Atal refuses to blink in price tussle
Sonia set for Clinton one-to-one
Big B and Shri 420 in Tussaud’s toss-up
Sangh signals reform protests
Come home to Stone & Stallone

 
 
ATAL REFUSES TO BLINK IN PRICE TUSSLE 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
New Delhi, March 14 
The protest against the price rise widened today with BJP members joining the allies’ clamour, but Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee refused to succumb to their demand for a rollback of the subsidy cuts on foodgrain and fertiliser.

Amid the tough posturing, the Telugu Desam and the Janata Dal (United) — the government’s most influential allies — said they would step up their agitation against the proposal. The allies have convened a meeting tomorrow on how to force the Centre to bow to their wish.

At a meeting of the BJP parliamentary party this morning, members from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh said they were under “pressure” from their constituents to persuade the government to revoke its decision.

A Rajasthan MP said their main worry was that the NDA partners and the Opposition were gaining politically from the protests, while the BJP was in a no-win situation. “If the government rolls back, it will be seen as a victory for our allies, and if it does not, the Opposition will come out with flying colours,” he said.

The MPs demanded they should be given the “right” to join the protests. Delhi MP M.L. Khurana took the first step by asking the government to restore the original price of milk supplied under the Delhi Milk Scheme, which was recently doubled.

Vajpayee, however, stood firm and gave no hint of giving in. But he assured the MPs he would shortly start a dialogue with the allies.

The Dal (U) and the Desam, which had earlier threatened to table cut motions on the proposal, increased their sabre-rattling by warning the Centre not to take them for granted as between them they had 51 MPs. “Others will also join the agitation. The government cannot ignore this issue,” Dal (U) leader Devendra Yadav said.

Vajpayee tried to convince his MPs that the Centre was “helpless” and was forced to take the hard option. He urged the MPs to explain to their constituents the “rationale” behind the decision.

“Every step should not be seen in a political light. What we have done is in the national interest which demands that the economy be set right immediately,” party spokesman Venkaiah Naidu quoted Vajpayee as saying.

But the MPs were not convinced. “Such explanations will not satisfy our voters. Atalji seems to be going the Narasimha Rao way by taking our demands lightly,” said a Bihar MP.

The members also sought an “explanation” on the Centre’s ties with the Sangh. “We are confused as we are getting different feedback from our cadre and newspapers,” said an MP.

Vajpayee sought to calm them, saying: “Don’t worry, we will sort out matters amicably.”    


 
 
SONIA SET FOR CLINTON ONE-TO-ONE 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, March 14 
President Bill Clinton will have a one-to-one with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and an “intimate exchange” with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

The meeting with Sonia Gandhi as leader of the Opposition will take place presumably without aides on March 22.

The exchange with Vajpayee may not be one to one, but in the presence of two aides from each side. The meeting is likely to take place in Hyderabad House minutes before the delegation-level talks on March 21.

Indian officials argued that a one-to-one may not necessarily mean without aides and pointed out that rarely does an Indian leader meet a visiting head of state alone. The “intimate exchange” between Clinton and Vajpayee will give out a signal that the two sides are keen on elevating their bilateral relations to a new level, they said.

The US President, who is coming here without wife Hillary but with daughter Chelsea, has decided to bring along his mother-in-law Dorothy Rodham.

Among the senior officials who will be accompanying Clinton are the secretary of state, Madeleine Albright; the head of US Agency for International Development, Brad Anderson; the national security adviser, Sandy Berger; the deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott; the chief of White House staff, John Podesta; the energy secretary, Bill Richardson; and the commerce secretary, William Daley.

A team of 20 to 50 American business leaders and 50 to 100 Indian-Americans are also likely to be part of the entourage.

Clinton arrives with his delegation here on March 19. He will retire for the night after attending a cultural programme hosted by the American embassy members here.

The next morning he will leave for Bangladesh and return to Delhi late in the evening. His official visit starts from the next day and the substantial level of talks between the two delegations is slated to be held at Hyderabad House.

A number of pacts, including the Vision Agreement, will be signed on that day. Other deals will be on trade and commerce, investment and cooperation in science and technology. Clinton and Vajpayee are likely to come out with a joint statement after the delegation-level talks.

