Basu loads gun for strikeback
New guard on Bangaru list
Right of Castro, left of Clinton
PM yesterday, swayamsevak today
Govt attic for surplus staff
Calcutta weather

Calcutta, Sept. 11: 
Coming back from the brink of retirement, Jyoti Basu today seized the reins of administration with greater vigour, saying he would personally lead the counter-charge against the Centre’s efforts to punish his government.

Basu said he would write to home minister L.K. Advani seeking an explanation for the comments made by George Fernandes after his tour of Midnapore last Thursday.

“I have gone through the Centre’s observations, all inaccurate, and I have told my chief secretary that I will write to the home minister,” Basu said, blasting Fernandes’ comments as “untruths”.

The defence minister had given a grim report on the state’s sliding law and order, comparing the situation with Bihar, and had also warned of a possible security threat to Trinamul chief Mamata Banerjee. “He (Fernandes) belongs to Bihar. He can judge for himself,” Basu said, angry with the comparison.

Deputy chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya said the state had received seven letters from the Union home ministry since April. The last one on September 8 to the chief secretary was signed by a special secretary, he said, adding the state had replied to five.

“Their information is incomplete and we have doubts about their claims,” Bhattacharya said, alleging that Fernandes “was given a tour of particular pockets so that he had a biased view”.

What the BJP is trying to do is keep the Trinamul appeased for its own political necessity, Bhattacharya said.

Arguing that the Left Front government was a responsible one Bhattacharya said: “We do not want to take a total police bundobast and instead work towards a solution by letting the district administration interact with all the political parties involved in the violence.”

Highly-placed Central sources, however, said there was a proposal to send a team of senior officials from North Block to review the law and order situation and the general functioning of the bureaucracy and the state police machinery.

While no date has been finalised on the proposed visit of the central team, there is also a possibility that Union home minister L.K. Advani may also pay a visit to the state in the future as part of a ‘’strategy’’ to highlight the ‘’failure’’ of the state administration to bring the situation to normal before the Assembly elections early next year.

The Centre has also begun consultations with the Congress as part of an exercise to build a consensus on whether Article 356 could be invoked in Bengal.

Encouraged by the Centre’s decision to send a team of home ministry officials to study Bengal’s “deteriorating” law and order situation, Mamata today met Governor Viren Shah to reiterate her demand for imposition of President’s rule.

Asked if Mamata Banerjee wanted to hold talks with him, Bhattacharya welcomed the idea. “She is a Union minister and I am ready to talk to her whenever she wants to,” Bhattacharya said.

The Panskura “experiment” which the Trinamul had begun had set off the series of political clashes. “These acts of violence was met by local political resistance and then mistakes were committed which led to the escalation,” Bhattacharya said.    

New Delhi, Sept. 11: 
The list of new BJP office-bearers, announced today after days of uncertainty, was along expected lines except for the arrival of seven first-timers.

Proving week-long speculation correct, K.N. Govindacharya was dropped but retained in the new national executive set up by party chief Bangaru Laxman.

Sushma Swaraj was included in the 50-member body, but the party’s other high-profile woman member, Uma Bharti, was not. The firebrand sadhvi had expressed a wish to remain as just a BJP member.

Though the decision to accept Bharti’s resignation from the Lok Sabha rests solely with the Speaker, party sources said Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee might eventually forward her quit letter to G.M.C. Balayogi.

BJP vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy, who briefed the press today, said Govindacharya had “requested that he should be released from any responsibility as an office-bearer and would like to devote the next two years for a deeper study of the economic problems facing the country”.

Krishnamurthy’s clarification partially sets at rest the confusion that arose after former party chief Kushabhau Thakre said on Saturday that he would neither deny nor confirm that he had received a letter from Govindacharya last March, requesting a sabbatical.

BJP sources said Govindacharya’s communiqué was “probably personal in tone and tenor” which was why Thakre was silent about it.

Krishnamurthy said Sushma did not want to accept an official position because of “certain personal problems”. Bharti, he said, “would like to keep herself free of the ties of being an MP”. M. Venkaiah Naidu, however, heads the general secretaries’ roster, after days of speculation whether he would go to the Vajpayee government or remain in the BJP.

Prominent among the seven new faces in Laxman’s team are those of Gopinath Munde, Sunil Shastri, Sahib Singh Verma and Maya Singh. While Munde, the former Maharashtra deputy chief minister, was made a vice-president, the rest were inducted as general secretaries. Though they haven’t yet been assigned specific responsibilities, sources said Munde might be put in charge of Maharashtra.

