Ballot bomb ticks on taut Calcutta
Farooq catches PM napping
India eyes genome feat dividends
CTBT debate in monsoon session
Calcutta weather

Calcutta, June 27 
Early this morning Pradip Mandal visited the Kalighat temple, said his prayers but refused the prasad. For two days, the youth, one of the faces that is always around the Potopara home of Mamata Banerjee, has been having water for breakfast, water for lunch and water for dinner. He will break his fast only after counting for the Calcutta and Salt Lake civic polls begins at 11 in the morning on Wednesday.

In Salt Lake, Mira Banerjee is not fasting but she, too, is praying fervently. Mira, a bank clerk and an activist of the CPM women’s wing, refuses to read newspapers or discuss the polls, lest she says something that might mean a bad omen for her party.

Across Calcutta, political workers and voters are counting the hours till the results for the civic polls are declared. Sunday’s elections have hijacked conversation in the city and has been occupying Calcutta’s mindspace for two days.

The chief contenders, the CPM and Trinamul, each claimed it will win. But Trinamul is doubtful of its chances in Salt Lake. Mamata Banerjee said under no circumstances will the Trinamul-BJP have any truck with the Congress to form the boards. Asked if she was doubting her chances, she shot back: “What makes you think we will sit in the opposition? Why don’t you see the results first?”

Trinamul insiders said that in the event of the party’s inability to achieve a clear majority, it will look for councillors willing to break away from the Congress.

A positive signal from the Congress for Mamata came on Monday after some of its leaders, disappointed with the high command for not approving the mahajot suggested by Mamata, asked the PCC secretariat to lend issue-based support to the Trinamul-BJP in the event of a hung verdict.

State election commissioner Anish Majumdar said: “It will take hardly three to four hours to complete the counting process with the help of the electronic voting machines,” he added. Counting will be over by 4 p.m.

Security has been beefed up around the counting centres. Bureaucrats have been detailed to supervise the counting in collaboration with senior police officers.

In the offices of the CPM, the Congress and the Trinamul, leaders instructed their agents to be watchful during counting.

“The game (of counting) is not that easy. We have also taken our own precautions. Our boys are well trained,” said Mamata Banerjee.

The CPM has decided to press its experienced agents into service.    

Lisbon, June 27 
Tiptoeing on the Kashmir tightrope, the Vajpayee administration is playing down the impact of the autonomy resolution passed by the National Conference-led Assembly yesterday.

Top government sources indicated that the autonomy package had “limited” legal validity, and could only set the stage for a dialogue between the state and the Centre. The sources said they do not believe the proposal would lead to a constitutional amendment.

“The Assembly resolution does not exert any pressure on us to look into the possibility of a constitutional amendment, but we shall definitely talk with them,” said a senior government source.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is expected to begin discussions on the issue with home minister L.K. Advani once he returns to Delhi on Friday.

But the resolution has caught the Centre on the wrong foot. Initial reports from Srinagar had suggested that the package would only be debated and not put to vote. Even Abdullah had indicated as much to reporters outside the Prime Minister’s residence last Thursday.

It is the element of surprise which has prevented the Prime Minister’s Office from issuing an official statement. Though officials are explaining the silence citing the preparations for the European Union summit here, observers argued that any statement on Kashmir could be interpreted as an interference with Advani’s jurisdiction.

A security meeting on Kashmir convened by Vajpayee at his home earlier this year had triggered speculation that he was transgressing into his home minister’s territory.

The autonomy resolution is, however, bound to force a rethink on the government’s Kashmir policy. Officials are wondering whether the turnaround was a last-ditch effort by the National Conference MLAs to prevent the ascendance of the Hurriyat Conference, with which the Centre is considering direct negotiations. The sources are also asking if the resolution is a signal that Abdullah is not entirely in charge within his party.

Asked whether the resolution would alter the “slow pace” of informal parleys with the Hurriyat, the sources said the organisation is yet to show any sign that it is agreeable to a framework for talks.

“Whom do we talk to? What should the dialogue be based upon?” they asked.

The acknowledged, nonetheless, that the resolution does give some political space to the Centre to concentrate on the Hurriyat as an alternative to Abdullah.

Akali leader and MP Gurcharan Singh Tohra favoured the autonomy resolution, saying the Anandpur Sahib resolution had also been passed on the same lines by the Akalis which demanded autonomy for Punjab.

Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal should also move such a resolution in the Assembly for granting autonomy to the state, Tohra said in Chandigarh.

