Vajpayee lands on Bengal minefield
Sonia snatches Salman crown
Basu tonic on work culture
Bhan faces fire for Raj Bhavan ‘misuse’
Seven swept off by flash floods
Jharkhand women in witchhunt war
Sierra row may force Delhi pullout

Fresh from his United States journey, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has to decide what to do in West Bengal. Central intervention in any form may be a high-risk strategy.

Even though the ruling alliance is a house divided on the issue, it can still give its opponents the lever they need. This is what the Union government is worried about.

President’s rule may have been a non-starter for three successive governments in New Delhi. The whiff of it can still give a rival the chance to gain mileage. Vajpayee’s party did just that in Uttar Pradesh in 1997. It played the victim and put the Gujral government on the back foot.

But the very same party quickly unlearnt the lesson once in power in New Delhi. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has already burnt its fingers twice in Bihar. Two attempts to invoke Article 356 have failed.

The first time, the President sent the recommendation back to the Cabinet to reconsider its decision. Last year, the line-up in the Rajya Sabha deprived the government of Parliament’s seal of approval.

Things have not changed significantly since then. The southern regional parties are unlikely to rally behind the call for Central intervention. Even Andhra chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu is elusive on what he wants done.

For many regional parties the Union’s intrusion into law and order is like a red rag to a bull. They are all aware that the very tactic may be used against them in the future. Not so long ago, Union home minister L.K. Advani despatched teams of officials to monitor civil peace in Tamil Nadu. He hoped to placate an ally Jayalalitha, by turning the heat on the state government led by her rival M. Karunanidhi.

The analogy with the Tamil Nadu scenario of 1998 is more apt than comparisons with Bihar. Article 356 is as good as defunct until there is basic shift in the co-relation of forces. The Union government can, however, subject the state government to closer scrutiny. The last has not been heard in the war of words between Jyoti Basu and Advani.

Even the use of the Disturbed Areas Act in a part of West Bengal may have given the ruling Left Front just the hand it needs. It can do more than play on a sense of injured regional pride. The threat of New Delhi’s fiat also helps cement cracks within the ruling alliance and reinforce Jyoti Basu’s standing among uncommitted voters in the run-up to the Assembly elections due early next year.

Sub-national or regional sentiments, always below the surface outside the Hindi belt, will come into play. Union defence minister, George Fernandes’ ill-advised comparison with Bihar is a political windfall for adversaries.

Many NDA leaders have been through the Indira Gandhi era of politics and want to use the political tools she once deployed. The Trinamul party machine, steeped as it is in the Congress culture, sees a spell of federal rule as antidote. Even a seasoned anti-Congress campaigner like George Fernandes now favours Union government intervention, though short of President’s rule.

The whole polity has undergone a sea change since the 1980s. Today’s governments do not command a steam roller majority or have a pliant President in place. Allies pack more power than their numbers reveal. There is the possibility of judicial review. Vajpayee will have to manoeuvre for time. He has little option, for in his absence, his deputies overplayed a weak hand.    

New Delhi, Sept. 19: 
Contest-shy Sonia Gandhi today sacrificed Salman Khurshid as Uttar Pradesh state unit chief. The senior leader follows Ahmad Patel, A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury and Begum Noor as another victim of the all-too-familiar palace intrigue of the party.

Salman was replaced by Sri Prasad Jaiswal, MP from Kanpur and a leader of the backward community. A member of the erstwhile Tiwari Congress, Jaiswal, considered a lightweight in state Congress circles, is hardly equipped to resolve deep-rooted factionalism in the state unit.

Jaiswal was chosen after Ram Naresh Yadav and Harikesh Bahadur failed to win favour.

Sonia-managers defended Salman’s exit claiming it would take the heat out of the dissidents’ campaign which focused on Salman’s “non-performance”.

