Rollback of rollback on Cabinet revolt
Optionless Mamata puts party on pullout alert
Circle inspector shot dead
Navy gets gutted Gorshkov
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Oct. 4: 
In a stunning turnaround 24 hours after conceding Mamata Banerjee’s demand for a rollback, the government today announced postponement of a decision until the Prime Minister returns from Mumbai after recovering from his knee operation.

Atal Behari Vajpayee phoned Mamata, who has resigned in protest at the petroleum price, and asked her to resume ministerial responsibility and not press for a rollback.

The decision was announced by parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan said after a Cabinet meeting.

It could take between two and three weeks from now for the Prime Minister to return after his operation in Mumbai and give the price hike the promised “second look”. The timetable certainly does not meet Mamata’s expectation of a rollback announcement after a Cabinet meeting on Friday that was agreed during negotiations with the Prime Minister’s emissary Sudheendra Kulkarni.

Vajpayee found himself isolated in the Cabinet meeting this evening. The entire phalanx of Cabinet heavyweights present in the meeting, including home minister L.K. Advani, finance minister Yashwant Sinha, defence minister George Fernandes, external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, petroleum minister Ram Naik and Mahajan, argued in one voice that “under no circumstances” must the government consider “anything close to a rollback just to satisfy the demands of one ally”.

The meeting decided that at best “minor concessions” could be granted to appease Mamata. Government sources claimed the overwhelming opinion in this evening’s meeting was that if Mamata did not accept the “olive branch” extended by the Centre, she was free to leave the NDA.

“The Prime Minister is prepared to face the eventuality. We value Mamata as an ally, but if she decides to leave it is unfortunate,” said a minister.

“The NDA government does not lose anything because the arithmetic is really in our favour. But Mamata should not forget that it was the Vajpayee factor which helped Chandrababu Naidu to come back to power in Andhra Pradesh. We may not have much of a base in West Bengal, but with the impending polls it is not good for her to part ways with Vajpayeeji because he still has a public image and credibility unmatched by any other political leader,” he added in what sounded like a veiled threat to Mamata.

The sources said that if Mamata withdrew her resignation and decided to stay on in the NDA, Vajpayee was willing to make a “few concessions here and there”.

“It may be reducing LPG by about Rs 5 and kerosene by 50 paise. Nothing more than this.”

The Cabinet meeting also took note of the “hamhanded” manner in which the “peace talks” were conducted with Mamata through Kulkarni. “There was too much of a panic reaction,” said a minister. Kulkarni’s “peace package” for Mamata not only included the promise of a rollback but also the offer of an additional Cabinet post to Trinamul and upgradation of Ajit Panja’s status.

“It is a bad precedent, because it will open up a Pandora’s box of endless demands. What is to stop the Shiv Sena from making impossible demands?” asked sources.

Stressing that any form of rollback, including a partial one “of the kind Kulkarni had offered”, was a “very big thing”, government sources ruled out holding a Cabinet meeting on October 6 to reconsider the price hike, as Kulkarni had reportedly promised Mamata.

BJP sources said the decision to talk tough with Mamata was prompted by the realisation that it was “impossible” for any government to function if small entities like Trinamul “blackmailed” it for “pure political considerations”.    

Calcutta, Oct. 4: 
Mamata Banerjee put her party on notice on an immiment pullout from National Democratic Alliance after the government announced in Delhi deferment of a decision on her demand for a petroleum price rollback.

She told her party colleagues that the Prime Minister could have declared a token 5 per cent cutback in the increases announced in the prices of petrol, diesel, cooking gas and kerosene before going to Mumbai for a knee operation.

Mamata, who resigned from the Cabinet demanding a rollback, kept her threat of withdrawing from the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led coalition in abeyance yesterday after marathon meetings with the Prime Minister’s emissary Sudheendra Kulkarni.

It was decided yesterday that the Cabinet would meet on October 6 with the rollback on its agenda. Mamata had expected an announcement on softening the price hike after that meeting, which she had decided not to attend.

But today’s statement by government has belied that expectation. Mamata’s associates are now questioning the sincerity of the promises made by Kulkarni yesterday.

They believe that Kulkarni went back and briefed the Prime Minister and other decision-makers in government in such a way as to provoke the Cabinet committee on economic affairs to take up the issue of rollback, which was not on agenda, and force the decision on postponement.

After the Delhi announcement that Vajpayee is leaving for Mumbai without taking a decision, Mamata held a meeting with her colleagues and told them that until the rollback demand is settled she will not attend any NDA meeting.