Sources close to Shastri, son of the late Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, said his inclusion was “surprising” as he had kept a low profile after joining the party in 1997 and had expected nothing more than a secretary’s post. Shastri’s sister-in-law Neera has also been made a national executive member.

BJP sources said Sahib Singh, a former Delhi chief minister, had “fought hard” to get the general secretary’s post after turning down an offer to head the Kisan Morcha.

However, to keep things on an even keel in the capital’s politics, the leadership in a deft balancing act reinstated M.L. Khurana — another ex-chief minister — as a vice-president less than a year after he quit the post.

As expected, Laxman also didn’t risk angering Shiv Sena and RSS affiliates like the VHP and the Bajrang Dal who had criticised his proposal to elevate Mukhtaar Abbas Naqvi as a general secretary. Naqvi was finally retained as a secretary.

Among the old-timers who have been dropped as vice-presidents are J.P. Mathur and Ramdas Aggarwal, though both names figured in the national executive.

Commenting on the composition of the new team, Krishnamurthy said: “It is a blend of experience and youth. Young persons are being groomed for future leadership.”    

New York, Sept. 10: 
When the kings, generals, presidents and prime ministers who were toasting each other in the chandeliered ballrooms in Manhattan in the hope of turning the new millennium into a better place for the human race left for home during the weekend, all that was left to remind the UN of the world’s biggest gathering of heads of state and government in history was a larger-than-life photograph of all the leaders who attended the summit.

India may be on the move in the 21st century, but sadly missing from the photograph of the millennium is Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who had to delay his arrival here for the summit by two days on account of ill health. The photograph recording what the UN thinks will be one of history’s turning points was taken on the opening day of the summit, before Vajpayee had even left New Delhi for New York.

In a way, Vajpayee’s late arrival has saved his spin doctors and UN’s protocol officials a headache. The last time such a photo was taken was during the UN’s 50th anniversary five years ago, when P.V. Narasimha Rao defied the logic of UN protocol.

According to the UN’s logic, Rao should have been between the presidents of Iceland and Indonesia, in the alphabetical order of seating in the General Assembly hall. But Indonesian President Suharto turned out be too short to be placed next to Rao while Iceland’s head of state was a towering figure.

The UN’s veteran photographers, therefore, decided to literally push him and some of the world’s powerful men and women around. Rao was ultimately placed next to Yasser Arafat, a UN protocol official recalled.

Palestine was not recognised as a state by the UN, but that did not bother Rao: after all Arafat was an old friend. What did bother Rao’s spin doctors, though, was that with the Prime Minister somewhere in the middle of the group picture, Rao would be stapled into oblivion and made virtually invisible every time a magazine used the photograph.

Five years down the line, the Prime Minister’s Office has become more media savvy and the Indian public more TV-conscious. Vajpayee’s absence from the group picture has, therefore, spared his spin doctors of the kind of dilemma that faced their counterparts in Rao’s PMO.

All the same, there has been furious speculation among the Indian delegation to the summit about where Vajpayee would have been placed in the millennium group picture had he been present in New York when it was taken.

The standing sequence when Rao figured in a similar picture is no longer relevant: the UN’s membership has gone up in the last five years. Besides, any previous president of the General Assembly who is in New York when such pictures are taken has a right to be in it.

In the front row of all such photos are the permanent members of the Security Council, the UN’s ‘politburo’. Next to them are the non-permanent members of the Council. Bang in the centre is UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, flanked by two conference organisers, Finland’s President Tarja Halonen and Namibia’s President Sam Nujoma.

By and large, the other representative heads of state and government are in alphabetical order, making allowances, of course, for their height.

Had Vajpayee been in New York on the opening day of the summit, he would have been in the third row, in India’s place in the UN’s scheme of things, between Iceland and Indonesia.

Of course, like Rao, who was next to Arafat five years ago, Vajpayee would have been in handshaking distance of another old India friend and rebel, Fidel Castro, and new friend Bill Clinton. But that’s not the reason why Vajpayee stayed away.    

New York, Sept. 10: 
The UN summit over and with no diplomatic engagements scheduled, the Prime Minister took a break and out came the nationalist leader and politician, if only for a day.

Atal Behari Vajpayee changed for the weekend. He stopped short of putting on the hallmark khaki shorts worn by swayamsevaks, yet spoke like one at three functions organised in New York yesterday. Discarding the bandhgala, Vajpayee appeared at all three functions in a dhoti-kurta and khadi silk, sleeveless waistcoat.

