Petrol ignites Mamata resignation
Delhi jitters on realignment
PM pleases & punishes
Suspense on depression, respite from tidal waves
Identity crisis for CPM

Calcutta, Sept. 30: 
The petroleum price rise has poured fuel into the smouldering relations between Mamata Banerjee and the Vajpayee-led alliance, prompting the railway minister to resign and threaten to pull her party out of the coalition.

Mamata’s party colleague and minister of state for external affairs Ajit Panja also resigned to protest the increase in all petroleum products announced late last night.

Mamata’s resignation letter did not mention the pullout threat but she told reporters in Calcutta she could not rule that out. “We may think about remaining in the alliance if the Centre rolls back the price increase within three days,” she said.

“Either they have to withdraw or we will withdraw. We cannot accept the price increase which will affect the common people. The prices were raised at midnight without consulting us. But we cannot remain spectators. This is too much for us,” she said.

The Prime Minister’s Office said Vajpayee has rejected the resignations of both Mamata and Panja. Mamata stormed out on a day when another high-profile woman, Sushma Swaraj, strode back into the Vajpayee Cabinet from political hibernation.

The petrol price mark-up has come as the flashpoint for the pullout, but signs of an “extreme step” were evident ever since the Calcutta civic election results made it clear that the alliance with the BJP was more a liability than an advantage for Mamata at the hustings.

At the civic election, the minority vote stayed out of Mamata’s reach, denying the Trinamul Congress majority on its own. But the Congress, considered a spent force in the state, turned in an impressive performance and sent a clear signal to Mamata that a consolidation of their votebanks could prove decisive.

With the Assembly elections drawing near, that message has not been lost on Mamata, known as much for her acumen to read the political pulse as her penchant to make hollow threats. It was not clear whether Mamata will stick to her decision, but a smug state Congress stoked the embers. “The more Mamata distances herself from the BJP, the more will she help the people’s cause,” Congress leader Priya Ranjan Das Munshi said

Despite its tough posturing on oil price, the Vajpayee government may still manage to salvage the situation by yielding an inch or two. Given a face-saver, Mamata may also remain with the coalition and defer the break-up till another crisis explodes.

But the seeds of disquiet have been sown irrevocably in the Central coalition. At least until the Bengal Assembly election, Mamata is certain to distance herself as raucously as possible from every unpopular decision of the government to drive home the point that there is little common between her party and the BJP.

A joint resignation letter from Mamata and Panja was faxed to the PMO. “You would kindly recall that at the last meeting of the NDA, the honourable petroleum minister Ram Naik just briefed us on the pricing.... But it was neither discussed at length nor in detail. Possibly, you remember that we raised our voice then, saying nothing should be done which may affect the common man,” the letter said. The letter also referred to the devastating floods and felt the hike would worsen the condition of the crores affected by the calamity.

Mamata conceded that her resignation may affect the pending railway projects. “I started work on these projects and will be happy to see their completion. But I also have to look after the common people’s interest,” she said.

Mamata was unhappy over the Centre’s “muted response” to her demand for action to stem political bloodletting. The Centre’s decision to close down some sick PSUs also created tension.

The induction of Satyabrata Mukherjee — the second minister from the two-MP BJP in Bengal — did not help improve ties with Trinamul, which has more MPs but only two ministers.    

New Delhi, Sept. 30 
Mamata Banerjee’s decision to quit the Vajpayee ministry along with Ajit Panja will not upset the government’s arithmetical advantage, but it has dealt a political blow.

Both the government and the BJP were left nonplussed by Mamata’s move and wondered whether it was a precursor to a realignment of forces on the eve of the Assembly polls in West Bengal.

Caught in the midst of a hectic schedule — Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives on a state visit tomorrow after which the Prime Minister leaves for Mumbai to get his knee operated — Vajpayee rushed to control damage and asked defence minister George Fernandes to win Mamata back.

Although it is keen to keep the NDA united, the Prime Minister’s Office also made it plain that the Centre was in no mood to consider a rollback of the petro price hike, the main issue on which the railway minister has resigned.

A BJP minister asserted that a roll-back was “unsustainable” since “the figures don’t tally if we restore the original prices”.

With Mamata withdrawing from the NDA, the Congress finally sees a glimmer of hope for a pact with the Trinamul in Bengal.

The BJP sought to paper over the impact of Mamata’s resignation. Party vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy said: “She is a respected leader and knows the background for the decision. The prices were increased not of the government’s own volition but because of international pressure. Even the US had to take steps.”

Despite Krishnamurthy’s outward confidence, there is an underlying nervousness in the BJP that Mamata’s resignation could lead to a churning within the NDA.

The sensitivity of the issue was evident from Samata Party minister Nitish Kumar’s statement that the price increase was a “compulsory decision but not a collective one”. The DMK, too, could be in trouble as it faces polls.

