Spitfire Sonia slips up on statute
Vajpayee skirts price rise in House debate
Ghani swallows pride on mahajot
Apex court puts Jaya back in Tansi dock
Centre taps waterless channel in drought fight
Digvijay adds flab in sack raj
Jharkhand decks cleared

New Delhi, April 25 
In 20 minutes, Congress president Sonia Gandhi shredded the Vajpayee government to pieces on every explosive issue except on the most controversial of them all: the decision to review the Constitution.

Quick to cash in on the lapse, the Prime Minister in his reply to the discussion on the vote of thanks to the President’s address said: “I am surprised how the Congress president spared the Constitution review committee.”

For her part, Sonia tugged at the heartstrings of the government when she urged the Prime Minister to tackle the devastation caused by the drought not with a “cold heart” but with “a benevolent one, desiring to help all suffering people regardless of their political leanings.”

It was Sonia’s longest speech in Parliament since she entered the Lok Sabha. And she appeared to have learnt her lessons in Parliamentary oration diligently. There were fewer fumblings, more eye contact with the leaders in the treasury benches and greater aggression laced with confidence. The usual sheaf of highlighted notes lay on the table and Sonia put aside one card after another while tackling each issue.

Instead of wandering aimlessly through the speech, the Congress president this time was brushing up the written words and phrases — emphasising a word here and decisively rapping the table there to make her criticism strident and her appeal convincing.

When the BJP members tried to nettle the Congress president by shouting: “Hindi mein bolo,” (Speak in Hindi), Sonia shot back: “Agli baar koshish karoongi,” (I will try next time).

From the outset, Sonia launched an attack on the BJP for subverting the country’s secular ethos. “The Prime Minister has often tried to deflect attacks by the Sangh Parivar — but this is not out of deep conviction. It is because of the compulsion of protecting a fragile coalition,” Sonia said, looking directly at the Prime Minister sitting next to home minister Lal Krishna Advani.

The Congress president did not spare senior BJP ministers either. For the foreign minister Jaswant Singh, it was the government’s “shameful appeasement” of terrorists in Kandahar. The finance minister Yashwant Sinha was severely criticised for the slide in agriculture, the upward swing in prices and the shifting of economic burden on the poor. In the social sector, human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi was rapped for not giving enough attention to implementing universal “secular” primary education.

Her party, Sonia said, was not against reforms, but it would not tolerate the government’s “cavalier” attitude towards the poor and its policy of disinvesting shares at throwaway prices. “Can a government continue to betray the trust of its people?” asked Sonia. She stressed that instead of “attacking” poverty, the government was “attacking the poor”.

The leader of the party which has been beaten with the “anti-poor” stick when in power turned the tables on the BJP, which had then stuck this label on the Congress. “There is a strong belief that the government’s concern for the deprived takes second place and its solicitude is reserved for the more affluent classes,” she said.

Not giving the government any quarter on foreign relations, Sonia said: “On this front the government has been lurching from one misplaced enthusiasm to another. We have seen the naiveté of the Lahore bus ride. The borders of our country were being breached at the time of the bus ride to Lahore,” said Sonia.    

New Delhi, April 25 
If Sonia Gandhi forgot to raise the question of Constitution review, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee chose to ignore another controversial issue -- price rise -- during the debate in Parliament.

In his speech, Vajpayee did not utter a word about the hike in the prices of foodgrain supplied through the public distribution system.

The omissions were promptly noticed by the treasury and Opposition benches. While Vajpayee embarrassed Sonia by broaching the topic of Constitution review, the Left parties criticised him for “deliberately” ignoring the hike in the prices of essential items and staged a walkout after his speech.

The Prime Minister touched upon the hike in fertiliser prices and ruled out a rollback, saying subsidies were helping the industry more than the farmers.

Vajpayee then asked Sonia why she had not mentioned the Constitution review, a subject she has been talking about ad nauseum.

But soon, it was the turn of the Prime Minister to be caught on the wrong foot. Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar reminded Vajpayee that he had opposed the Congress bid to review the Constitution during Indira Gandhi’s regime, but was now doing the same by bypassing Parliament.

Vajpayee chose to ignoreShekhar’s barb but said the government had no intention to tamper with the basic structure of the Constitution and asserted that the government’s move did not violate the sanctity of Parliament.

RPI member Prakash Ambedkar asked the Prime Minister if he was aware of a “private Constitution” being circulated by the RSS. He said Vajpayee had set up a commission to review the Constitution, bypassing Parliament.

The Prime Minister dismissed allegations that the move to review the Constitution was “an insult to B.R. Ambedkar (architect of Constitution)”.

Though his one-hour speech was lacklustre and interrupted frequently by Opposition members, the Prime Minister appeared confident and managed to put Sonia on the mat at least once.

Vajpayee sought to embarrass the Congress for its conflicting statements on minimum nuclear deterrence and asked Sonia to clarify the position.

