Buddha boycott invites Atal courtesy sermon
Enter, Branson & fare war
UK export before ethics
Pallone for US sanctions on China
Supper swallows BJP truce
Calcutta weather

Calcutta, July 6 
Buddhadev Bhattacharya’s ideology has bent enough to allow a fleeting presence at a US ambassador’s cocktail party, but not enough to show up with the Indian Prime Minister at Shyama Prasad Mookherjee’s birth centenary.

With his absence, the chief minister-in-waiting handed a walkover to his political rival, the BJP.

Atal Behari Vajpayee gloated at the centenary function at Netaji Indoor Stadium this morning that his party had cared little for ideological differences when it sent senior leader L.K Advani to the funeral of a pucca communist like E.M.S. Namboodiripad.

“Ours is a country of crores. There will be political and ideological differences but a personality has to be evaluated appropriately and in the right perspective... I think they (read communists) should reconsider their stand. I met him (Bhattacharya) this morning at the airport and I think he is a good person,” he added.

Without naming Bhattacharya, Vajpayee said: “There may be ideological differences between the communists and us who are inspired by Shyama Prasadji. But we should rise above petty politics and meet somewhere.

Matbhed hote hi rahenge, Lekin imaandaari pe shaq nahi hona chahiye,” Vajpayee added.

Later in the evening, Bhattacharya attended a party at the American Center hosted by US ambassador Richard F. Celeste.

Bhattacharya arrived at the Lincoln Room around 7.15 pm and left about 10 minutes later after a brief speech by Celeste.

“We are happy he (Bhattacharya) came... I would like to say that we are friends but it might be too much of a burden on him,” Celeste said in his speech.

In a letter to tourism and culture minister Ananth Kumar, Bhattacharya had thanked him for inviting him to the function.

“Shyama Prasad Mookherjee was indeed a great personality and a scholar of outstanding repute. But we have fundamental differences with his ideas and political philosophy. I do not wish to enter into any controversy in the presence of the Prime Minister during the celebration programme. While wishing the programme success, I would seek your indulgence in not attending the function,” Bhattacharya wrote.

In their speeches, minister of state for communications Tapan Sikdar and railway minister Mamata Banerjee also sharply criticised Bhattacharya.

While Sikdar advised Bhattacharya to “study history”, Mamata alleged that Bhattacharya had attacked the programme in an “uncultured manner”.

Recalling his association with Shyama Prasad, Vajpayee said he had accompanied his “political guru” to Kashmir on the fateful journey of 1953.

“After his arrest, he sent me back. ‘Go back and tell them I have reached Kashmir but in shackles,’ Shyama Prasad told me. He never returned,” he said.    

New Delhi, July 6 
Brash and colourful, Richard Branson landed here with a bhangra jig, declaring India a “Virgin” territory.

Branson bounded down the steps of the first Virgin Atlantic Airways aircraft to touch down in India and announced that the arrival of the London-Delhi inaugural flight was the realisation of “a dream I have had for many years”.

Wearing a kurta-chadra and a turban in the bright red and purple livery of his airline, the Virgin Atlantic chairman was met by a bhangra band, girls with garlands of marigold and what he claimed were dirty tricks by a rival. The competitor, he alleged, had tried to block the launch of Virgin’s service to India up to the last minute.

Branson had distributed copies of Dirty Tricks, a book on his long-running feud with British Airways to his guests on the flight.

The “tricks” had already started. Branson was left bristling at his inability to match BA which timed a fare discount with his arrival. It is offering a Delhi-London return fare of Rs 27,000 to anyone showing up with a newspaper discount coupon. Virgin’s official price is Rs 32,700, but travel agents are hawking at Rs 29,000.

“We will be applying to the Indian government to let us sell tickets at lower rates than BA’s newly-announced discount fare,” a grim-faced Sir Richard said at a news conference.

But he got a taste of the regulated Indian market immediately on setting foot on its soil. Civil aviation minister Sharad Yadav was at the airport to receive Branson with the warning that he did not wish to see a fare dogfight “erupt over Indian skies”.

The last fare war on the Delhi-London sector had left Air-India badly bruised by heavy losses.

“Normally, we kick off with a healthy competition over fares,” Branson said, adding almost petulantly: “We will respect the Indian government’s wishes on this.”