The Telugu Desam, the BJP’s biggest ally, sprung to the government’s defence. Chandrababu Naidu, whom Mamata had called her “elder brother”, refused to demand a rollback of the hike and described the Trinamul minister’s decision as a “routine antic”.

Naidu requested the Centre to exempt from the hike his Deepam scheme, under which the poor get cooking gas at a cheaper rate.    

New Delhi, Sept. 30 
Sushma Swaraj bounced back as Union minister for information and broadcasting after nearly two years in the wilderness and BJP general secretary Venkaiah Naidu was inducted as minister for rural development in a Cabinet expansion effected by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee today.

Vajpayee also inducted four ministers of state at a ceremony in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, taking the strength of his council to 75. All the new faces are from the BJP.

During Vajpayee’s second tenure, Sushma had held the I&B portfolio until November 1998 when she was made Delhi chief minister shortly before the Assembly elections.

While she took over from Arun Jaitley, who was looking after I&B in addition to law, Naidu relieved the ailing Sunderlal Patwa of the rural development ministry.

Patwa, still in a Delhi hospital after he took ill during the last session of Parliament, will look after the lighter ministry of chemicals and fertilisers.

Vajpayee sought to placate his cantankerous ally, the Shiv Sena, by giving Suresh Prabhu the power portfolio, which fell vacant following the death of P.R. Kumaramangalam. Prabhu had held chemicals and fertilisers.

Dhananjay Kumar, minister of state for finance, and Rita Verma, junior minister for health and family welfare, were shifted as their seniors, Yashwant Sinha and C.P. Thakur, were reportedly unhappy with them.

A. Raja’s installation as minister of state for health has set his party, the DMK, grumbling.

Vajpayee ruled out another expansion in the near future. Talking to reporters after the swearing-in, he said there were no plans for another expansion unless fresh vacancies had to be filled.

Asked if he would induct Uma Bharti into his ministry, Vajpayee quipped: “Woh to Kedarnath gufa mein baithi hain (She is sitting inside the Kedarnath cave).”

The four new ministers of state are: Satyabrata Mukherjee from West Bengal (chemicals and fertilisers), P. Radhakrishnan from Tamil Nadu (sports and youth affairs), U.V. Krishnamraju from Andhra Pradesh (external affairs) and Sripad Yesso Naik from Goa (agriculture).

Vajpayee said the West Bengal floods are being treated as a “national calamity”. He said the Centre is concerned and a team led by agriculture minister Nitish Kumar will visit the flood-hit areas.    

Calcutta, Sept. 30 
As the city entered festival week, the suspense continued over the weather during the Pujas even as the tidal visits ebbed.

A day after it warned that a low pressure had developed off Myanmar’s west coast, the Alipore weather office said it was still not clear whether the turbulence would move towards Bengal and Bangladesh.

It was also too early to say if it would develop into a depression or a deep depression.

“The low pressure area has moved northwards and on Saturday afternoon, lay over northeast Bay of Bengal,” said chief weatherman R.N. Goldar.

“It is likely to develop into a well-marked low pressure area or even a depression. Under its influence as of now, there is already a high cloud formation over Calcutta and South Bengal. One or two showers are expected on Sunday,” he added.

But Goldar provided a silver lining. “The low pressure could weaken or move away in a different direction,” he said.

The tides continued but for the first time in four days, no new areas were inundated by the rising Hooghly.

The bore at 2.23 pm was measured at 6.2 metres, down 20 cm from the wave that preceded it (at 1.50 pm). But it still caused water levels to rise up to three feet in the tide-prone areas, crippling life for two hours.

“By now, we have become used to this daily deluge,” said Ashis Mal of Tollygunge Road. “The level was lower today and, hopefully with one more invasion in the night (at 2.55 am Sunday), it will be over.”

Another foray is expected at 2.53 pm tomorrow, but it will not be as intense.    

New Delhi, Sept. 30 
Marxists of the country unite, you have nothing to lose but your status and symbol. But you can retain three states.

The Election Commission today stripped the CPM of its national status and relegated it to a party recognised only in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura.

The decision, which comes just months before Assembly elections in five states, largely means a loss of image for the CPM, which loses exclusive rights to its hammer, sickle and star symbol in all but the three states.

The party, which, with 32 Lok Sabha members, is the country’s third largest in terms of parliamentary strength, was disqualified because it had failed to secure at least 6 per cent votes in four Assemblies. “It shall hereafter be recognised as a state party in Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal,” the order signed by chief election commissioner M.S. Gill and commissioners T.S. Krishna Murthy and J.M. Lyngdoh said.

The order was based on the party’s performance in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections as well as regional ballots in October 1999 and January to February 2000.

The party greeted the ruling with a brave face. “Whatever the commission may decide, it will not be able to minimise our role in national politics,” said CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet.

In a second blow, the commission froze the symbols of the two factions of the Janata Dal, one headed by civil aviation minister Sharad Yadav and the other by former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda.    


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