Mamata gets rollback with bonus
One year on, an oil slick
Options open in strategic treaty
Music after a job well done
Calcutta weather

Calcutta, Oct. 3: 
Mamata Banerjee today won the first bout in her battle against the Centre over the petro price hike with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee convening a Cabinet meeting on Friday to consider a rollback.

After the second round of negotiations with the Prime Minister’s emissary, Sudheendra Kulkarni, the Trinamul Congress leader thanked Vajpayee for his intervention and said she expected a substantial rollback “in the interest of the common people”.

“There will certainly be a settlement to the impasse. We have complete trust in the Prime Minister. We requested the Centre to reconsider the hike which will affect the poor people. Vajpayeeji sent his emissary to talk to us and we conveyed our feelings to him,” she told reporters after the talks this afternoon.

Kulkarni, who was rushed to Calcutta last night by Vajpayee, also described the outcome of the discussions as “positive” and asserted that there will “most certainly” be a rollback.

The assurance is a victory for Mamata as petroleum minister Ram Naik as well as the BJP leadership had earlier ruled out any cut in prices despite the railway minister’s threat to quit the National Democratic Alliance.

The Trinamul leader, however, decided to wait until Friday before taking a decision on taking back her and Ajit Panja’s resignations. “We have decided to wait till the Cabinet meets on October 6 to re-consider the price hike. We will make our stand clear once the formalities are over,” she said.

Mamata refused to specify the quantum of rollback promised by Vajpayee. “The Prime Minister has assured us on a reduction in the prices of kerosene, diesel and LPG. We are hopeful about a positive decision at the Cabinet meeting on Friday,” she added.

But Mamata ruled out attending the Cabinet meeting. “People in the flood-affected areas are asking for relief. Besides, the Pujas have started. I cannot go to Delhi now,” she said.

The Trinamul chief made it clear that she was not extending the three-day deadline set by her for the government to announce a rollback if it wanted her to remain in the alliance.

“We have to wait till Friday as Vajpayeeji is now busy with the visit of the Russian President. But we want to see the outcome of our discussions before deciding on the next course of action,” she said.

BJP sources in Delhi said that apart from the rollback, Vajpayee had also made an “unstated” promise to offer more ministerial berths to Trinamul MPs.

Mamata is “extremely unhappy” with the induction of Satyabrata Mukherjee, BJP MP from Krishnagar, into the Vajpayee ministry. The BJP, which has just two MPs from Bengal — the other being junior communications minister Tapan Sikdar — has a 100 per cent representation in Vajpayee’s council. The Trinamul, on the other hand, has just two ministers though it has eight MPs.

The sources said that while Mamata chose to make public the Prime Minister’s assurance of reducing the prices of kerosene, diesel and cooking gas, Kulkarni also dangled the bait of at least two more ministerial slots to her party.

Trinamul sources in Calcutta confirmed that the issue had figured during the discussions.

Mamata is believed to be considering the names of Akbar Ali Khondokar and Ananda Mohan Biswas since they represent the minority community and the Scheduled Castes respectively. Other contenders include Nitish Sengupta and Sudip Bandopadhyay, Trinamul chief whip in the Lok Sabha.

Kulkarni is also said to have promised to upgrade Panja’s post from that of minister of state for external affairs to one with independent charge of mines and minerals.

The chances of a rapprochement had brightened following Kulkarni’s discussions with Mamata last night. The two held two more rounds of talks this afternoon.    

New Delhi, Oct. 3: 
The capitulation before Mamata Banerjee has come at a time when Atal Behari Vajpayee’s alliance was raring to crown him the “tallest leader” the country has ever produced.

BJP leaders conceded that the retreat could “whittle down” Vajpayee’s stature on the eve of the anniversary of his return to power. Ever since he survived the health scare during the US visit and tightened his grip on the party, the Central alliance was planning a befitting anniversary celebration to applaud the Prime Minister.

