Onus on Sonia as CM race sizzles
Mandarins in scramble for Mansingh slot
Pranab jolt to Priya
Gizmos tumble out after snap jail raid
Kidnapper-tantrik in reel replay
Naidu for allies’ platform
BJP calls meet on Uttaranchal
Atal nears date with rollback decision
Charges fly on planter death
Beeline for quacks in AIDS drive

Raipur, Oct. 29: 
At the stroke of another midnight, India will write history. Sixteen out of 60 districts of Madhya Pradesh will bifurcate on the midnight of October 31 to become Chhattisgarh.

As the clock ticks on, the final lap of the race for chief minister of the new state is gathering momentum. Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh will arrive later this evening with an AICC observers’ team accompanied by the party’s general secretary for Madhya Pradesh affairs, Prabha Rau.

With too many claimants for the post of chief minister, a closed-door meeting has been arranged for tomorrow when all 48 Congress MLAs will be summoned one by one by the team. Each MLA will be asked to specify his choice of chief minister. The observers will note down their preferences and the number of MLAs each aspirant has with him.

The list will be sent to Congress president Sonia Gandhi who will then take the final decision. If a candidate has an overwhelming majority, he becomes the chief minister instantly. But that might be a distant possibility. If two or more aspirants have the same number of MLAs, factors like closeness to the high command might become significant.

However, the party till now is silent about who will figure in the observers’ team.

Chhattisgarh will have a total of 90 legislative seats, 48 of which belong to the Congress, giving the party a safe majority to form the government.

Trouble might arise if veteran party leaders running for chief minister, especially V.C. Shukla, raise any objection. Shukla is the only person among those asking for the post, who has been demanding Chhattisgarh.

He launched the only mass movement for the new state two years ago and called it the Chhattisgarh Rajya Sangharsh Morcha. On July 25, hardly a week before the Chhattisgarh Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, Shukla along with 16 of the 48 MLAs held a dharna in front of Parliament.

Through his demonstration, Shukla, a former Union minister, proved that he had the support of 16 MLAs. He is not close to the high command but claims to have control over a dozen MLAs.

But, Shukla does not see eye to eye with his elder brother, Shyama Charan Shukla, thrice chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. Both are in the fray for the chief minister’s post but neither is ready to step down.

Party spokesman Ajit Jogi is in the forefront and Sonia is expected to announce his name shortly as Chhattisgarh chief minister. Jogi is asking for the post on the grounds that he is a tribal and he was born in Chhattisgarh. The new state has a predominant tribal population.

Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes comprise 73 per cent of the state’s population. Right now, Jogi is fighting against some of Digvijay’s Cabinet members who have become big names overnight. Among them are his jail minister Mahendra Karma, also a tribal, state home minister Nand Kumar Patel, Digvijay’s former home minister Charan Das Mahant, ministers Satya Narayan Sharma, Ravindra Choubey and Rajendra Shukla.

The least vocal of them is twice chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and party treasurer Motilal Vora. He is counting on his “good, harmless man image” and his closeness to the high command.

But Vora failed to get elected from Chhattisgarh during the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. His son, too, lost the 1998 Assembly elections from his home ground in Durg. Vora will find it hard to prove that he is acceptable to the masses.    

New Delhi, Oct. 29: 
It’s a race most senior Indian diplomats run every two or three years. The prize: the foreign secretary’s chair.

Though foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh’s tenure ends on March 31, 2000, many of the 20-odd participants in the race are already vying for pole position.

There is speculation about Mansingh’s tenure being extended by a year. This, however, seems unlikely as the government will find it difficult to justify the decision and deny other deserving candidates the chance of occupying the slot.

Raising the retirement age from 58 to 60 years has already caused heartburn as it has delayed the promotions of many officials. If the government adds to this by giving an extension to the foreign secretary, it will lead to further disenchantment.