However, dissident leader Jitendra Prasada was quick to seize the opportunity. Smelling blood minutes after Jaiswal’s appointment became public, Prasada raised the thorny issue of inner-party democracy and questioned the rationale behind Salman’s removal when party polls were only 45 days away.

“It would have been better if the party workers were given the democratic right to choose their leader. However, the high command has decided it in its wisdom,” he said.

The Sonia camp quickly countered the argument by pointing at numerous CWC and AICC resolutions which authorised her to bring about sweeping changes in the party set-up. But the dissidents cribbed that the timing of a change of guard was poor as the process of organisational polls was in progress.

This is not the first time that Sonia has arbitrarily changed the PCC leadership. Before Uttar Pradesh, she had removed state unit chiefs of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

Sonia’s sudden decision to sack Salman has raised eyebrows in the party. Though he was not exactly a popular leader, the abrupt exit has indicated that loyalty to 10 Janpath is not an all important factor for the top brass. “After all, Salman was merely following her instructions,” a Salman supporter said.

Some party leaders accused the leadership of removing leaders from the minority community. They pointed at the inglorious exit of Chowdhury and Patel as party functionaries and the defeat of Begum Noor in the Congress Parliamentary Party polls.

An AICC general secretary said Salman would be “rehabilitated” in the AICC in the media or foreign affairs department. “His exit should not be seen as a reflection on his performance as the UPCC chief,” she said.

It is believed that Arjun Singh and Narain Dutt Tiwari played a key role in Salman’s exit. The two met Sonia recently and advised her to replace him. Their justification was it would restrain dissidents from attacking or challenging her leadership.

However, it remains to be seen if the move ensures a smooth passage for Sonia for her election to a second term as Congress president.    

Calcutta, Sept. 19: 
Chief minister Jyoti Basu today announced a string of measures to improve work culture among employees in government offices.

Basu made the announcement while inaugurating the platinum jubilee celebrations of the CPM-controlled West Bengal Secretariat Employees’ Association at Netaji Indoor Stadium this afternoon. Key functionaries of the co-ordination committee, which controls the association, were present on the occasion.

In his new active avatar, Basu told a public rally at Bolpur only three days ago that he would lead the Left Front campaign in the run-up to next year’s Assembly elections.

The chief minister, addressing an impressive gathering of government employees, said a regular diary will be maintained in every department to monitor daily work in government offices.

“I have reports that some officials sign the attendance register late but always try to find fault with their subordinate staff,” he said, adding: “How can they punish ordinary staff if they are not themselves serious about the nature of job?”

He said ministers will check-up attendance registers of the respective departments every month as part of the government’s drive to identify those who shirk duties.

Basu hinted that the government will implement the reward and punishment policy in the offices in a more systematic way. “I must appreciate the role of the Co-ordination Committee for helping me consistently to get the system properly implemented,” he said.

Basu’s move to set things in the right perspective at government offices is being viewed as a calculated attempt to tone up the administration before the polls.

The chief minister also cautioned the employees against the Centre’s attempts to impose President’s rule in the state in its attempt to placate Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee.

Daring the Centre to resort to such a “drastic step”, Basu said: “We are all alive here and let me see how far this BJP-led coalition can go to keep its one of 24 partners happy.”

He asked party workers to increase mass contact to step up a statewide movement against the Centre’s “heinous attempts” to infringe on India’s federal structure.

Regretting the party workers’ lack of interaction with people, Basu said: “Don’t forget that our’s is a people’s government. And that is why I advise you to go to the people and tell them what you have done and what not.”

Brimming with confidence, he said no one can dislodge the Left Front from power in Bengal “if we get people’s support as we have been getting for 24 years.”    

Lucknow, Sept. 19: 
Uttar Pradesh Governor Suraj Bhan today tried to wriggle out of an embarrassing mess even as the President referred to him a Congress complaint which cried foul over his decision to allow the RSS to hold a function on Raj Bhavan premises.

Raj Bhavan sources said K.R. Narayanan wrote to Bhan after he got a letter from the Congress accusing the Governor of “saffronising Raj Bhavan”.

