Three-year twin terms for Rao
To lean or not to lean on a cane
Succession wound bleeds
Jumbo gang in dacoity rerun
Price punch behind bash bluster
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Oct. 12: 
The special trial court in the JMM bribery case sentenced former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and his erstwhile Cabinet colleague Buta Singh to two three-year rigorous imprisonment terms for two offences. Both sentences will run concurrently.

However, the sentences have been suspended till November 8 and the convicts granted bail to allow them to file appeals against the verdict in Delhi High Court.

Additional sessions and district judge Ajit Bharihoke said in an 18-page judgment that bribing MPs to get their votes amounted to “subverting democracy” and “in my opinion the circumstances pointed out as mitigating on behalf of Narasimha Rao and Buta Singh do not call for a lenient view” or probation.

Referring to the “crime” of bribing MPs during a confidence or no-confidence vote, the judge said: “By its very nature it amounts to cutting at the roots of democratic system provided by the Constitution of India.”

Rao and Singh were earlier convicted for bribing four JMM MPs to get their votes during the no-confidence motion in July 1993 against the then Rao-led Congress government.

The judge also imposed a fine of Rs 1 lakh for each offence, amounting to Rs 2 lakh for each. He said failure to pay the fine would mean rigorous imprisonment for a further period of six months.

In another order relating to the case, the judge directed the CBI to proceed with the case of “unaccounted money” found in the accounts of Suraj Mandal, Shibu Soren and Simon Marandi.

The fourth JMM member, Sailendra Mahato, had turned approver in the case and was pardoned. Mahato’s share of bribe of Rs 50 lakh has been confiscated and given to the public exchequer. Mahato gave an undertaking yesterday that he had no objection to forfeiting his money.

As soon as the operative part of the 18-page judgment was read out in the packed open court room Rao’s counsel R.K. Anand moved the bail application followed by Singh’s counsel.

Granting bail till November 8, the judge ordered Rao and Singh to furnish bail bonds of Rs 2 lakh each and a surety of like amount. Their sons stood as surety.

While seeking probation, 79-year-old Rao listed a plethora of diseases, his old age and service to the nation as Prime Minister during which period he “solved the Assam, Kashmir and Punjab problems”, besides putting the country’s economy back on rails. Buta Singh also listed his “distinguished” service to the nation.

But Bharihoke rejected the arguments for leniency considering the nature of Rao’s and Singh’s offences. He highlighted that “the best way to discourage corruption in public life, particularly in high places, is to award exemplary punishment to high-ranking public servants in order to send a message to society that corruption is not a low return high risk business, but it is really a high-risk business”.

“While deliberating upon the quantum of sentence to be awarded to the convicts, it is necessary to take into consideration the gravity and the nature of offence committed by them. Narasimha Rao and Buta Singh have been convicted for the charge of abetting the acceptance of illegal gratification by JMM MPs as a motive or reward for voting against the no-confidence motion in furtherance of a conspiracy. Aforesaid act of theirs in my view is a crime of grave nature because they have tried to purchase the right to remain in power and rule the country,” the judge said.    

Mumbai, Oct. 12: 
Will he, won’t he? Use a stick, that is.

As Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee spent his third day in his Breach Candy room, speculation started on whether he would have to walk with a cane. And if he does, for how long.

Dr Chittaranjan Ranawat, the New York surgeon who replaced Vajpayee’s arthritic left knee, believes the Prime Minister would do well to use the cane for the rest of his life. “Using a cane is a good thing because it takes a load off your weak knee,” he said.

A senior surgeon at Breach Candy pointed out that walking without a cane will be difficult, at least for some time. “Especially because his other knee is also afflicted with osteoarthritis,” said the doctor, who did not want to be named.

The Prime Minister isn’t saying, though. “He may use it for a few days, but whether he will continue to do so, no one knows at present,” was all that his media adviser Ashok Tandon would say.