“Even Chandrababu Naidu, our biggest ally, could not force a rollback on the decision to cut subsidies. But women are proving Vajpayee’s nemesis — Jayalalitha, Uma Bharati and now Mamata,” said a party leader. He was quick to point out that none of the women leaders had been as successful as Mamata in pushing their cases through.

“It’s a no-win situation for us,” the BJP leader said. He added that the party was prepared to “take the flak” that would come if the prices were rolled back, provided the alliance with the Trinamul Congress remained intact.

“Let’s face it, we are in no position to fight the elections alone in Bengal. If the Trinamul teams up with the Congress, but we will be left nowhere,” said the BJP office-bearer involved with Bengal.

Scouring for face-savers, another leader said the chances of Mamata wresting power from the Left Front had “brightened” after her resignation and ultimatum to the Centre.

But party strategists felt that the cave-in would open a Pandora’s box of demands from other coalition constituents and pressure groups. Confirming the fear, Assam today sought “a special concession” on fuel price since it was an oil-producing state.

The BJP is keeping its fingers crossed on the reaction of pugnacious allies like the Shiv Sena, which could take a cue from Mamata and step up pressure for a larger slice of the Cabinet pie.

The party managers are also worried that the proposed rollback would draw uncharitable references to the Prime Minister’s “weak knee”.    

New Delhi, Oct. 3: 
India and Russia today redefined their ties for the post-Cold War age by signing a document on strategic partnership to deepen bilateral relations and pave the way for a multi-polar world.

Both sides said it was not a partnership aimed at a third country, nor did it seek to create a military-political alliance.

The document signed by visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee at the Hyderabad House envisages close cooperation between the two countries on nuclear energy, defence and fighting international terrorism. It seeks to impart a “new character and long-term perspective to the multifaceted bilateral relations”.

The partnership emphasises that it is “necessary to build a multipolar global structure based on sovereign equality of all states and peoples, democratic values and justice”.

“The document indicates that India and Russia consider each other as reliable partners and want to build a long-term partnership,” Putin said. “It’s a commitment to work in close cooperation as partners on all issues of political, economic and world affairs,” Vajpayee responded.

The two sides agreed to set up an inter-governmental commission on military-technical cooperation. It will be headed by defence minister George Fernandes and Russian deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov. The two sides also agreed to cooperate on peaceful use of nuclear energy.

India and Russia signed several agreements on cooperation in agriculture, communication, legal assistance on civil and commercial matters, culture and oil and gas production.

However, the strategic partnership document at best can be described as a “negative alliance”. It is a major departure from past agreements, particularly the 1971 treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, in which both sides agreed to help each other in case of a military threat.

Today’s document affirmed the “non participation in any military-political or other alliances or associations or armed conflict directed against the other side, or in any treaties, agreements or understandings infringing upon the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity or national security interests of the other side.”

The text also indicates that there is enough elbow room for the two sides to re-adjust their positions.

Delhi tried to ensure Putin’s reception was as warm as that given to his US counterpart Bill Clinton. In the morning, the Russian President was given a ceremonial welcome at the Rashtrapati Bhavan forecourt.

Like Clinton, Putin also visited Hyderabad House, where the two sides held delegation-level talks, followed by lunch given by Vajpayee in the President’s honour.

But the chemistry of Clinton’s visit seemed to be missing when the Prime Minister brought his guest over to the shamiana on the Hyderabad House lawns to address the media. But not only were there fewer reporters, the questions and long-winded answers, prolonged further by the translations, made things look dull.

Later during the day an honorary doctorate degree was conferred on Putin by the Jawaharlal Nehru University. President K.R. Narayanan hosted a banquet in Putin’s honour in the evening.

The two sides have agreed to hold annual summit-level meetings. Delhi and Moscow have also agreed to have regular talks.

Putin has invited Vajpayee to visit Russia next year.

Russia once again “actively supported” India’s candidature for the UN Security Council, saying the council needed to be restructured in the changing world.

