LoC is volatile. The enemy wants us to react but we are exercising restraint,” Brigadier Singh said.

He said the warning post, about 200 km from Jammu, was being manned by 11 Indian soldiers. Defence sources in Jammu said exchange of mortar and medium machine gun fire continued near the post till late this evening. Casualties on the Pakistani side could not be immediately ascertained, they said.

The attack — the third in a month along the LoC — came two days after Pakistan accused Indian soldiers of crossing the Line of Control and killing 14 civilians in Kotli. India had dismissed the claim.

The Pakistani army also attacked three border posts in the Palanwala sector of Jammu today. However, no one was injured.

An army officer said the spurt in the skirmishes was part of a Pakistan plan to keep the frontline on the boil to convince President Bill Clinton that the Kashmir issue was close to a flashpoint.

Last month, Indians claimed to have killed 18 Pakistani soldiers when they tried to capture a border post in Palanwala in the Akhnoor sector near Naushera.    

Mumbai, Feb. 27 
A quiet dinner with wife Dona last night is how Sourav Ganguly celebrated being named Sachin Tendulkar’s successor. That may well have been Sourav’s quietest dinner for quite some time, but the captain-designate isn’t short on confidence.

That, of course, is in keeping with his on-field approach. Never one to turn the other cheek, Sourav may just inject that killer-instinct which, in today’s sport, is an absolute must. One hopes, though, his batting won’t suffer.

Sourav spoke to The Telegraph this morning, in between trying to accommodate multiple requests for interviews and trying not to go hoarse thanking the many well-wishers who have been calling him at the Taj. Following are excerpts:

On how it feels the morning after being named Sachin’s successor

(Smiles) Good… Felt good last night, too. Much of my time, though, has been spent taking calls from well-wishers… Of course, I would have been happier had my appointment coincided with an Indian win.

On whether he has spoken to Sachin

Last night itself, when Sachin called to congratulate. Kapil Dev also called, yesterday itself.

On being a full-fledged captain as opposed to the Toronto assignment where he was standing in for Sachin (and Ajay Jadeja)

There’s certainly a difference, but the objective stays the same: I’ve got to get runs. Merely by being named Sachin’s successor, I can’t help India win.

On whether the demands of the job have sunk in

Frankly, not fully… It’s just been a few hours… It’s good I’ve got 10 days (before the ODIs against South Africa) to think about it… I’m conscious of the huge responsibility, but I haven’t yet thought of anything specifically.

On whether events of the past week, with Sachin and Brian Lara quitting for “personal reasons”, has served to remind him of the pressures which go with captaincy

Though both quit because they reportedly weren’t enjoying the game, I’m not quite sure whether that’s the actual reason… In any case, till I’ve settled down, I can’t say whether my game will be affected.

Basically, it’s up to the captain in question to handle the pressure… Captaincy isn’t easy, so it’s best to keep it simple. Indeed, I do believe if one treats captaincy as a burden, it will remain a burden.

On whether handling Mohammed Azharuddin could be a problem

It shouldn’t… Azhar is, at the moment, making a comeback and knows he’s got to score in order to keep his place… I don’t visualise a problem. On his approach to captaincy

I allow myself to be dictated by instincts. It worked in Toronto and, hopefully, will click in the future, too… I usually don’t take the field with a fixed mind-set, rather I prefer making an assessment, or reviewing what may loosely have been decided, when the ball starts rolling.

On whether he remembers one instinctive move which made a big difference in Toronto

Well, all moves were instinctive, and we ended up beating the West Indies despite being rather thin on experience (no Sachin, Jadeja, Anil Kumble and Jawagal Srinath).

On whether his emotional (and unprecedented) move to call the entire team on the podium, while receiving the trophy in Toronto, was spontaneous

Oh, absolutely. It was a team effort and I thought it would be appropriate for all the players to equally share that moment of glory.

On whether he has had a role-model captain


On what makes a good captain

(Smiles again) A captain is only as good as his team… Yes, man-management is a significant component and I’ll definitely emphasise what my expectations are. For one, performance alone will count and, secondly, the effort must always be there. Nobody should take his place for granted.

I’ll also let it be known that whenever somebody is picked, he’ll get a fair run. I’m not in favour of dumping somebody after one failure.

On whether his own experience (1991-92) has influenced his thinking

Very much so… Not just 1991-92 (Australia), but even in the summer of 1996 (comeback series in England). I don’t think I would have got another chance had I not scored (131) in my debut at Lord’s… I’ve been through it all and know exactly how a player feels — his emotions, the pressure, frustration…

On whether he’ll be open to suggestions

Absolutely. Everybody will be free to give his opinion… I’ll interact with Sachin… Even Kumble, Srinath and Rahul Dravid… I have no hang-ups.

On whether he’ll take the initiative to make Jadeja (the other contender for the captaincy) feel comfortable

Everybody will be made to feel comfortable.

On this being a time of crisis for Indian cricket

I don’t agree with the crisis bit… Till almost the other day, we would win with more or less the same bunch… I accept we need to get our batting act together but, at the same time, fans must be a little patient. We’ll back ourselves and expect the fans to back us.

On whether he has a magic mantra

(Laughs) Everybody has it — it’s within: self-belief.

On whether he is excited be-ing just a step away from leading in Tests as well

I’m looking forward to that day.

Finally, whether life will change

(Laughs again) It hasn’t, so far… All I can say is I won’t change.    

Maximum: 29.9°C (-1)
Minimum: 15.7°C (-2)
Relative humidity:
Maximum: 85%,
Minimum: 38%
Mainly clear sky. Not much change in night temperature.
Sunset: 5.35 pm
Sunrise: 6.05 am    

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