Pipeline returns to Teheran agenda
Sonia taps Rao for policy guidance
Delhi leash on Ghani
VP steps up save-slum drive
Mamata, Left trade barbs on new trains
CPM hurls terror plot charge at Trinamul

 
 
PIPELINE RETURNS TO TEHERAN AGENDA 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
Teheran, May 21 
The Indo-Iranian pipeline through Pakistan seems a distant prospect with Delhi refusing to match Teheran’s enthusiasm on the multi-billion dollar project.

The proposal is likely to come up for discussion at tomorrow’s Joint Commission meeting to be chaired jointly by Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh and his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi.

The aim of the meeting is to broadbase bilateral Indo-Iranian ties in political and economic fields.

The development in Afghanistan — particularly the rise of the Taliban and the subsequent threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism in the region — is one of the main issues on the agenda.

Iran, dominated by Shias, is worried about the Sunni-majority Taliban in Afghanistan and is looking for allies in the region to build up an anti-Taliban alliance to help the cornered Rabbani government.

Energy, security and India’s access to the central Asian markets through Iran are also to be discussed at the meeting.

The Indian foreign minister is also scheduled to call on Iranian President Mohammed Khatami and other senior leaders in Teheran.

A Joint Business Council meeting between India and Iran was also held during the day. More than 20 representatives of major Indian companies, business houses and associations — including L&T Overseas Ltd, BHP Petroleum, Hinduja Group, Kirloskar Oil Engines Ltd and Ficci — took part in the meeting.

During his discussions with the Iranian leadership, Singh will try to take up alternative trade routes like the trilateral transit route India, Iran and Turkmenistan agreed to in 1997. The route has provision for more members and Russia, the Kyrgyz Republic and Uzbekistan are likely to be roped in.

But recent signals from Pakistan have once again raised hopes about the pipeline in Teheran. The proposal was made in 1995 when then Iranian President Rafsanjani visited Delhi. But the Taliban’s seizing power and Indo-Pakistan tension put the plans on the backburner.

However, recent statements by Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf saying his government has no objection to the pipeline passing through its territory, have raised hopes in Teheran once again.

But India does not share Iran’s enthusiasm. Energy-deficient Delhi is keen on tapping Iran’s huge oil and gas reserves, but it is not keen on any arrangement that involves Pakistan at this juncture as relations between Delhi and Islamabad have reached their worst in the post-Kargil period. The political uncertainty in Pakistan has made India jittery about investing in a project that will be left at Islamabad’s mercy.

Some Indian officials are of the opinion that despite strained relations with Pakistan, the proposed pipeline — it is not clear whether the proposal will be for an off-shore or on-shore one — can be viable if the concerned parties get into an international agreement. They argued that the water-sharing arrangement between India and Pakistan has worked well despite the two countries being involved in three wars and the Kargil conflict last year.

But the reluctance on India’s part to involve Pakistan appears to be political. The military regime in Pakistan is under tremendous pressure and facing isolation from the international community since it overthrew the democratically-elected Nawaz Sharif government in the October 12 coup.

Delhi is not willing to bail out Islamabad from its present crisis and accord it legitimacy by getting into any arrangement.

However, Indian officials pointed out that the pipeline may come up, but will not be the main subject of discussion at tomorrow’s meeting. The thrust, they said, would be on enhancing Indo-Iranian ties.    


 
 
SONIA TAPS RAO FOR POLICY GUIDANCE 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, May 21: 
Sonia Gandhi wants the “Chanakya” to help her streamline the Congress policy on reforms, caught as the party is between pro- and anti-liberalisation schools.

Sonia met P.V. Narasimha Rao for 25 minutes with a double offer. First, the Congress chief wanted him to be part of an advisory council which will give vital inputs on policy matters like security, defence, nuclear and foreign affairs.

Second, Sonia requested Rao — who was pulled out of retirement in 1991 to lead the Congress and then discarded and forced into retirement by the same set of persons in 1997 — to head a party panel to “fine-tune” economic reforms. Rao gave no firm commitment, but sources said he was willing to help out at an “informal level”.

The Chanakya, sources said, was reluctant to go for a second innings. He had recently turned down an offer from four former Prime Ministers I.K. Gujral, H.D. Deve Gowda, V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar to be a part of their effort to stage a comeback into active politics.

Sonia’s attempts at rapproc-hement with Rao is aimed at keeping the dissidents from rallying round him.

Of late, murmurs in the party against Sonia have become more than loud whispers with a number of senior Congress leaders openly questioning her political acumen. Though aware of the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor in her favour, Sonia does not want to leave anything to chance.

Sonia has zeroed in on Rao for the economic panel after Manmohan Singh, architect of the first round of reforms, refused to head the committee and party MPs made it clear to her that they would not go on backing reforms as the BJP’s “B” team.