The Congress had shot off the letter soon after Bhan released Path Sanket, a magazine edited by a top RSS functionary, at the programme. The magazine has an introductory message written by the RSS sah sarkaryavah, Madan Das.

The letter charged the Governor with lowering the dignity of the constitutional post and alleged that Raj Bhavan was being reduced to a “Sangh karyalaya”. Yesterday, Bhan had justified giving permission.

“There is nothing wrong in holding such functions in Raj Bhavan. The RSS is not a banned organisation,” he had said, adding that he has been involved with the organisation since childhood.

Charging the Congress with “over reacting”, he said three former Prime Ministers — Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi — had allowed the RSS to participate in Republic Day parades in “their official uniform”.

Today, however, the Governor was on the backfoot, despite the BJP’s efforts to rescue him.

Though it hit back at the Congress, saying no one had “misused the Raj Bhavan as much as Motilal Vora who blatantly used it for political gains”, a defensive Bhan said he had “absolutely no idea” that it was an RSS function.

Maintaining that “no one” had told him about it, he said that had he known that the function was Sangh-sponsored, he would have “thought deeply” before granting permission.

Bhan declared that he hadn’t visited the RSS office ever since he assumed the Governor’s office.

He also said he made no reference to the RSS during the function.

“In fact, not even those associated with the magazine made any reference to the RSS,” he said. “I fail to understand what this hue and cry is all about.”

However, he pointed out that it was the RSS which had given him “solace” when he was “a victim of untouchability”.

“I can never forget my brush with untouchability,” he said. “But it was Bala Saheb Deoras who said there was no sin bigger than that of untouchability.”

Russia on N-ties

Moscow, Sept. 19 (PTI): Russian vice-Premier Iliya Klebanov has vowed to expand nuclear cooperation between Moscow and Delhi. “Our cooperation will not be limited to Kudankulam atomic power plant and we are eyeing at least 50 per cent share in the 20-million kilowatt nuclear power generation target set by India in the middle term prospective,” he said.

Russian vice premier Iliya Klebanov said. He is leaving for New Delhi on Tuesday on a 3-day tour to set the stage for the Indo-Russian summit during Putin’s state visit on October 2-5.

“India has independently developed and tested its nuclear weapons and is sticking to moratorium on new tests pending a formal decision to sign CTBT,” Kelbanov said.

“We are moving ahead to a very serious level of our partnership and interaction, with focus on economy,” he added.

Klebanov, co-chairman of Indo-Russian Intergovernmental Commission on trade, economic, scientific, technological and cultural cooperation, is accompanied by a large team of experts with him to New Delhi, including Atomic Energy minister and Aviation and Space Agency Chief Dr Koptyev to give final touches before Putin’s visit.

Before leaving for New Delhi, Klebanov received fresh instructions from Putin to make the Indo-Russian millennium summit a great success and open a new chapter in the strong and traditional bilateral relations, a Kremlin source said.

In New Delhi, Klebanov would call on Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He will hold intensive negotiations with finance minister Yashwant Sinha, defence minister George Fernandes and principal secretary to the Prime Minister, Brajesh Mishra to promptly clear the maximum number of bilateral agreements for signing during President Putin’s visit.    

Calcutta, Sept. 19: 
At least seven persons were killed and 1.5 lakh people marooned as incessant rains caused flash floods in Birbhum and Murshidabad districts today.

All seven deaths were reported from Birbhum.

The Katwa subdivision of Burdwan district and Shantipur and Nabadwip of Nadia district have also been affected. More areas are feared to be flooded as heavy rains are continuing.

To add to the problem, huge volumes of water were released from the Massanjore and Tilpara barrages in the last 48 hours.

The situation is likely to worsen tomorrow with the weather office in Calcutta continuing its warning for heavy rains in south Bengal districts during the next 24 hours.