Amid loud protests from Congress benches, Vajpayee recalled contradictory statements given by two party spokesmen and said: “Soniaji can clarify her party’s position now.” As Sonia refused to take the bait, a BJP member commented that “she is not ready”.    

New Delhi, April 25 
Caught between an indifferent Mamata Banerjee and assertive Sonia Gandhi, West Bengal Congress chief A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury today admitted his failure to forge a mahajot for the June civic polls.

But, he added, seat-adjustments with Trinamul would be worked out “wherever possible”.

After meeting Sonia, a downcast Chowdhury said: “At this moment, time is very short. The principle of mahajot cannot be extended everywhere but we will do it wherever possible.”

The state president, however, indicated that the grand alliance would be forged during the Assembly elections scheduled for early next year. “Mahajot is coming to stay in future,” he said.

The rival camp of Priya Ranjan Das Munshi cried victory, but Chowdhury’s men alleged that the Bengal Congress working president was responsible for scuttling the mahajot as his group has fielded candidates indiscriminately against Trinamul and BJP. “Now it is very difficult to force everyone to withdraw,” a Congress MLA close to Chowdhury said.

Mamata did not share Chowdhury’s optimism over a “future mahajot”. Since last evening, Chowdhury has tried to make contact with the Trinamul boss but there was no one-to-one with her that could have given a boost to the mahajot for the municipal polls.

The Mamata camp was quick to describe today’s development as a “betrayal”. Trinamul leaders were also upset with Chowdhury over his written undertaking to Sonia that he will not allow the BJP into the alliance.

Much to Sonia’s delight, Chowdhury parroted her line that BJP would not be part of the mahajot. He said that while the Congress will try to work out a seat-share formula with Trinamul for the municipal polls in as many seats as possible, it will pit candidates against the BJP.

Chowdhury refused to comment on Mamata’s support to BJP. “I have nothing to comment on Mamata’s relationship with BJP. All I am saying is that we will try not to have candidates against Trinamul.”

Sonia made it clear she would not allow any truck with the BJP. Sources close to her said that if Mamata was keen on an alliance with Congress, she would have to quit the NDA government first. On her part, Sonia is prepared to grant “total primacy” to Mamata in Bengal politics.

AICC spokesperson Margaret Alva described Trinamul and the Telugu Desam as “secular parties”. In Congress circles, while there is general acceptance on Trinamul’s description as “secular”, eyebrows were raised on the Desam’s inclusion.

Sources close to 10 Janpath said while Sonia was in favour of a tie-up with Trinamul, the Congress Working Committee was opposed to the idea of joining hands with Mamata as long as she was part of the NDA.

Sonia’s strategy is to keep Chowdhury in good humour and not to precipitate a crisis which may lead to a split in the party. At the same time, she is determined to ensure that the Congress should not be seen moving closer to the BJP as it could have serious repercussions outside Bengal, especially in Kerala. Several party leaders, including Tarun Gogoi of Assam and Vayalar Ravi of Kerala, have asserted they are totally opposed to the mahajot.    

New Delhi, April 25 
The Supreme Court today ordered that trial in the Tansi land scam case against former Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha should continue.

A division bench of Justice K.T. Thomas and Justice Ruma Pal said Jayalalitha’s discharge by Madras High Court was unwarranted as the case had already reached an advanced stage in the special court.

The prosecution case is that the land deal caused a loss of Rs 3.5 crore to the public exchequer. Jayalalitha had purchased the land during her tenure as chief minister.

The apex court thus “erased” the Madras High Court judgment which discharged Jayalalitha in the case.

The Supreme Court order was passed after Jayalalitha filed an application, seeking withdrawal of revision petitions before the high court on which the order of her discharge was made.

The bench, after perusing her application, said: “We declare that the January 13 judgment of the high court will stand erased.”

The apex court directed the trial court to expeditiously conclude trial in the case, saying: “The trial will decide the case and the law points involved in it as if the high court had not pronounced any view in the matter.”

However, the Tamil Nadu government conceded before the Supreme Court that the charge of cheating, under Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code, made against Jayalalitha in the case was not sustainable on the facts and circumstances of the case.

The apex court also gave liberty to Jayalalitha to “raise all such contentions which she thinks necessary before the trial court at the final stages of the trial”.

The judges observed: “It is not proper for the high court to express its views on the merits and law points involved in the case when the trial had reached such an advanced stage.”

The court observed: “Pre-empting of the trial is neither the practice nor a precedent of the Supreme Court.”

The government had alleged that the purchase of the land by Jaya Publications and Sasi Enterprises, both owned in partnership by Jayalalitha and Sasikala, made her liable to be prosecuted under Section 169 of the Indian Penal Code.

This provision bars public servants from bidding for government properties even in public auctions.    

New Delhi, April 25 
It is a question no one can answer. Why should the agriculture ministry, which has little to do with water supply and drinking water, be the nodal ministry to tackle the drought? It only has a water management wing, that has nothing to do with management of watershed facilities and deals only with prevention of soil erosion.