For a Prime Minister whose ratings had plummeted after the Red Fort stumble three Independence Days ago, a stick can be more than a walking aid, especially when handling a motley of cantankerous allies.

So believes communications specialist Alyque Padamsee. “A stick can be a support or it can be a cane which can get people to do what you want to do, fast,” he said.

“My advise to the Prime Minister is to carry a lot of carrots and a big stick, a silver one that catches the sunlight and warns slackers that the pradhan mantri is on his way.”

Socialite-writer Shobha De feels a nation which accepts the elderly as Prime Ministers should also be sympathetic to their old age problems. “It is better to lean on a cane than stumble and fall as some Prime Ministers have in the past,” she said.

Not all are willing to give bonus points to a Prime Minister-with-a-stick. “If you run a government that responds with only knee-jerk reactions, you are bound to have problems with the knee,” a public relations expert said.

“Vajpayee carrying a stick is a metaphor for the BJP government which needs the crutch of the Sangh parivar and 23 coalition partners to stand up. The government has limped along, now the head of the government will mirror that limp,” he said.

Franklin Roosevelt, he pointed out, achieved greatness despite his wheelchairs and crutches. “His disability didn’t matter, such was his intellectual depth,” the PR expert added.

Vajpayee’s camp, scampering to gauge the impact of a cane-aided Prime Minister, can take solace in history. Almost all great statesmen had their walking sticks that became a part of the myth surrounding them. Winston Churchill used one, not because of any debilitating disability but because it was part of Edwardian fashion to do so, as did Gandhi and Jinnah.

Bill Clinton, Vajpayee’s new-found friend in the West, too, had to use a cane, for a brief while, following a mishap.    

New Delhi, Oct. 12: 
As the Prime Minister recuperates from surgery on his left knee, a problem in the right one has stirred the beginnings of what many see as a succession battle in the BJP.

A.B. Vajpayee’s spokesmen are at pains to emphasise that no further surgery is being contemplated, but party circles are echoing with speculation on whether he will have a firm grip on the government and party after he returns from Breach Candy.

Home minister L.K. Advani today launched an unprovoked television attack on foreign minister Jaswant Singh on the Kandahar hijack, fuelling theories that one possible successor was in a bid to put down another. Advani is widely regarded as number two — though Vajpayee has not named him—- but Jaswant’s name is also doing the rounds.

In an interview 10 months after the hijack, Advani gunned for Jaswant. “What I do think could have been avoided was a minister travelling with the terrorists to Kandahar. I don’t think he intended it that way, but that is just the way it unfortunately happened,” he said.

As the RSS had been highly critical of the episode, Advani is being seen as lobbying its support in case of a power tussle.

However, Jaswant’s image as a “westernised liberal” and the distance he has kept from the RSS are being considered plus points. The chargesheet against Advani in the Babri masjid demolition could block his emergence as Vajpayee’s “natural successor”.

The succession question was stoked after a television report yesterday said Vajpayee could require another knee surgery in six to eight months. The report both alarmed and demoralised sections of the BJP, who sourced it to Vajpayee’s “detractors” in the party and Sangh.

The sources also alleged Vajpayee’s health had been part of a recent whisper campaign to “undermine” his authority and capacity for “effective” functioning. But Vajpayee’s spokesman Pramod Mahajan scotched the rumours in Mumbai, saying: “There are no plans to operate the Prime Minister’s right knee.”

Some in the BJP blamed Vajpayee’s “media managers” for playing up the surgery. They said that by putting out reports of how the PMO would be shifted to Mumbai, they had fuelled stories that Vajpayee was reluctant to depute responsibility for “reasons best known to him”.

“The whole exercise threatens to be counterproductive. Instead of sending the message that here is a PM in command of things even from the operation theatre, it gives the impression he has shied away from naming a second-in-command,” sources said.