“There will be widespread rains in south Bengal districts as the low pressure continues to exist over Gangetic West Bengal and Bihar plateau. Heavy rains are also likely in Malda, North and South Dinajpur districts,” said R.N. Goldar, director of the Alipore met office.

The state government sent an SOS to the Army and sought helicopters to drop food packets to the marooned people in the 34 worst-hit blocks of the two districts. But the helicopter could not fly to the affected areas from Panagarh due to bad weather. BSF jawans have been pressed into service in Murshidabad.

Another helicopter has been kept on standby in Calcutta. Besides, a dozen speed-boats have been requisitioned from the Army for deployment in the two districts. A special train will carry rescue parties and relief materials from Sainthia to Rampurhat in Birbhum.

Finance minister Asim Dasgupta and land reforms minister Suryakanta Misra, who were in Malda to attend a meeting, could not return.

The two ministers had started for Calcutta in Gour Express. When the train could not proceed beyond Pakur due to inundated tracks, they went back to Farakka and tried to reach Calcutta by road. But they had to return to Malda from Suti in Murshidabad this evening as the highway was flooded.

At the instance of chief minister Jyoti Basu, his deputy, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, held a meeting with senior officials to take stock of the situation. Bhattacharya discussed the situation with food and civil supplies minister Kalimuddin Shams and relief minister Satyaranjan Mahato.

He also asked officials to ensure that the Massanjore and Tilpara barrage authorities released water only as much as was absolutely necessary. The two barrages together released 2.28 lakh cusecs of water during the day.

Due to heavy rains in Bihar, the levels of the Ganga and Bhagirathi are also rising at Jalangi and Bhagabangola which may lead to inundation of Nabadwip and some other parts of Nadia district by tomorrow.

Late in the evening, the Nadia district administration informed Bhattacharya that heavy rains had flooded areas of Shantipur and Nabadwip. Marooned people are being rescued with the help of country boats. Bhattacharya said the rainfall has been “abnormally high” in Birbhum and Murshidabad.

In Birbhum, Suri recorded 835 mm of rains and Rampurhat 735 mm over the past 48 hours. In Murshidabad, during the same period, a rainfall of 698 mm was recorded.

Bhattacharya said one lakh people were marooned in eight blocks of Birbhum district alone. The flood-hit blocks include, Rampurhat, Nalhati, Suri and Khairasol.

He said fifty thousand people were rescued from 26 flooded blocks of Murshidabad including Nabagram, Salar, Kandi and Barwa and removed to relief camps.    

New Delhi, Sept. 19: 
In the new state of Jharkhand, women are coming to the forefront to wage a war on patriarchy. Last week, tribal women from nine districts of Jharkhand gathered in Ranchi and demanded an end to the practice of killing women after branding them “witches”.

The tribal areas of West Bengal and Bihar have been dotted with such incidents of women lynched or burnt to death on the suspicion that they were practising witchcraft. At the meeting of the newly-floated Jharkhand Mahila Mukti Sangathan (JMMS) in Ranchi, tribal women expressed outrage at the medieval practice.

“It is a ploy to strip women of their right to property,” they said. The memory of two recent incidents in Jharkhand was fresh on their minds as the women recalled how the women had been stripped, paraded and killed. “The patriarchal society is reluctant to give women their property rights and the widows are regularly killed after being called witches,” said Jyotsna Chatterjee of the Joint Women’s Programme (JWP), a Delhi-based women’s organisation.

The Bihar government had passed a Bill last year to arrest the killing of “witches”. But few at the grassroots were aware of it. Incident after incident took place, but the law was hardly put into effect. JMMS said the few times they tried to lodge a case with the police, they came up against a wall of refusal.

“Their standard excuse seems to be that it is a gharelu (family) dispute and there is no need to take the matter to court,” said Chatterjee. Often the police tried to put the woman on the mat saying that it must have been her “fault”.