Yet, the agriculture secretary is the government’s principal consultant on the severe drought stalking most districts of Gujarat and Rajasthan and parts of Maharashtra, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The central relief commissioner is also an integral part of this department. The rural development ministry, which runs the technology mission on rural drinking water, or the water resources ministry, which controls the Central Ground Water Board, are part of the crisis management group run by the agriculture ministry secretariat.

These are traditions which have been unquestioningly followed since Independence by successive governments. It made sense to the British to make the agriculture ministry the nodal organisation because it was the only ministry which looked after rural affairs and managed virtually every natural calamity.

But times have changed. Ministries like rural development and water supply have come up. However, the agriculture ministry continues to hold sway. Government insiders recall a suggestion put forward long ago on the need to create a separate ministry to deal with national disasters like the Orissa supercyclone or the ongoing drought.

The suggestion was never taken up for active discussion because the agriculture ministry refused to shed the responsibility. Agriculture secretary Bhaskar Barua and central relief commissioner Bhagat Singh also managed the Orissa cyclone last year.

This time, too, the tradition is being followed. The rural development ministry is being involved by the agriculture ministry, but water resources is being given the go-by. So the water resources ministry is running its own 24-hour emergency cell, and is trying to convince everyone that its hydrologists in the Central Ground Water Board are among the best.

There is more confusion. The rural development ministry, which runs the drinking water mission, has access only to dated technology. They generally bore tubewells to a depth of 250 feet. Since the drought conditions have been building up over several months, there have been complaints that tubewells are throwing up mud instead of water.    

Bhopal, April 25 
Chief minister Digvijay Singh claims a financial crisis is forcing him to retrench lowly-paid daily wage-earners, employed by his government. But that does not stop him from expanding his Cabinet.

Succumbing to pressure from rivals within the Congress, Digvijay will expand his 37-member Cabinet tomorrow, taking in another 11 ministers. Most of them were part of Singh’s Cabinet in his first tenure.

Digvijay said that considering the size of his state, a 48-member ministry is necessary. “Uttar Pradesh has a 100-member ministry, I am only making it 48,’’ he added.

He said his Cabinet of 1993 had 48 ministers. He had downsized it to 37 for his second term. But realising the necessity for a larger ministry, he has decided to include 11 more members.

At least three of the 11 being considered for Cabinet berths are known to be Arjun Singh’s loyalists. They are Subhash Yadav, Digvijay’s deputy in the 1993 ministry, Hazarilal Raghuvanshi, former PWD minister, and Harvansh Singh, former home and panchayat minister.

Even as Digvijay reinstates sacked ministers, he has flatly refused to take back any of the 16,600 temporary workers retrenched by his government. Singh’s government has decided to sack 14,000 more workers employed after January 1, 1989 .

“I have not thrown out regular people,’’ Digvijay said. “Persons retrenched were not appointed as government servants. I am only trying to downsize government.’’ But the chief minister fails to see the paradox in downsizing government with an expanding cabinet.    

Patna, April 25 
The Bihar Assembly today ratified the state reorganisation Bill, clearing the way for the new state of Jharkhand, after a marathon 10-hour debate.

Two years ago, the House had sent back the Bill as Laloo Prasad Yadav claimed that Bihar would be bifurcated only over his “dead body”. Today, however, he reconciled to the new state, admitting “political compulsions”.

But Laloo forwarded over 100 amendments to the Bill, including suggestions on the boundary of the state, changing its name from “Vananchal” to “Jharkhand” and a demand of Rs 1,80,000 crore to cover the loss of revenue in truncated Bihar.

The Assembly session started behind schedule after NDA members held a demonstration in protest against yesterday’s violence in front of the Speaker’s office.

Placing the Bill, parliamentary affairs minister Ramchandra Purve announced the government’s decision to ratify it with some amendments. Although the opinion of the House was near unanimous in favour of the Bill, the RJD leaders, led by Laloo Yadav, outlined the dangers of the bifurcation — the grim prospect of the people becoming “culturally, economically and socio-politically as dissociated from each other as a child from the mother’s womb”. But they all put their stamp of approval on the Bill “because it is part of our commitment”.

Though hoarse from yelling during yesterday’s skirmish, Laloo Yadav kept up his wit during the debate. Slamming the proponents of the Bill, he said: “Bihar was never dead nor was it rotting that it has to be territorially amputated. But the merchants of death are always there.” Answering a jibe at his turns in jail, Laloo said: “I reside in my kila (fort) at Beur, from which I come out often to see if my people are OK. I am the Raja of Bihar,” amidst a roar of laughter.

But this failed to mitigate the gloom cast by his sombre speech. “There has been a confluence of tribal, Bhojpuri and Maithili culture in the state. No one will get to see the unique prism of Bihar’s cultural legacy anymore,” he said, predicting further splits.

Laloo Yadav proposed that the chief minister’s post should be reserved for tribals.    


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