She has still left the door open for negotiations by saying that she would wait for the Cabinet meeting on Friday before deciding on snapping ties with the NDA. Mamata has chosen to wait till then since, according to her, Kulkarni had given her an assurance.

But, after today’s developments, the meeting seems to have lost all relevance.

Trinamul Congress sources said Mamata had spoken to Andhra chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, often her fellow traveller in the NDA, when she visited Hyderabad recently about the oil price increase.

Until yesterday she was alone among the BJP allies to demand a rollback. Trinamul sources said a call had come from Hyderabad yesterday, but would not confirm if Naidu spoke to Mamata. They might have spoken to each other today, too.

The Telugu Desam politburo met on Tuesday and decided to not only echo Mamata’s demand but went a step farther. It pressed for a complete rollback of the prices of kerosene and cooking gas. The party will take up the matter at the October 6 Cabinet meeting. Unlike Mamata, however, the Telugu Desam did not issue an ultimatum.

The politburo decision was a complete turnaround from Naidu’s reaction to Mamata’s resignation on Saturday when he described it as a “routine antic” and said the price hike was an economic necessity. Naidu’s demand for a total rollback found support from Jyoti Basu today who said his party too would pursue the same objective. “I think Naidu has taken the correct stand,” he said. Basu again dubbed Mamata’s resignation “play-acting”. “It will not help,” he added.    

Guwahati, Oct. 4: 
Suspected United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) militants today gunned down a circle inspector and his wife at Sarubrokhaloi, in Karbi Anglong district. A group of nearly 10 UPDS militants ambushed the vehicle in which circle inspector of Hamren circle Khanin Chandra Buragohain and his wife were travelling.    

New Delhi, Oct. 4: 
Once on its way to the junkyard, the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov is on its way to India, having sailed through troubled waters.

In a finely-packaged deal which includes 310 T-90 battle tanks and the licensed production of 140 SU-30 MKI fighter jets, Moscow finally succeeded in clinching the pact on the Gorshkov, which had been put up for sale as scrap in 1996 after its engine room was severely damaged in a fire.

The entire defence deal is estimated at over $3 billion.

Gorshkov was to be initially sold to India for $200 million, but an agreement was later reached to hand over the carrier free. However, the rider was that the vessel will go through a retrofit in Russia at an estimated cost $600 million. The second catch was that the aircraft complement to go with the Gorshkov will have to be developed by a Russian company, MiG-MAPO, whose original team of designers has left.

It was not clear, however, whether the Russians laid down these conditions in the deal closed today. Details of the agreement, signed by defence minister George Fernandes and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, were not known.

A defence official only said that Russia would submit a project report, on the basis of which India will take an investment decision.

Moscow has agreed to “fully refit and modernise” the carrier which will be handed over to Delhi only after its officials are satisfied. It will also have a fleet of MiG-29Ns along with Sea-Harriers, Sea-Kings, K-31 and K-29 helicopters.

Agency reports quoting top naval sources said that Moscow has promised to deliver the Gorshkov within 28 months. Naval personnel would be sent to Russia for training on the ship within the next 12 months.

The agreement on the Gorshkov is a blow to the opponents of the deal. The transfer of the vessel is expected to fetch a few billions of dollars for Russia, which is starved of foreign exchange.

Among those who have questioned the vessel’s viability is Madan Lal Khurana, who was recently rehabilitated as BJP vice-president. He had lodged a strong complaint on the proposed purchase with the Prime Minister’s Office earlier this year.

Khurana, who claimed he had “sensitive information from highly placed sources”, believes the purchase of the carrier would “make the country poorer by $4 billion”. He had pointed out that the air force was not too happy with the MiG-29s, whose engine, he said, required frequent overhauls.

Defence officials, however, argued that the Gorshkov will help fill the void created by the decommissioning of the INS Vikrant three years ago. The navy now has only one carrier, INS Viraat.

Apart from the defence deal, the two sides also agreed to set up a ministerial-level joint commission on defence and technical cooperation to give impetus to the Strategic Partnership signed yesterday.

Describing today’s deal as a “complete package”, a defence spokesman said the acquisitions of the T-90 tanks and the SU-30 jets would give a boost to the country’s strike capabilities. The spokesman added that of the 320 tanks, 150 would be purchased outright and the rest would be assembled in India under licence. The first of these tanks will be delivered within the next few months.

The Sukhoi contract involved the transfer of licence and technology for the fighter jets at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.    



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