Rumours are rife that India’s ambassador to Paris Kanwal Sibal, who is being brought back to take over as secretary (east) from K.V. Rajen in March, may make it to the foreign secretary’s post. If this happens, Sibal will occupy the top post for two-and-a-half years as he retires only in November 2003. This, sceptics feel, is too long a term. This will also mean that the government will have to ignore the claims of the 1964 and 1965 batches as Sibal belongs to the 1966 batch of the IFS.

The possibility, therefore, of someone being brought in from outside in the interim is not being ruled out. The seniormost from the batch after Mansingh is ambassador to Nepal Deb Mukherjee. His chances, however, seem remote as he is due to retire in November 2001 and will have only seven months as foreign secretary unless given an extension.

The next in line is Chokila Iyer, India’s ambassador to Ireland. There are many factors in her favour. She may become India’s first lady foreign secretary. That she is a tribal only boosts her chances. Moreover, she retires only in June 2002 and will get at least 15 months as foreign secretary. However, it remains to be seen whether the government will take this big step, seen by many as a “politically correct”.

The chances of two others from the same batch — secretary (economic relations) S.T. Deware and S.K. Lamba — seem remote as both are due to retire in the middle of next year.

The topper of the 1965 IFS batch is Rajnikant Verma, the ambassador to Canada. But he has recently been appointed ambassador to Thailand, indicating that the powers that be may have some reservations about bringing him to headquarters and preparing him for the foreign secretary’s post, though he retires only in July 2002.

Siddharta Singh, the next in line, is now in Italy as the ambassador and he, too, will have nearly a year left in service after the foreign secretary’s post falls vacant.

Foreign Service Institute dean Dalip Mehta is considered by many to be a dark horse. Also from the 1965 batch, Mehta is non controversial and retires only in June 2002. The name of Nigam Prakash, ambassador to Argentina, who retires two months after Mehta, is also doing the rounds.

R.S. Kalha, secretary (west) and Satish Chandra, currently in the National Security Council, are close to the Prime Minister’s principal secretary and national security adviser Brajesh Mishra. Both have till February 2002 in the service and fancy their chances of making it to the top with the backing of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Yogesh Mohan Tiwari, of the 1966 batch, currently India’s ambassador to Vienna. But there has been a controversy over the manner in which he has been running the mission in Austria. It remains to be seen whether Tiwari, who is to move as ambassador to Cairo, can bring himself back in the race.    

Calcutta, Oct. 29: 
Pranab Mukherjee has been elected West Bengal Congress president unopposed with no other party member filing nomination for the key post. Former PCC chief Somen Mitra proposed Mukherjee’s name.

Mukherjee’s election appears to have come as a setback to former state working president and chief whip of the legislature party in Lok Sabha, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, and his associates who have been trying to monopolise the electoral process since the beginning.

Congress sources said Das Munshi and two of his loyalist, MLAs Sougata Roy and Tapas Roy, had worked to get district returning officers appointed according to their choices in almost all districts, including South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas, Burdwan, Nadia, Murshidabad and Malda — in a bid to scuttle Mukherjee’s prospects.

Das Munshi is said to have some staunch followers in all six districts. He is also learnt to have written a letter to the district presidents in this regard and forwarded a copy to AICC observer for Bengal, Nagendra Jha. But he failed due to stiff opposition from the Somen Mitra camp.

Das Munshi loyalists admitted today that they were unhappy with the way district returning officers were appointed to conduct the organisational elections without consulting them.

The PCC has drawn up a 450-member electoral college for constituting the party executive committee. PCC leader Pradip Bhattacharya today said all 450 members will now elect the 41-member PCC executive, the core decision-making body at the state level.

“This time, the PCC executive will be a smaller one to make it more effective,” Bhattacharya said.    

Patna, Oct. 29: 
It was not skeletons, but hi-tech goods, weapons and narcotics that tumbled out of Beur jail today when the district administration conducted a raid.

The VIP jail, home to former ministers and mafia dons-turned-people’s representatives, has often been in the news because of the nefarious activities that go on inside. The last of such incidents was the smuggling of minor boys into a VIP inmate’s cell for “immoral purposes”.

RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav used to call the VIP jail “my fort” as he used to run the state from there during his incarceration. Laloo returned to the jail in May, after being chargesheeted in a disproportionate income case.

District police officers who conducted the raid found the VIP jail to be more like a guest house with all amenities.

Around 9 am, when the police began search operations, they took the inmates, including former road construction minister Illiyas Hussain who was arrested in connection with the multi-crore bitumen scam, by surprise. As the inmates were unable to hide the fancy goods, a mountain of home appliances had been collected by 1.30 pm.

Hussain’s cell was equipped with a 3 kv generator set, a Symphony cooler, a TV with cable connection, cooking gas, table fan, music system and mobile phone. “The minister was enjoying the best of everything even in captivity,” said a member of the raiding party.

Ever since Hussain was lodged in the jail, his supporters have been inciting violence and also smuggling in goods.

Three dons — Suraj Bhan, Rama Singh and Rajen Tiwari — who were brought to the jail after the March poll, came with expensive amenities. All three have now been shifted to the medical unit of the jail adjacent to Patna Medical College.

The raiding party was in for more surprises. Dreaded criminals confined in the jail were getting information about the police through radio and co-ordinating the movement of their people through mobile phones. The police seized at least 45 radios and four mobile phones from the jail.

“This is the most nefarious side of the gangsters’ operation from jail. In other cells, where the undertrials aided by their seniors in jail could bring in music systems, it was a rollicking scene to watch,” said an officer.

In ward 2, some inmates were dancing to the blaring sound of a popular Hindi number while others watched from outside.

In other cells, the inmates were glued to TV sets, watching the latest blockbusters through a cable network. Some of then were tense after watching on TV scenes that resembled ones involving them in real life. The police seized 75 TV sets. Ganja packets were also recovered from various groups of inmates. The total haul was 1 kg.

“There is a class system in the jail. The poorest of the inmates were satisfied with the stoves and coal-filled cookers they could smuggle in,” one officer said. In the cells of the more affluent inmates, there were table fans and ceiling fans.

Many of the poorer inmates also carry Rampuri knives to defend themselves against the abuse they are subjected to.

This is the fourth raid in three months in Beur jail but, according to the officers, it is the first time that there was such a huge haul.

“I was getting information that inmates with powerful connections were ruling the roost in the jail and running the administration. So I decided to conduct a surprise raid,” said Patna district magistrate Amit Khare.    

Patna, Oct. 29: 
In a replay of the Bollywood film Sangharsh in real life, a tantrik has kidnapped a woman and her eight-year-old son to sacrifice them.

Policemen from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have been raiding tantrik dens to rescue the mother and child allegedly abducted by Laldev Kushwaha from a village in Moradabad.

Thirty-five-year-old Sumitra was last seen going to the tailor in Majhola village on October 23. Her son Omprakash did not return home from school that day. Sumitra’s husband Amar Singh is afraid Kushwaha might kill the two anytime “since he had announced to his disciples that he would have to sacrifice a child to enhance his tantrik powers”.

Singh went to the police on October 25 after searching for his wife and son for two days. Accompanied by three policemen from Uttar Pradesh, he arrived in Bihar to look for the tantrik who was originally a resident of Muzaffarpur. Kushwaha had gone to Moradabad five years ago as a migrant labourer but ended up joining a tantrik gang. He severed ties with his family and set up his own ashram.

“He told some villagers he would make a sacrifice soon. My wife became a target after she called him for conducting a puja at home,” Singh said. He added that before Kushwaha moved to the ashram, the tantrik was his tenant, paying Rs 300 a month.

A team of police officers from Muzaffarpur, led by M.P. Mehta, raided Kushwaha’s village this morning and interrogated his relatives but did not find any clues. Police are now trying to find out if there are any tantrik dens on the route from Moradabad to Muzaffarpur.

