Shunted-out Shanmugham goes on strike
Rabri beats Laloo in Raghopur race
Sangh hawks train guns on too-fast Sinha
Left, Cong neck-and-neck in civic polls
Police trap for shotgun sadhus

 
 
SHUNTED-OUT SHANMUGHAM GOES ON STRIKE 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, May 29 
Trouble is brewing for the eight-month-old A.B. Vajpayee government, with the PMK planning to quit the ruling alliance in protest against the “arbitrary” shifting of one of its ministers.

Health minister N.T. Shanmugham was moved to the coal ministry in Saturday’s reshuffle. The minister has refused to take charge and today left Delhi for Chennai via Jaipur.

The PMK has only three MPs and its exit will not threaten the government. However, it will indicate that all is not well in the ruling alliance and be a signal to other discontented groups to speak up.

On Friday morning, the Prime Minister had spoken to PMK chief S. Ramadoss and told him he had decided to shift Shanmugham to coal. Though Ramadoss opposed the move, Shanmugham was shifted following complaints that his performance was far below par.

A fuming Ramadoss directed Shanmugham not to assume charge of his new ministry. Sources said the PMK chief might also ask E. Ponnuswamy, minister of state for petroleum, to quit the government.

BJP spokesperson M. Venkaiah Naidu, however, tried to play down the incident. He said the Prime Minister had consulted the PMK chief before the reshuffle. “There will not be any problem. We will solve it in three-four days,” he said.

Naidu added that Vajpayee had conferred with the Biju Janata Dal, Samata Party and the PMK before expanding the council of ministers.

A sulking Shanmugham has, however, refused to report for work. The coal ministry sent a car for him on Saturday, but he sent it back. A car was sent again this morning, but he turned it back a second time.

When some coal ministry officials called on him with bouquets, Shanmugham turned them away saying he had not taken charge.The minister later left for Jaipur, from where he will be heading for Chennai.

Sources said Ramadoss was very upset with Vajpayee for being “unfair” to his party. He pointed out that though there were media reports of corruption charges against power minister P.R. Kumaramangalam — also from Tamil Nadu but belonging to the BJP — the Prime Minister had not shifted him. Ministers from the DMK and the MDMK, other Tamil Nadu allies, were not shuffled either.

Dismissing the argument that Shanmugham could not reply in Parliament, Ramadoss is learnt to have said that “there are about 40 ministers who could not answer properly in Parliament”. MDMK minister M. Kannappan “has not even once opened his mouth in the House”, a bitter PMK chief told a confidant in Delhi on Saturday.

Sources said the PMK has been distancing itself from the ruling alliance in Delhi because of compulsions of local politics.

He has fallen out with DMK boss and Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi. Ramadoss is said to have opened a channel of communication with Jayalalitha and could join the ADMK-led front in the state if he decides to quit the NDA.    


 
 
RABRI BEATS LALOO IN RAGHOPUR RACE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Patna, May 29 
In a fitting reply to critics who accused her of entering through the backdoor, Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi clinched a memorable debut by winning the Raghopur seat by a margin that surpassed even that of her husband’s.

Compared to Laloo Prasad Yadav’s victory margin of 29,000 from Raghopur in the March Assembly elections, Rabri — who polled 1,08,000 votes — romped home with a difference of over 61,000 votes. In 1995, Laloo’s victory margin was a little over 35,000. Rabri’s nearest rival was the NDA-supported Veera Devi who got 46,900 votes.

Bihar watchers said Rabri’s stunning performance owed much to the women voters who turned out in large numbers and her own ability to fire the sentiments of Yadavs and Dalits.

After the results poured in, the thrilled Rashtriya Janata Dal chief could barely conceal his excitement, saying: “Oh to mujhe chhor ke bahut age nikal gai.” (“She has left me far behind in popularity.”) An overwhelmed Rabri thanked supporters for her maiden — and a very crucial — triumph. “It is unexpected and I am touched,” she said. “I will go all out to come up to the expectations of my voters.”

