Gujarat rolls back after Atal vote gamble
Musharraf claims Clinton legitimacy certificate
Bihar set for cliffhanger on Speaker
Rail switches fibre track
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, March 8 
Succumbing to pressure from the Opposition and the BJP’s allies at the Centre, the Gujarat government today withdrew its circular permitting employees to participate in RSS activities.

The withdrawal came at the end of hours of persuasion by BJP central leaders M. Venkaiah Naidu and K.N. Govindacharya, who reached Gujarat this morning after the allies made it clear that the state government should be “coaxed on a party-to-party” basis to cancel the circular.

But the turnaround has caused disquiet within the Sangh parivar with hardliners, including Gujarat BJP MPs, viewing the move as a “sellout” to the allies. “It is a disturbing move. It amounts to a ban on the RSS by its progeny, the BJP,” said a member from north Gujarat.

RSS sources said the equation between the Sangh and the Vajpayee government — redefined by today’s move which has given the government an upper hand — will be debated at the conclave beginning in Nagpur on Friday.

The BJP, however, sought to make light of the withdrawal. “All is well that ends well,” said party vice-president J.P. Mathur. “No situation is good or bad. It depends on how the situation is used by a party and its leaders,” he added.

Party sources said it was not an “easy decision” to virtually put down the RSS. “But we chose to be pragmatic and, in the interest of letting the government stay on, bowed to the allies’ pressure,” a source said.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee had signalled the retreat when he announced in the Lok Sabha today that the government was ready to face a censure motion on the RSS issue under rule 184, which entails voting.

The turnaround came this morning after Vajpayee “spoke his mind” in a BJP parliamentary party meeting, government sources said. He told his MPs the deadlock could not persist forever and Parliament had to resume its normal functioning. “The onus is on the government to break the ice and give in to the Opposition, and show itself up as responsible,” he was quoted as saying.

Immediately afterwards, Vajpayee conveyed his decision to the allies at an emergency meeting of the NDA. Many of the coalition partners had been unwilling to agree to a censure motion involving the RSS because of “ideological” differences. But in the five-minute meeting, Vajpayee did not seek an assurance from the allies that they would vote with the government.

In making the unilateral announcement, the Prime Minister had worked out that the Gujarat government could be coaxed into cancelling the circular well before Lok Sabha started discussing the issue. He had also calculated that for all their outward opposition, NDA constituents would not vote the government out.

“The allies are of the unanimous view that the order (allowing government employees to participate in RSS activities) concerns only the Gujarat government and not the Centre. We cannot afford to allow governments to fall every six months or year. People will not forgive us if a mid-term election is forced on them,” Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee asserted.

National Conference chief whip A.M. Naik said: “The Central government has no role in the decision taken by the Gujarat government and hence it cannot be punished for the fault of somebody else.”

Observers believe that with this move, Vajpayee has rendered the debate on the issue infructuous and spared the allies the dilemma of whether to vote with the government or against it.

But the Congress, which has scored its first major tactical victory over the Vajpayee government by forcing both a censure motion as well as the cancellation of the Gujarat order, indicated it would insist on the debate.

A senior floor manager said the party wanted to put on parliamentary record the “embryonic links” between the RSS and BJP through the discussion. “Our motion will not become infructuous,” Pranab Mukherjee asserted.

Observers said the 15-day impasse in Parliament caused by the RSS issue has instilled the much-needed semblance of unity in the Opposition while exposing the chinks in the ruling coalition.    

New Delhi, March 8 
A day after announcing President Bill Clinton’s visit to Pakistan, a red-faced India tried to cover up the diplomatic blow as a jubilant Islamabad said the decision vindicated its stand on Kashmir.

Stung by Clinton’s announcement, officials here put up a brave front, arguing both Delhi and Washington shared “common concerns” in Islamabad over terrorism and narcotics trade, and they would work jointly to combat the twin evils.

Pakistan, however, sees the trip as the US’ stamp of approval for the army junta. Military ruler Pervez Musharraf said Clinton’s decision was a gesture of support for his government and would help solve the Kashmir dispute.

“It vindicates the legitimacy of my government’s stand and gives credence to our aim to put things right in our country,” he told Reuters.

“It also shows Clinton’s desire to resolve the Kashmir problem and to bring peace to our region,” Musharraf said.

But in an apparent bid to calm jitters in Delhi, Washington made it clear Clinton’s “brief stopover” in Islamabad should not be interpreted as an endorsement of Musharraf’s action, and the President would not mediate on Kashmir.

“The President has agreed to go there because it is important for the US and the world that he engages with Pakistan at this time,” US officials said.

At the same time, the officials added that India should try and understand the US’ compulsions. “India should understand that we have vital interests there and those are best kept protected by lines of communication,” they said.