Sonia, party sources said, is on the lookout for a person who could blend economics with politics and package it in such a way that it exhibits a distinct “pro-poor” tilt.

Rao himself is reportedly having a second thought on reforms. He is said to be opposed to the “reckless speed” with which the BJP regime is pushing the second-generation reforms. Rao recently made a speech at Ficci asking for a slow-down on reforms and stressed the need for a greater thrust on human resources development. Before articulating his views, Rao had consulted Manmohan Singh, who was in total agreement with the former Prime Minister, Congress sources said.

Sonia’s unscheduled visit to Rao may have surprised many in the party circles, but sources close to her said the Congress chief had always held him in high esteem. “She wanted him to be part of the Congress Working Committee, but he had declined as there were court cases pending against him,” a source close to Sonia said.    


 
 
DELHI LEASH ON GHANI 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 21 
The battle between the Congress high command and the West Bengal unit is heading towards a point of no return.

Less than 24 hours after Bengal Congress chief A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury hinted at some seat adjustment with the Trinamul-BJP combine for the civic polls, AICC bosses issued a statement telling him that he could not “directly or indirectly” enter into any alliance with a communal party. The state unit was urged to contest all seats on its own.

Congress sources said the central leadership — weighed down by compulsions of adopting a uniform policy regarding the BJP — does not want to be embarrassed by a recalcitrant state unit.

The directive is the first strong measure against the state leaders. During his recent trip to Delhi, Chowdhury was repeatedly asked by Sonia Gandhi not to take any steps that could prove disastrous to the party at the national level. But today’s order suggests that the high command has finally decided to act tough.

The directive is in the form of a letter sent to Chowdhury by AICC general secretary in charge of West Bengal Prabha Rau.

It says: “All the 141 seats of Calcutta Municipal Corporation and 24 seats of Greater Calcutta should be contested by the Congress on its own and no alliance whatsoever should be made with any communal party directly or indirectly.”

The word “indirectly” was inserted to make it even more difficult for Chowdhury to find an escape clause.

The fact that the high command is angry with the veteran leader is also evident from the way it wants to clip his wings. In the letter, Chowdhury was asked to announce a full list of candidates by May 24, but only after consultations with Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, working president of the state unit.

Das Munshi is not in league with those who support a tie-up with the Trinamul-BJP for better prospects against the Left Front. How Chowdhury or former PCC chief Somen Mitra react to the order, remains to be seen.

Less than two weeks ago, they had sought permission from the high command not to put up anyone against the Trinamul candidate in Panskura for the parliamentary by-polls. But their request was turned down.    


 
 
VP STEPS UP SAVE-SLUM DRIVE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 21 
The former Prime Ministers’ club was at it again, raising their voice for the slum-dwellers of the capital.

This afternoon, they organised a rally demanding housing for all outside Red Fort. However, only two of the four ex-Premiers, V.P. Singh and H.D. Deve Gowda, attended the rally — Chandra Shekhar and I.K. Gujral would not brave the 43 degrees plus heat. CPM leader Harkishen Singh Surjeet shared the dais with Singh and Gowda.

The rally was impressive and the applause resounding. But it was not clear whether third front politics reached anywhere with the show of strength.

Unlike Mandalisation, Singh’s issue this time has not received much media attention. Looking for greener pastures, the former Premier hinted today that he would carry the “politics of shelter” elsewhere: to Bhopal to begin with and then to other states.

Gowda, more ambitious, said a national emergency should be declared till every citizen is given shelter.

With the principal Opposition party, the Congress, failing to confront the government adequately, the former Prime Ministers are trying to stage a comeback. Singh has chosen an issue which he believes would give him a popular plank in all urban slums. He might take it later to the villages where the housing situation is even more grim.

But till now the former Prime Ministers have been in Delhi. They have not proved effective either: their loud protests have not caused the least bit of trouble to the BJP.

At the rally Singh demanded housing be made a Fundamental Right and the Constitution be amended for the purpose. He said the Centre should draft a comprehensive national slum policy for the urban poor within a year.

Singh stressed that residents of slums should not be evicted without proper advance notice or alternative arrangements for their rehabilitation.

Union urban development minister Jagmohan, who went into overdrive to demolish illegal structures in Delhi, whether in slums or DDA areas, was criticised strongly by Singh. He challenged the minister to expose the land mafia operating in the capital. He regretted that Jagmohan deemed it more urgent to dismantle the residential quarters of the poor, leaving the illegal buildings occupied by the rich untouched.

At the heart of this fury over slum-dwellers’ rights is Singh’s shrewd analysis that the Congress is failing to highlight the ills of the second round of reforms kick-started by the Vajpayee government. Singh and the other ex-Prime Ministers, therefore, have decided to speak out against the way “benefits are being handed on a platter to the industrialists by this government”.