He hoped to turn the twice-a-week Delhi-London service to six a week, connecting Calcutta and Mumbai on the way by next year.

Branson’s Virgin has entered India riding on the back of Air-India under a seat-sharing arrangment.

The jump from two to six is not going to be easy, though. An Air India official said: “We regret having got this guy here to fight our battles with BA. He now wants more and more flights and more and more discounts.” But the thing with Branson is that so far he’s got what he wants.

The flamboyant airline and music tycoon was, however, uncharacteristically cagey when asked if he wanted Air-India, too. “We will study carefully the documents merchant bankers put together on Air-India’s disinvestment.”

Last night on board the newly- refurbished Boeing 747, Branson showed off some of his new toys, including reclining beds for first-class passengers. He promised that when larger aircraft were brought into service, he would introduce private bedrooms, gyms, play area for children and possibly even a jacuzzi.

On the eight-hour flight, passengers had a choice of films on their personal screens. The Indian movies on offer included the Hrithik Roshan-starrer Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai.

Virgin today announced another first, thanks to an agreement with British Telecom — in the future passengers will be able to use their mobile phones on board flights, a practice currently banned to prevent interference with aircraft communications. Through the use of a special switch card and links to a satellite system, the handset wedged in the arm rest will be programmed to allow a passenger to make and receive calls as though a personal mobile phone was being used. The cost will be steep though –$8 for an incoming call, and $9 for outgoing.

Asked about the culture of the airline, he invited Virgin’s newly-appointed Indian cabin crew, mostly young men in dark blazers and young women in red suits, to parade before the cameras. “As you can see they are not wearing saris though they look lovely in saris,” he said.    

New Delhi, July 6 
For Britain, economic considerations appear to be the driving force overriding its self-proclaimed “ethical foreign policy”.

Hours after the British Parliament was told that the Blair government has decided to issue several export licences for supply of defence equipment to Pakistan, Indian diplomats were smiling at the duplicity of it all. They wouldn’t fret and fume against Britain at this stage, but were quietly suggesting why Napoleon had said that the island was a nation of shopkeepers.

The clandestine decision was reported in today’s papers. The government clarified in Parliament that it has decided to issue “20 standard individual export licences for a narrow and well-defined range of equipment like naval spares, bomb disposal equipment (and) goods for civilian end-users”.

It argued that issuing licences for “this equipment would not contravene” Britain’s national criteria, nor those in the European Union code of conduct.

London newspapers, quoting the British foreign ministry spokesman, said that foreign secretary Robin Cook was pleased with the decision.

The government said it would continue to assess the export licence applications on a case-by-case basis.

Cook, who made known his government’s decision through a written answer in Parliament, said: “We remain concerned about defence exports to Pakistan in the light of the incursion at Kargil, the coup, the possibility of diversion to undesirable end-users and continued regional tensions.” It denied that it was lifting the arms embargo on Pakistan.

Since the coup, 46 applications from British arms manufacturers for export licences to Pakistan had been blocked. But now 20 of them are being approved, while 26 have been denied.

The licences will enable resumption of supplies of spare parts for ship, naval helicopters and naval planes. The deal, however, has not sanctioned supplies of small arms to Pakistan as they could be used in Kashmir.

Officially, Indian officials refused to react to the report. Foreign ministry spokesman R.S. Jassal said: “We are trying to ascertain the facts before giving our reaction.”

But in private, South Block officials did not seem convinced by Britain’s attempt to hide behind technicalities.

They argued that since the decision did not pertain to humanitarian aid or something that could benefit the people in general, it was an attempt on London’s part to prepare the ground for wider engagement with Islamabad’s military regime.

The decision came as a surprise to Indian diplomats as Cook had actively supported the move to suspend Pakistan from the councils of the Commonwealth. At various international fora, he had underlined his government’s reluctance to engage with Pakistan following the military coup, deploring the “overthrow of democracy”.

During his recent visit to India, he had even appreciated Delhi’s stand of not rushing into talks with the army regime.

Pundits here are questioning the wisdom of the move, saying whether at this juncture it is important for Britain to make Pakistan happy even at the cost of displeasing Delhi.    

Washington, July 6 
With mounting evidence of new and enhanced missile technology cooperation between Beijing and Islamabad, demands are being made in the US Congress for immediate sanctions on China.