Efforts are also on to work out a meeting between Vice-President Krishan Kant and Clinton. But Indian ministers will meet their American counterparts.

A discussion between foreign minister Jaswant Singh and Albright is likely. The US secretary of state will leave for Europe shortly after arriving here but will return within a day or two for her meeting with Singh.

National security advisor Brajesh Mishra will talk to Berger while commerce minister Murasoli Maran will meet Daley. Power minister P.R. Kumaramangalam will join Richardson for talks.    


 
 
BIG B AND SHRI 420 IN TUSSAUD’S TOSS-UP 
 
 
FROM AMIT ROY
 
London, March 14 
Madame Tussaud’s today announced that it has decided to recognise the magic and popularity of Bollywood by including an Indian film star for the first time among the 370 waxwork models it currently has on display.

Since it costs six months and £ 35,000 to sculpt a new figure, Madame Tussaud’s is being careful about which star will be picked to represent Bollywood.

The obvious choice is the Big B, who happens to be in Britain at the moment for the shooting of a film and could make time for sittings. The artists also take hair samples, match skin tones so that the complexion of the model “perfectly” matches that of the subject, and request for clothes worn by the celebrity.

“We are asking the British Tourist Authority in India for advice on who the star should be,” said Vikki Appleby, a spokeswoman for Madame Tussaud’s. “But we might also run a competition in film magazines. We get a lot of Indian visitors, so it would be nice to get someone they know.”

In London, Neermal Suri, publisher of the film magazine, Movie Mag International, gave his choice: “It’s got to be Raj Kapoor, showman of Bollywood (Awara, Shri 420). My second choice would be Amitabh Bachchan.”

Diane Moon, a member of the selection committee, said: “We haven’t yet made a decision about which star we will approach. Once we’ve got a list of potential subjects, we plan to ask the public to make the final choice.”

She said: “Our visitors have the chance to suggest new candidates for inclusion in the exhibition and recently we’ve had a lot of requests for a Bollywood star. We realise how popular Bollywood films are, the only problem we have now is which star to choose.”

She said: “Visitors to Madame Tussaud’s have a unique chance to get “up close and personal” with their favourite celebrities so we need to find out whether people would prefer to have their photograph taken with legend Amitabh Bachchan, square up to action hero Anil Kapoor, or cuddle up to heart-throb Shah Rukh Khan. We’ve also had requests for the beautiful Aishwarya Rai but we really need more help deciding which star to portray as only one will be chosen.”

The gallery prides itself on turning out lifelike models and is never more pleased than when visitors seek information from one of its waxwork figures.

Each year, between 10 and 15 new figures replace old ones which are either stored or melted down. From the Indian point of view, the real surprise is that the waxwork model of Narasimha Rao continues to be on display, having been first made when he was Prime Minister.    


 
 
SANGH SIGNALS REFORM PROTESTS 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, March 14 
The change of guard in the Sangh is expected to rejuvenate its various wings and signal to the Vajpayee government they would no longer play second fiddle.

With K.S. Sudarshan anointed sarsanghchalak, outfits like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh are unlikely to remain passive on the government’s reforms agenda. Sudarshan has made it clear that Vajpayee should change his economic advisers and induct those sympathetic to swadeshi.

“This is not a BJP government as such. It is just one of the many constituents of the NDA. We want to make it clear it is the alliance’s policies to which we will respond,” sources said.

Sangh sources said the protests would take the form of “street” demonstrations. “The idea is not to enter into a confrontation, but start a dialogue. But we wish to emphasise that while the purpose of the dialogue is to find solutions, we will not compromise,” they added.

But the RSS leaders clarified that the revival of the Ram temple “agitation” was not a priority. “We feel the ambience for bringing back this issue is lacking and a call for a kar seva in Ayodhya may not draw people in large numbers. No party is yet demanding that a masjid be rebuilt there, and until and unless that is done, there may not be too many takers for the mandir plank,” argued sources.

The BJP believes that a proactive RSS would have no direct bearing on the government. “The protests against the reforms were inevitable. If the branch of a tree on which a crow is sitting suddenly snaps, it is not because of the crow, but because the branch was rotting for some time,” he said, implying that if things went wrong at the Centre, it would not be because of the Sangh.