For the couple, the victory couldn’t have come at a better time. With Laloo besieged by a series of CBI cases, the win revealed a silver lining — it exposed the weakness in the NDA’s strategy to corner the RJD-led ruling coalition.

According to NDA sources, the morale of the alliance has taken a severe beating after Samata Party leader Nitish Kumar’s about-turn on his commitment to remain in Bihar to fight the “corrupt Laloo raj”. In the latest round of reshuffle, Nitish has been inducted into the Union Cabinet.

As his party celebrated, Laloo described his wife’s decisive victory as “a referendum on the NDA’s allegations”. The victory, he said, has re-asserted people’s faith in the RJD and had ripped apart the NDA-sponsored conspiracy to malign his party and government.

“I am confident that all the clouds of suspicion will disperse in the court of law and we would come out clean,” he said.

Rabri’s victory also swells the number of MLAs in Laloo’s family circle to three, the two others being Laloo himself and his brother-in-law Sadhu Yadav. While Laloo has won from Danapur, Sadhu was elected from Gopalgunje.

Polls were also held in two other constituencies — Nirsa and Jamui. In Nirsa, the Marxist Coordination Committee (MCC) candidate won. The MCC is an ally of the RJD. However, in Jamui, the brother of scam-tainted former education minister Jayprakash Yadav was trailing by a margin of over 3,000 votes.

Rabri, who went to Raghopur today afternoon, walked into a rousing welcome from jubilant residents who came out in hordes to greet her, even breaching her security cordon.    


 
 
SANGH HAWKS TRAIN GUNS ON TOO-FAST SINHA 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 29 
Finance minister Yashwant Sinha may have escaped the Prime Minister’s axe during Saturday’s Cabinet reshuffle.

But BJP sources said the party leadership is likely to ask him to explain certain press reports which linked his family members to a US-based Indian investment company which has benefited from the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement signed between India and Mauritius.

A senior leader also expressed concern that such reports had been published.

Two days before the Cabinet expansion, an English daily reported that India Funds Inc., a US-based fund, was the beneficiary of the agreement signed between India and Mauritius. The report also mentioned that Sinha’s daughter-in-law Punit Kumar Sinha was the chief portfolio manger of India Funds.

The Fund’s net asset value rose from $ 300 million to $ 769 million between 1998 and 1999. The report said the finance minister had recently issued a circular through the Central Board of Direct Taxes “ensuring that residence certificate from Mauritius should be treated as final by the income-tax authorities”.

With hardliners in the BJP, the RSS and Sangh outfits like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh unhappy with Sinha for going “too fast” with his pro-reform economic policies, speculation was rife last Friday that Sinha might be shifted out.

Sinha, however, hit back yesterday dubbing the newspaper reports as malicious and threatened to expose those who were behind this smear campaign. His supporters believe that some BJP leaders are behind these reports.

“If anyone tries to destabilise me, I am prepared to fight it out,” Sinha told reporters.

The finance minister, who maintained a stoic silence about the allegations against him till the Cabinet reshuffle was over, lashed out at his critics, saying such media reports were part of a “systematic campaign to malign me in the eyes of the Prime Minister and thereby create a situation where I am forced to leave”.

BJP MP Kirit Somaya had also distributed a press note to reporters covering Parliament during the budget session seeking a probe into several companies using the Mauritius route to avoid paying capital gains tax in India. But he did not link any minister or leader to the companies.

Some BJP MPs had also raised the issue during the parliamentary party meeting addressed by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee during the budget session.    


 
 
LEFT, CONG NECK-AND-NECK IN CIVIC POLLS 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
Calcutta, May 29 
At the end of the first day of counting of votes for the municipal polls, the Left Front and the Congress were running neck-and-neck while Mamata Banerjee’s hopes of making a killing appeared to have been shattered.

The Congress, which had been virtually written off, and the Left retained seven municipalities each while the Trinamul Congress bagged two.

In Kharagpur, where the Congress emerged the single largest party, it joined hands with the Trinamul to form the municipal board.

The move revived speculation of a mahajot and worried the Left, which feared the two parties could come together in other municipalities as well.