The Prime Minister described Putin’s visit as a “milestone” in Indo-Russian relations and said it would provide a “major impetus” to bilateral relations.

Vajpayee said the strategic partnership document sets out the shared aims of the two countries. He added that India and Russia could play a global role to build a better world.    

New Delhi, Oct. 3: 
In an afternoon interlude in his Mamata mission, Sudheendra Kulkarni drove down to a music shop to pick up 16 CDs. When he headed back for Mamata’s humble abode a few kilometres away, he was carrying eight Rabindrasangeet discs.

If that was his way of saying thanks to Mamata, it’s not surprising. Music is a recurring theme in the IITian’s career.

Kulkani was a drum-beater on L.K. Advani’s rathyatras.

When the Prime Minister had to mollify Mamata Banerjee and check her drift towards the Congress, it was the soft-spoken and low-key Kulkarni — an official in the PMO — he turned to after his usual trouble-shooter, George Fernandes, failed.

In a way, Kulkarni was the obvious choice since he is in charge of Bengal in the PMO and has been dealing with Mamata for some time. But he is certainly not a political heavyweight and Vajpayee has any number of them he could have picked from. He is not even true-blue saffron.

In carrying out various assignments, Kulkarni has traversed the entire political spectrum — from extreme Left to centre-left and the right. Much like his personality, the career and ideological changes came noiselessly and deftly. In that sense, Kulkarni is a quintessential practitioner of realpolitik and a believer in “flexibility”, the virtue his party, the BJP, has discovered in its avatar as the nucleus of a 24-member coalition.

Until the Calcutta “retrieve Mamata mission”, Kulkarni had been a low-profile member of the PMO. But insiders said he got close to Vajpayee during his recent US sojourn and was among the privileged few who were put up in the same hotel as the PM.

Kulkarni, who hails from north Karnataka, cut his political teeth in a place famous for assembly-line production of New Economy movers and shakers —the Indian Institute of Technology, Powai (Mumbai). He studied engineering there and was part of a left-of-centre outfit which was critical of the CPM and CPI.

He began drifting towards the CPM and plunged into trade union activism in Citu. Next stop was journalism and Kulkarni joined the Mumbai newspaper, The Daily, then owned by the pro-CPI Karanjia family. He leftThe Daily to join the Ambani-owned Observer. Whether by design or coincidence, his colleagues said it was here he made his switch to the right.

The watershed was the Babri masjid demolition in 1992. Those who claimed to know Kulkarni well said they were “shocked” by his open sympathy for the BJP.

Not much was heard of Kulkarni between 1992 and 1996, except for his writings which showed a pro-BJP tilt. In 1996, during the 13-day Vajpayee government, he surfaced in Delhi and hitched himself to the BJP bandwagon. He was even allotted a place in the BJP headquarters and an assignment in its media cell. His services were used for drafting the official resolutions and documents.

In his initial years in the BJP, he tagged on to Advani and accompanied him on his two-month Swarna Jayanti Yatra in 1997 from Kerala to Jammu.

So, more than one eyebrow was raised at the alacrity with which he switched sides when Vajpayee was sworn in as the PM in 1998. Kulkarni’s alleged connections with a UK-based business house were mentioned as a possible “conduit” with 7, Race Course Road. It is his speech-writing skills, put to good effect in the PM’s two US trips, that apparently endeared him to Vajpayee.

He is remembered in the BJP for Vajpayee’s first speech as PM in the UN and the Asiatic Society in which he said it was not only a “wider interest” that called for a strong Indo-US bonding but in “America’s own interest”. The stress on “mutual interest”, it was said, laid the foundation for the US tilt in India’s foreign policy.

All this was accomplished quietly. BJP sources said the main advantage of enlisting Kulkarni as a fire-fighter was that where politicians “shouted from rooftops even about non-achievements”, he would produce “results”. Like a true Mumbai professional, he is simply doing a job.    



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