But sources insisted there was no way the party could shake itself free of the RSS. “The BJP has no identity of its own. Whatever agenda it has taken up, be it Ayodhya, Article 370 or a common civil code, has been borrowed from the RSS,” sources said.

The party is waiting to see who the RSS appoints as its link man with the government.    


 
 
COME HOME TO STONE & STALLONE 
 
 
BY ELLA DATTA AND SUBHRO SAHA
 
 
Home Box Office, the Ted Turner-owned movie channel with the world’s largest bank of Hollywood film titles, is treading gently into Indian drawing rooms today. The channel is calling its entry a soft launch, but when Sly Stallone and Sharon Stone hit the screen at 9.30 pm, the war of the movie channels would have begun.

Subhash Chandra’s Zee Movies, also an English film channel, is debuting today, half an hour earlier with ex-007 Roger Moore and as-tough-as-Sly Jean Claude Van Damme in The Quest.

The two will double the number of English movies channels, widening the choice from STAR and TNT. Sony’s AXN also calls itself an “action” movie channel, but has a more than fair sprinkling of serials. Movie maniacs have never had it so good.

For HBO, the first seven days are a test run before they begin the 24-hour bombardment from March 22. It intends to become a pay channel from that blockbuster day itself. Zee Movies is less ambitious. It will give cable operators at least four to six weeks’ preview period before turning pay channel.

Zee Network, which goes on air with another English channel the same evening — Zee English — seems unfazed by the threat from such a pedigreed competitor like HBO. “Like always, we have done our homework well,” claims Manas Chatterjee, resident director (East India), Zee Network, “and are confident of a good response from the viewers.”

Zee Movies will be a prestigious component in Zee Network’s bouquet of packages as it plans to launch seven digital channels in the next 30-45 days. “We understand the mindset of the Indian viewer better,” claims Chatterjee. “During market research prior to this venture, we tried to find out which foreign films have done well in the Indian box office and have acquired titles accordingly.”

Thus, Zee Movies plans to hit the box with glamour, action and drama from the big screen with titles such as Cinderella, A Star is Born, Loaded Guns, Murder on the Orient Express, the Carry On series, Hitchcock movies, Charade, A Farewell to Arms and the City of Joy.

There will be a special line-up of movie festivals everyday, the 9 O’ Clock Show every weeknight, the Movie of the Week every Saturday, the mega Sunday Blast, special movies Just For Kids, classics in Hollywood Gold and horror in the form of Fright Nights.

“We can hold our own against any international brand coming to this country to do business”, claims Chatterjee.

Chatterjee, who is also the city supremo for SitiCable and Probir K. Bose, chief executive, RPG Netcom Ltd, the two distributors of satellite channels in Calcutta, admit they are in the dark by HBO.

“All we know is that they are coming.”

, but with what kind of programme content, we have no clue,” says Bose.

Here’s what they are coming with. First, the package put together by HBO has been cutomised for India. Which means it is not the sub-standard fare HBO dishes out in its Asia package. In the first fortnight, HBO is lining up superhero films Batman and Robin, romance like See You in the Morning, comedy Nothing but Trouble starring Chevy Chase and Demi Moore aplenty of action in the form of The Executive Decision, Lethal Weapon and Assassins starring Sly Stallone and Antonio Banderas.

But the bad news for HBO is that cable operators are not putting it in the prime band. That means those with sets having only 18 channels will miss out.

Says Tarak Saha, convenor, Forum of Cable Operators: “We will surely look at the quality of the product on offer and would like to give the viewers enough time to judge for themselves which movie channels they want to see more. Initially, there’s no question of passing on the burden to the customers and we won’t even put HBO on the prime band.”

Zee Movies has an advantage since SitiCable, from the same Chandra stable, will obviously put it on the prime band.

Rupert Murdoch’s STAR Movies, the first English movie channel in India, claims it is not worried by the new competition. Spokesman Raj Naik said: “The launch of new channels will not impact us. We enjoy pioneer status.”

But the reason STAR or Zee or Sony is not sporting furrowed brows lies elsewhere.

Ravina Raj Kohli, senior vice-president, programming and marketing, Sony, says: “English movie channels will always be niche channels.”

But the heat is on with Stallone and Stone in the bathtub.    

 

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