Gowda slammed the Vajpayee government’s economic policies. A “humble farmer”, he criticised the “trend” of migration of agricultural labour to the cities. He also lashed out against the rise in prices of essential commodities and concessions granted to multinationals and “capitalists”.    


 
 
MAMATA, LEFT TRADE BARBS ON NEW TRAINS 
 
 
FROM KESHAV PRADHAN
 
New Jalpaiguri, May 21 
Mamata Banerjee today countered the Left Front’s demands for further expansion of railway networks in north Bengal with her own set of proposals.

“Everything will remain incomplete if we take up too many projects at the same time. It’s always better to concentrate on those in hand,” she told the assembled gathering before flagging off the first diesel-engine toy train from here.

She also laid the foundation stone for conversion of the Siliguri-New Jalpaiguri-New Bongaigaon metre-gauge track into a broad-gauge line.

Deviating from usual practice, the politically savvy minister asked a young boy from the crowd to flag off the train and also lay the inaugural stone.

Mamata said the railway ministry had plans to instal two escalators at New Jalpaiguri station, open computerised booking centres in Raiganj and Balurghat, construct a railway museum in Ghoom and restore the pantry car on Darjeeling Mail.

Other projects, she said, included starting a broad-gauge line from Moynaguri, in Jalpaiguri district, to Jogighopa in lower Assam, and commencement of work on the Eklakhi-Balurghat and Malbazar-Changraabanda lines.

The function, which was attended by state municipal affairs minister Ashoke Bhattacharya, saw both Mamata and her Left critic trade barbs over development of train services in the region.

Bhattacharya demanded that flyovers be built over tracks to ease traffic congestion in Siliguri town, electrification of railway lines in north Bengal and improvement of the Rangapani station. He also criticised the late start in converting the metre-gauge Siliguri-Aluabari line into a broad-gauge track.

“To facilitate the work,” Bhattacharya said, he and mayor of Siliguri Municipal Corporation, Bikash Ghosh, had done the “very unpopular work” of personally overseeing eviction of encroachers from railway land.

Last month, when Mamata had flagged off the Kanchan-Kanya — the train linking north Bengal with Calcutta — Bhattacharya had described the new service as “a false New Year’s gift”, saying that the train was just another name for North Bengal Express.

But the railway minister won the day with her diplomacy when she stopped midway in her speech and requested Bhattacharya, who came late, to address the crowd, saying: “Mr Bhattacharya is our guest today.”

Earlier, she had asked the CPM MP from Jalpaiguri, Minati Roy, to speak first.

Mamata also did not rebut the Left’s claim that lack of proper train services may have kept north Bengal backward.

Instead, in the duel of wits, she turned criticism into advantage, saying: “This is nothing new. North Bengal was backward right from the beginning. But we must try to stay above politics if we want to work for its development.”    


 
 
CPM HURLS TERROR PLOT CHARGE AT TRINAMUL 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, May 21 
CPM politburo member Biman Bose today charged the Trinamul Congress-BJP combine with plotting largescale violence during the upcoming civic polls with foreign funds.

“We have information that the combine is getting financial support from different agencies and is also hiring the services of criminals to terrorise voters in the polls,” Bose said at the Bengal CPM headquarters on Alimuddin Street.

Bose, however, refused to elaborate on his charges, but insisted that his party had “enough information about it”.

In a strong rebuttal, Subrata Mukherjee, Trinamul’s candidate for mayor, said Bose’s charge was “preposterous and deserves to be treated with contempt”.

Mukherjee said: “The ruling Communists are the ones making money in an illegal fashion.”

Today, a Trinamul-backed group raided the house of Hem Bhattacharya, a member of the CPM’s Midnapore district secretariat, at Sabang, around 130-135 km west of Calcutta. The raiders burnt down Bhattacharya’s house and tried to assault him.

Yesterday, Trinamul had called a bandh in Keshpur, also in Midnapore further west of Sabang. “The bandh was peaceful till 12 noon, but in the afternoon they (Trinamul) attacked houses of CPM supporters,” Bose said.

He charged the Trinamul with attacking voters in the North Bengal district of Cooch Behar. “Byelections to several zilla parishads, panchayat samitis and gram panchayats were held today. Some voters were going to cast their ballots at a booth at Sajrahat at Mathabhanga in Cooch Behar district. Trinamul Congress supporters prevented them from casting their ballots,” Bose said.

He said two CPM supporters were killed in the area during the day by Trinamul activists. “This indicates that the Trinamul-BJP combine is trying to unleash a reign of terror during the civic polls (to be held on May 28 outside Calcutta and in June in the city and Salt Lake). They have already assembled criminals in Midnapore, Bankura and Hooghly districts,” Bose said.

He refuted charges levelled against the CPM-led government about allocation of funds to civic bodies run by Opposition parties.

“They often accuse us of sanctioning less money to Congress-controlled civic bodies. But I can challenge them with statistics that their charges against us are false,” Bose said.    

 

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