In a letter written to President Bill Clinton on Wednesday night, Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone has said that Washington’s policy of “comprehensive engagement” of China is not working. “It is time to get tough with Beijing”, he wrote, demanding that sanctions on China be imposed “forthwith”.

Pallone wrote that “China and Pakistan both consider India to be their major strategic threat which is absurd, considering that India has been the victim of both Pakistani and Chinese aggression. but, given that shared strategic outlook on the part of China and Pakistan, it is clear that these two nations have teamed up to surround India and create an alarming potential for instability in Asia”.

The Congressman, one of the founders of the India caucus on Capitol Hill, demanded immediate prohibition of all sales and after-sales service of any defence articles or services to China. In addition, he called for transfers of design and construction services under the Arms Export Control Act, grants, credit or guarantees as well as agreements for co-development or co-production of any item on the US munitions list to be suspended.

Pallone drew Clinton’s attention to the contradiction in American policy: “While Pakistan remains subject to US sanctions as a result of its nuclear explosions and last year’s military coup, the administration has been trying to influence China with its policy of comprehensive engagement. Clearly, at least in the case of Pakistan, it is not working.”

The Congressman drew Clinton’s attention to recent efforts to step up Indo-US cooperation, which could be imperilled by Chinese actions.

“A new era of cooperation between India and the US has been ushered in, thanks in no small part to your recent trip to India that I was honoured to be part of. As we work to heighten our cooperation with India on such issues as security, non-proliferation and combating terrorism, it seems inconsistent not to hold China accountable for actions that directly threaten the security of India and which will inevitably spur a heightened arms race on the sub-continent,” Pallone wrote.

He accused the administration of fudging the issue of relations with Beijing by touting China’s reduction of weapons exports to the middle east and North Korea “in an effort to forestall action by Congress”.

“But it appears, from the administration’s own information, that the flow of nuclear technology and delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction (from China) to Pakistan continues unabated.”

The Congressman hoped that new revelations about Sino-Pak missile cooperation “would give the Senate the pause” in passing legislation about Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) between the US and China.

“If the administration considers PNTR passage so important, it must demonstrate to Congress that it is serious about cracking down on China’s violation of non-proliferation agreements,” he contended.    

New Delhi, July 6 
The hostilities had ceased. Albeit, temporarily. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s political “bhojan” with central and Uttar Pradesh BJP leaders last evening has rekindled speculation that the truce between him and L.K. Advani was over.

It was assumed that the meeting, aimed at settling the state’s leadership crisis, would end in the ouster of chief minister R.P. Gupta and the crowning of Rajnath Singh, former state BJP leader and present surface transport minister at the Centre.

But the Prime Minister’s surprise solution was the retention of status quo.

The deliberations over a good shakahari meal led to a simple conclusion: Gupta would stay on and Rajnath, an Advani protégé, would have to wait for his turn.

Vajpayee played his cards subtly. He allowed voices against Rajnath’s appointment to be raised during the talks. First to speak out was the man over whom the axe was poised, Gupta himself.

The chorus grew as others like Om Prakash Singh, Kalraj Mishra and Lalji Tandon joined in. The last two are close to Vajpayee, Tandon having been his campaign manager in Lucknow, It was a cleverly planned snub. Its target: Advani.

Party circles believe the entire drama of summoning the chief minister and senior ministers to Delhi for the dinner meeting was a charade held by Vajpayee to corner Advani.

Apart from state leaders, the meeting was attended by BJP president Kushabhau Thakre, Advani, Rajnath, and party general secretaries K.N. Govindacharya and Sanghapriya Gautam.

Advani had lobbied for Rajnath’s appointment as chief minister last year, too, after Kalyan Singh’s expulsion, but Vajpayee chose Gupta. A section of leaders close to Rajnath started a campaign against Gupta. The Thakur leader, then state party chief, had also been the force behind Kalyan’s exit.

A couple of hours before last night’s meeting, Advani was so sure of Gupta’s removal that he told his confidants that Rajnath’s succession would be clinched at the dinner.    

Temperature: Maximum: 36°C (+4) Minimum: 28.2°C (+2) RAINFALL: 2 mm Relative humidity: Maximum: 91%, Minimum: 58% Today: One or two showers or thundershowers in some parts. Sunset: 6.22 pm Sunrise: 5.00 am    

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