The government here has time and again stressed that by visiting Pakistan, Clinton would send the wrong signals not only to the global community, but also to the Indian people.

While emphasising that the President would not mediate between the nuclear neighbours, the US officials said Clinton would nevertheless try and nudge the two nations to the talks table to bring down the temperature in South Asia, which he has described as the “most dangerous place in the world” because of the Kashmir problem.

India has ruled out reviving the dialogue until Pakistan creates “the right atmosphere” by stopping terror export to Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast. After the Indian Airlines hijack, for which India blames the Inter-Services Intelligence and militant outfits based in Pakistan, Delhi had urged the Clinton administration to declare Pakistan a terrorist state.

India is likely to repeat its stand if Clinton urges Delhi to resume talks stalled since the Kargil war.

But reports from Pakistan suggest that the Musharraf regime will urge the President to ensure a speedy solution of the Kashmir dispute for restoring peace in South Asia. “Pakistan is expected to stress that the key to peace and good relations between Islamabad and New Delhi lies with Kashmir. That was and remains the core issue,” the official APP news agency said.    

Patna, March 8 
A virtual trust vote was thrust on Nitish Kumar a day ahead of schedule with Laloo Prasad Yadav rejecting his proposal for consensus and fielding a Congress candidate for the Speaker’s election tomorrow.

State Congress chief Sadanand Singh will be pitted against the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) nominee, Gajendra Himanshu, in a contest that could seal the fate of the chief minister.

But with resentment brewing in the Congress over Singh’s nomination, Nitish Kumar might get an unexpected boost. Partymen who so far believed that Singh was supporting Laloo on instructions from the central leadership are now smelling a deal between the foes-turned-friends.

“Laloo Prasad Yadav’s new-found love for Sadanand Singh is more than politics,” said Ramjatan Singh, working president of the state Congress unit.

A Congress legislator from Jharkhand said: “We were listening to our central leaders carefully till yesterday but today there is new food for thought.”

Even legislators who are not opposed to the Rashtriya Janata Dal were surprised that senior leader Vijay Shankar Dubey was bypassed for the Speaker’s post. The possibility of some Congressmen abstaining from the vote or even backing the NDA candidate is, therefore, not ruled out.

The CPI(ML) is also undecided over whom to support. Though senior leader Mahendra Pratap Singh indicated the party would go with Laloo, at least three legislators are not happy with the decision and are planning to abstain. The BSP, which has declared support to Laloo, is on the verge of a split.

Nitish Kumar, who is still 12 short of a majority, is now watching the developments in the CPI. The party has called an executive meeting this evening to decide on the issue.    

New Delhi, March 8 
Just weeks before Mamata Banerjee announced a plan to lay a countrywide optical fibre telecom link in her maiden railway budget speech, she scrapped a sanctioned plan by Ircon and Rites to build the first stretches of the 62,000-km network, connecting Delhi to Mumbai and Chennai with links to Bangalore and Hyderabad.

The reason: The railways want to throw the multi-billion rupees project open to wider bidding,including by private competitors.

As a first step towards the new dispensation, the railways are calling on “reputed consulting firms” to bid for a contract to develop a business plan for the cable network.

The earlier plan which called on Ircon to build the Delhi-Jaipur-Ahmedabad-Mumbai section and Rites to build the Mumbai-Chennai route with spurs to Bangalore and Hyderabad was halted in the second week of February.

The cable network was to link private local cellular and basic telephone networks and internet networks nationwide, earning huge profits by way of charges from companies running these telecom ventures.

A letter sent by R.K.Goyal, director (PSU) in the Railway Board, on February 9, told the managing directors of the two railway-owned units that they are “directed not to progress further on the joint venture without formal approval.”

A top board official said: “It’s obvious we have scrapped the projects because we want it to be a nationwide network, not just partial networks.”

Whoever wins the projects stands to reap a bonanza. Several firms, like Reliance and Escorts, have plans to set up private nationwide telecom links. Such a network will complement their plans to be major telecom and internet players throughout the country.

The order came five months after the railway ministry signed memoranda of understanding with Ircon to set up a joint venture to lay the Mumbai-Chennai section with spurs to Hyderabad and Bangalore and 14 months after the Board sent a letter to the managing directors of Rites and Ircon, informing them that the board has approved the two projects.

Both the companies were to set up joint ventures to build, own and operate the networks with private partners while retaining management control and majority stake.

Railways were to provide the land along the track and copper cables needed while the joint venture would execute the fibre-optic network and build and lease out telecom links to end-user cellular and basic firms.    

Temperature: Maximum: 30.7°C (-1) Minimum: 25.5°C (normal) RAINFALL: 0.5 mm Relative humidity: Maximum: 98%, Minimum: 77% Today: The met office predicts one or two showers, or even thundershowers in the city. Sunset: 5.23 pm Sunrise: 5.31 am    

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