In most cases, the women targeted were either widows or older single women and, therefore, more vulnerable. “The belief in the existence of witches is strong and deep-rooted especially in tribal communities. Older women, especially widows, are supposed to have an evil eye and are considered inauspicious,” says Chatterjee. The practice reflects the low status of women, particularly widows, she adds.

Women’s organisations recall that in the 1999 general elections, candidates in several states projected the election of a widow as being detrimental to India’s “good future”. According to Chatterjee, a BJP candidate in one of the election meetings had said: “I have to remind tribals of their own traditions. A widow among us is considered a bad omen, a witch who casts an evil spell on the family.”

Even the Church with close bonding with tribals has preferred to keep away from the sensitive subject. However, they have made clear their objection to “witch-burning”.

The JMMS has begun with a demand that could shake the core of the tribal society by putting a question mark on patriarchy. For the moment, the organisation is focusing on the issue of burning “witches”, but it plans to take up larger issues that will give women a larger share in the power structure of the new Jharkhand state.    

New Delhi, Sept. 19: 
Delhi is seriously considering pulling out its forces from Sierra Leone over the snowballing controversy involving Major General Vijay Kumar Jetley, the commander of the UN peacekeepers in the strife-torn African state.

Even as the row gains ground, the US has decided to send its Pacific Command chief, Admiral Dennis Blair, to India tomorrow for talks with defence officials, which will include peacekeeping duties under the UN.

The US had proposed forming a joint working group with India on peacekeeping operations in the recent past. Perhaps the two sides will focus on this proposal during the discussions. Incidentally, this will be Blair’s second visit to India within a year. He was in Delhi weeks before President Bill Clinton’s five-day visit in March.

Of the 13,000 UN peacekeepers deployed in Sierra Leone, over 3,000 are from India. While Nigeria has the single-largest contribution in the peacekeeping effort with over 6,000 soldiers, India’s contribution as the second-largest contingent has been significant.

But the UN effort in the war-torn nation now faces a crisis as India and Nigeria face off over the command of the forces, now under Jetley. The Indian general was drawn into a controversy after he levelled charges of corruption against his Nigerian deputies. Stung by the charges, the Nigerians are now baying for Jetley’s blood and building up diplomatic pressure to get the Indian general replaced by one of their own. Irrespective of its outcome, the controversy has taken much of the shine off India’s sterling role in peacekeeping in Sierra Leone.

South Block officials, while admitting that Jetley may have to be relieved of his duties in Sierra Leone before his term is over, have pointed out that such a move may force Delhi to pull out its soldiers. But there are arguments against such a move.

Though Jetley enjoys the support of his bosses in Delhi, the fact remains that India has been earning foreign exchange worth Rs 1,000 crore annually by engaging its troops and military equipment in the UN effort. Some sections are sceptical about whether India will pull out its forces if push comes to shove in Sierra Leone as that amount covers a substantial part of India’s defence budget.

US officials said the ostensible reason for Blair’s arrival here is to bid farewell to the Indian chief of army staff, Ved Prakash Malik, who completes his tenure at the end of the month. India not only falls within the US’ Pacific Command, but the Admiral is said to be a personal friend of Malik. Blair will also take the opportunity to acquaint himself with Malik’s successor and other important officials in South Block.

It is not very clear whether Blair and his hosts will discuss the latest development in Sierra Leone. But problems of peacekeeping and steps to strengthen the UN effort in different parts of the world is likely to come up during his interactions with Indian officials.

The problems of peacekeeping will be under the spotlight at the forthcoming UN General Assembly this year, where a report by Lakhadar Brahimi, chairman of the special panel on peacekeeping operations, will be taken up. Brahimi’s bulky document has gone into details of the problems in executing peacekeeping duties and suggested measures to solve them.

The US, keen to see the report implemented, has started discussing the issue with key countries like India, whose contribution to UN peacekeeping efforts has been significant. Blair may try to ascertain Delhi’s views on the issue during his visit.    


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