They claimed that Advani had stayed at Breach Candy right through and even addressed the first post-operation press meet with Dr Chittaranjan Ranawat to scotch “unsavoury” speculation. “The media is fond of playing up the so-called Advani-Vajpayee power tussle... Advaniji wanted to answer such speculation.”    

Calcutta, Oct. 12: 
An armed gang of 20 broke into a jeweller’s house early this morning on the southern outskirt of the city and fled with cash and valuables worth Rs 2 lakh.

The robbery took place at Narendrapur, further south of Garia where a similar incident occurred a month ago. A woman was killed in that dacoity while trying to protect her young son.

Around 2 am today, the gang, armed with guns, daggers and choppers, entered the house of Madhusudan Saha after breaking the iron grille gate. Saha’s three son tried to resist the robbers and were mercilessly beaten. Two of them had to be hospitalised.

Saha, owner of a jewellery shop at Sonarpur and a carpet showroom at Sealdah, was tied to a chair while the women of the family were hushed at dagger-point. His nephew was hit on the head with the butt of a dagger and fell unconscious.

Once in control of the situation, the robbers broke open a steel almirah and looted gold ornaments and cash. The operation took 20 minutes and when they were about to flee, family members raised an alarm. By the time neighbours rushed in, the gang had fled.

Soon after, angry residents gheraoed the officer-in-charge of Sonarpur police station, Partha Majumdar, and kept him pinned till late Thursday evening.

Police combed the area throughout day without result.    

New Delhi, Oct. 12: 
On the first anniversary of the BJP’s third government, a Hydra-headed economic monster is piercing through the curtain of foreign policy achievements the party has unfolded before its supporters.

Signs of industrial recession, stock meltdown and a weak monsoon have been joined by forecasts of double-digit inflation returning after a break of almost five years.

Inflation will leap to over 10 per cent if there is no rollback of petroleum prices raised towards the end of last month. That’s a level not seen since 1994-95.

Even if Mamata Banerjee gets the government to cut back oil prices, inflation will rule at a high of 9.1 per cent. At present, the rate is 5.56 per cent based on the wholesale price index.

“On the basis of Mamata’s talks with Vajpayee’s emissaries, we understand the average price increase after the rollback will be 10 per cent. That will mean an inflation rate of 9.1 per cent by December,” says B.B. Bhattacharya, head of the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG), which does economic forecasting for the government.

Petroleum prices were raised by 10-50 per cent (the highest in kerosene), but a rollback, demanded by railway minister Mamata, is expected on Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s return to Delhi after his knee operation.

Bhattacharya admits that the price rise will be far higher if the government does not succumb to rollback pressure.

Economic factors are rallying against the government as it celebrates its first year in power tomorrow.

The leader of the coalition, the BJP, has issued to partymen a list of “talking points” with perceived foreign policy successes as centrepiece.

Ominously for the government, economic adversity has come its way months before at least four, if not five, states go to polls.

The Opposition senses this and the Congress and the Left are working out strategies to use inflation as a battle-cry in the campaigns in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam, where polls are expected early next year. Elections in Uttar Pradesh are scheduled for September, but may be held with the other four states.

The government dismisses with disdain all talk of double-digit inflation. Finance minister Yashwant Sinha has argued that the inflation rate could at best rise by 1 percentage point to about 7 per cent.

The Planning Commission is willing to concede that it might go up to 7.5 per cent. “We know the prices of almost everything will go up but we don’t think it will be more than 1.5 per cent,” said S.P. Gupta, a commission member.

But the Institute of Economic Growth is sticking to its prediction. Bhattacharya says his economic model shows that if the oil price hike is kept at an average of 10 per cent, the inflation rate will be 7.85 per cent in October, 8.56 per cent in November, and climb to 9.1 per cent in December.

“The oil price hike means increase in trucking costs, input costs, food costs, the whole works. And each increase impacts the price of other goods. That means there will be a cascading price increase affecting the whole economy,” says Bhattacharya.

With floods and drought scourging agriculture, food prices, especially of vegetables, are expected to soar.    



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