Pakistan today rejected as farce the autonomy package and said nothing short of a UN-mandated plebiscite would work, adds Reuters from Islamabad.    

New Delhi, June 27 
High cost of equipment put India and much of Asia out of the race to read the so-called human alphabet — or the genetic code — but scientists here have been positioning themselves to take advantage of the dramatic breakthrough announced yesterday.

The department of biotechnology has invested over Rs 20 crore over the past three years to launch a network of research centres in New Delhi, Bangalore, and Calcutta with the expertise to make use of information from the human genome project for early diagnosis of genetic diseases.

“Our strategy has been to position ourselves for the era of functional genomics,” a spokesman for the Centre for Biochemical Technology (CBT) in New Delhi said. Functional genomics involves identifying specific genes among the genetic letters and finding what role they play in the human body.

Yesterday, two groups of scientists — in the US and the UK — announced that they had completed a working draft of the human genetic code. The success in mapping genes will help identify their malfunctions and, therefore, diseases much before they strike.

The CBT has recruited experts in biological computing whose task will be to identify specific genes linked to diseases. Its efforts are aimed at unravelling the genetic mechanisms of degenerative brain diseases such as ataxia, psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia and respiratory diseases like asthma.

The big question, though, is how soon will India or other Asian countries, Japan excluded, be able to turn the breakthrough — described as the outstanding achievement in all of human history — into drugs tailor-made to treat diseases that will become predictable.

In Asia, biotechnology research is a good decade behind the West and unlikely to grow quickly because of the high costs.

“The few companies who have invested in biotechnology may have some research successes, but human genomes are not on the agenda of Indian companies,” said a stock market analyst. “And they certainly can’t afford it. Unless they all get together and raise funds or get venture capital backing,” he added.

But experts say information on the human genome, which is to be published for all in a scientific journal, will give Asian biomedical researchers a short-cut to knowledge that Western scientists had grappled to understand for years.

It will allow scientists to refine their search for drugs tailored to the needs of individual patients suffering from a range of diseases, putting Asian biotechnology companies on the map.    

New Delhi, June 27 
The BJP government has finally decided to initiate a debate on signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in the monsoon session of Parliament, scheduled from July 24.

Foreign minister Jaswant Singh said this after meeting US secretary of state Madeleine Albright in Warsaw on the sidelines of the Community of Democracies — the first conclave of democratic nations around the world.

“It will be our endeavour to build a national consensus on the CTBT issue. A debate on this will come up in Parliament,” Jaswant said.

Technically, the Vajpayee government does not need Parliament’s approval to sign the treaty, but politically it does.

A discussion is aimed at ensuring that the nation — or, at least, most of its major parties — goes with the government and that the sign-up does not lead to a tussle later.

Even if a consensus is not reached, India can at least tell the world that it is seriously trying to build one.

Jaswant’s announcement indicates that Delhi is trying to take a decision on the matter before Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee meets President Bill Clinton in Washington in September. The invitation to Vajpayee was reiterated by Albright in Warsaw.

At their Warsaw meeting yesterday, Albright and Jaswant talked about disarmament and non-proliferation.

That everything went smoothly was evident from Albright’s decision to join Jaswant and UN chief Kofi Annan at a discussion on the developments in Sierra Leone, especially the fate of the 21 Indian peacekeepers held hostage by the rebels there.

Annan, who has been in touch with various African nations, assured the foreign minister that he would make every effort to get the peacekeepers released. He was joined in this by Albright.

The UN secretary-general said he would also raise the issue at the meeting of the Organisation of African Unity, to be held in Togo from July 14.

In the winter session, the BJP government had intended to initiate a CTBT debate. But it dropped the plan fearing strong opposition within and outside the party.

This was a major disappointment for America, a fact underlined by US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott who met Jaswant in London a few weeks later. But now with the new high in Indo-US relations, Washington expects Delhi to show some positive movement.

Delhi, however, is in a bit of a fix over the pact. On one hand, it realises that the only window of opportunity available for deciding on the sign-up is around July — at least two months before Vajpayee meets Clinton. If the Prime Minister goes to the meeting without anything to show, it will be a let-down for the US leadership.

On the other hand, the Centre does not want to take a hasty decision on this crucial issue.    

Temperature: Maximum: 33.9°C (+1) Minimum: 24.9°C (-2) RAINFALL: Nil Relative humidity: Maximum: 96%, Minimum: 57% Today: Possibility of one or two showers or thundershowers. Sunset: 6.23 pm Sunrise: 4.57 am    

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