The Congress is also believed to have approached Trinamul leaders camping in the district to forge a grand alliance for the June 5 Panskura bypolls. State unit vice-president Pradip Bhattacharya said tonight that the Congress will hold talks with the Trinamul.

“This shows that if the mahajot takes place, we will be able to oust the ruling communists from Bengal. We hope that the Congress’ improved results will pave the way for the grand alliance in the coming Assembly polls,” he said.

The Trinamul wrested Sonamukhi in Bankura and Contai in Midnapore from the CPM and the Congress respectively. The Left has retained Khirpai, Ramjibanpur, Kharar, Mathabhanga, Toofangunj, Dinhata and Taherpur. The Congress has won from Cooch Behar, Bishnupur, Siuri, Ranaghat, Shantipur, Birnagar and Rampurhat.    


 
 
POLICE TRAP FOR SHOTGUN SADHUS 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Ayodhya, May 29 
Move over criminals, the holy men are here.

The maths in Ayodhya are crawling with gun-toting, saffron-robed “shotgun sadhus” brandishing CVs that would do hard-core criminals proud. The police knew that for long, but they were sent scurrying by the recent killing in broad daylight of a mahant by his colleague in Faizabad, Ayodhya’s twin city.

A wary Ayodhya police have drawn up a giant blueprint to bring quiet to the temple premises ringing with gunshots. “Monitoring the movements of some sadhus on our hitlist and keeping a tab on them seems to be the only way out,” says a top police official in Faizabad. Criminalisation of maths in Ayodhya and Faizabad has reached a point of no return, he adds.

“The action plan is ambitious but the police have no other option,” says Faizabad SSP P.P. Srivastava. He says the “elaborate exercise involving mahants and heads of various temples” will involve gathering information and original addresses of the sadhus and mahants, many of whom are actually hard-core criminals from Bihar, seeking refuge in saffron.

Sadhus taken into confidence will furnish details on their colleagues suspected by the police. “Enquiry slips” will be sent out to the police in other districts in Uttar Pradesh and states to check if the addresses given by the sadhus tally or if they have any criminal record.

There’s nothing spiritual about these sadhus. On May 16, an ongoing tussle for the top job at the Hanumangarhi math in Faizabad led to the murder of Sant Jitendradas by another aspirant to the gaddi, sant Jagdishdas. Jitendradas barged into Jagdishdas’ room in the temple premises and shot him with his pistol.

The police records of some other sadhus are no less impressive.

A police list shows 109 sadhus booked for various crimes ranging from murder to gun running. Others have been listed for rioting, theft, illegal possession of arms and for “posing a threat to the life of others”. Sources say some criminals hiding in temples have links with outfits like the dreaded Ranbir Sena.

There are 10 sadhus booked for murder and 11 for illegal possession of arms. Three have been booked under the Explosives Act. There are three others being scrutinised under the Excise Act. Every year sees close to a dozen sadhus being killed by their colleagues in fights to establish authority.

But the task of the police is a difficult one. Monitoring the 60,000 or more sadhus, say police officials, involves a huge effort, depending a lot on the honesty of those the police are trusting. “Most importantly, we can monitor only the new entrants to the various maths,” says Srivastava. “Nothing can be done about those sadhus who have made the temple their home for long.” The SSP, however, said even if only the new entrants are monitored, it will make the task much easier.

The police are especially worried about the Bihar contingent. “It is these large groups of people with questionable antecedents, especially from Bihar, that pose the biggest threat to us. This group has taken us by surprise,” says Srivastava. “Local delegations of sadhus who come to meet us are extremely worried,” he adds.

But what is most alarming, according to a top police official in Faizabad, is the recent spurt in sadhus taking to crime in a big way, to either establish authority or for some other material gain. “There are some who are involved in the smuggling of arms,” says Srivastava. “It could be a trend leading to disastrous consequences,” he adds.

As Kishori Lal, who was witness to the May 16 shootout, says: “Earlier the battle was for reaching God, now it is for the gaddi. Gone are the days when sadhus were feared and respected for their spiritual strength. Abhi to takat ussi ke paas hai jiske paas banduk hai.”    

 

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