But there was more to his transformation from Pime Minister to BJP leader for a day. At a 10,000-strong public reception on Staaten Island, one of New York’s outlying boroughs, attended by men in saffron and rudraksha malas, Vajpayee asserted his right to be a life-long swayamsevak.

In an emotional address, Vajpayee said: “I will not always remain Prime Minister. There are plenty of people for that job in Delhi. But my right to remain a swayamsevak cannot be taken away by anyone.”

Vajpayee said he would always remain India’s first public servant. At the back of the emotional response by the audience to his speech was the one issue nagging every Indian-American present at the reception: Vajpayee’s health.

But even as he responded to Sangh parivar sentiment, Vajpayee was at his diplomatic best and held his own in his new image as a consensus-builder.

There were demands at the reception, organised, among others, by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America Inc. and Overseas Friends of the BJP, that the Ram mandir in Ayodhya be built “now that we have a strong government”.

Vajpayee did his best to please the largely Sangh parivar audience. At the same time, he made sure not to raise the hackles of his NDA allies, some of whom still swear by the secularist slogans of the Congress era.

The Prime Minister conceded that the Indian electorate had not given the BJP an absolute majority. Even without this, “we have been able to achieve a lot”.

Choosing his words carefully, Vajpayee promised that if and when the people endorsed his party on its own, “we can build the India of our dreams”. The Prime Minister did not directly refer to demands for a temple in Ayodhya.

Earlier, addressing a function at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan here to mark the 125th anniversary of the composition of the national song, Vajpayee said: “Vande mataram is not just a song. It is a mantra that has been inspiring people for generations”.

With obvious pride, shared by an elite audience of Indian-Americans, he said: “After 125 years, it (vande mataram) has crossed the seas to reach America. I hope that in future, it will reach everywhere in the world.” The function resonated with patriotic songs even as Vajpayee released two books, one on Vande mataram and another a pictorial glimpse of presidents, vice-presidents and prime ministers of India since 1950.

Yesterday, he made all his speeches sitting and in Hindi. The respite and medical care, Vajpayee’s aides hope, will enable him to cope with the hectic schedule that awaits him in Washington.    

New Delhi, Sept. 11: 
Sidestepping risk-prone consultations with allies, the BJP-led government has quietly decided to start downsizing. A core group of secretaries brainstormed last month on the need to identify redundant employees in all ministries and assign them to a computerised pool, from which they will be redeployed wherever new jobs crop up. The surplus staff will be re-trained while they cool their heels in separate buildings and may even get time off to explore greener pastures.

The committee is considering proposals to give these employees the option to go on leave of up to three years, during which they can try out positions in private organisations. At the end of the trial, they could either resign or return. A voluntary retirement scheme for those over 50 years is also being discussed.

The secretaries’ group has been vested with a considerable powers to downsize. It has already started issuing executive orders to shut down whole departments. At least two departments — one on supply and the other on industrial development — have already been closed without fanfare.

A Cabinet secretariat letter dated August 9 — carrying the clincher ‘Prime Minister has approved’ — has “abolished” the department of supply and called for closure of the chief controller of accounts after a six- month transition phase. The letter states that the decisions are based on the recommendations made by the committee of secretaries.

The decisions are being taken by a group of bureaucrats in consultation with the Prime Minister and the ministers concerned, but without the formality of a Cabinet meeting or consultations with the allies.

Officials said the “silent” strategy has been prompted by the disquiet at a Cabinet meeting where Mamata Banerjee and Ram Vilas Paswan opposed a plan to downsize.

Other departments being eyed for the chopping block include those on fertilisers, consumer affairs and non-conventional energy. Two departments — telecom services/ operations and the Central Electricity Authority — are being corporatised, taking them outside the purview of Central budgets.

The officials added that an informal decision already exists to freeze recruitment to fill one lakh vacancies at the lower levels. Each ministry has been asked to identify redundant posts. The list will be scrutinised by the expenditure reforms commission and the unwanted posts will be eventually scrapped.

However, the commission has been given the power to go beyond the recommendations of each ministry. As a consequence, a scramble is on among jittery bureaucrats to justify the their jobs.

In the Planning Commission, orders were given to restrict its officers from figuring on scores of committees, only to be rescinded after the bureaucrats dug out reasons for their continued presence on them.

Ministries who have been complaining that they don’t have sufficient manpower to perform certain functions have been advised to outsource. Thus, cleaning jobs in most ministries have been farmed out to private contractors, while websites in many departments are being put up or run by private agencies.    



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