Minister close shave

Bihar higher education minister Shaba Ahmad escaped unhurt when supporters of two rival groups started firing during a football match in Pokhadia village today, reports PTI.    

Hyderabad, Oct. 29: 
Chandrababu Naidu, the BJP-led government’s most powerful ally, today suggested a platform to bring together partners of the Central coalition and those supporting it from outside but stopped short of endorsing a proposal for a federal front.

The federal front was mooted by the Shiv Sena, whose chief Bal Thackeray had recently held talks with Naidu’s lieutenant Yerran Naidu. But the Andhra Pradesh chief minister said there was no immediate need for such a bloc. Instead, Naidu preferred a co-ordinating committee on the lines of the one during the United Front’s rule.

Naidu also sought to downplay suggestions that his bargaining power would have increased if his party had joined the Central ministry. “I am breaking my head for an international airport for Hyderabad. What is the guarantee that I will get it if I join the government?” he asked. The chief minister also scoffed at efforts to revive the third front, saying there was no need for it now.

Naidu’s comments coincided with a sharp rebuke from his erstwhile ally and former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda. Gowda, who addressed a press conference here along with another former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, dubbed Naidu “spineless” for not condemning the increase in petrol and diesel prices.    

New Delhi, Oct. 29: 
As K.C. Pant, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, emerged front-runner for chief minister of Uttaranchal, the BJP has summoned elected representatives from the hill state for talks on Tuesday.

BJP sources indicated both the Prime Minister and home minister are said to be in favour of naming Pant the first chief minister of Uttaranchal, which will come into being on November 9.

A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani have already conveyed their preference and are not likely to take part at the meeting called by BJP president Bangaru Laxman.

Asked how the claims of Pant, a former Congressman who joined the BJP two years ago were stronger than those rooted in the party from the beginning, a BJP source said: “Recent trends in our party show it is a qualification to be a non-RSS, non-BJP person. It is a case of baahar ka batua murgi barabar (spinach from the market seems tastier than a fowl killed at home) and is most unfortunate.”

But two MPs — B.C. Khanduri, BJP chief whip in the Lok Sabha; and Bachchi Singh Rawat — have also reportedly thrown their hats in the ring.    

New Delhi, Oct. 29: 
The Centre is likely to take a decision on whether to roll back the increase in oil prices by Tuesday even as petroleum minister Ram Naik remained ambiguous on the issue.

Railway minister Mamata Banerjee, who had withdrawn her resignation over the issue after a written assurance from Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, has been keeping a low profile because of his knee surgery.

Now that Vajpayee has recovered, a Cabinet meeting may be convened either on Monday or Tuesday.

Dr Chittaranjan Ranawat, who operated on the Prime Minister, examined him today and found the progress satisfactory. Ranawat, who arrived here this afternoon from New York on his way to Jaipur to attend a conference, was with Vajpayee for over an hour.

Mamata had called on Vajpayee at Breach Candy hospital on October 19. She subsequently told reporters that she was hopeful that the Prime Minister would honour his commitment for a rollback.

Vajpayee had said he would have a “relook” at the hike depending on the international situation. But neither Naik nor Union finance minister Yashwant Sinha has hinted at a price reduction. Naik’s position has become more problematic because of the turmoil in global oil prices in the wake of the West Asian clashes.

Vajpayee is expected to discuss the matter with a group of ministers before taking a decision. But a senior BJP leader, who did not want to call it a “rollback”, said some “minor adjustments” could be made as a face-saver for Mamata.

There are also suggestions from both BJP and Trinamul circles that if Mamata is allowed to present a populist rail budget without a hike in the passenger fares and freight charges in an election year, she might slightly relent on the rollback.

According to a source close to Mamata, Jyoti Basu’s sudden decision to step down as chief minister has rekindled Trinamul hopes that the Centre will now go all out to woo her to cash in on the post-Basu electoral scene in Bengal.    

Siliguri, Oct. 29: 
A day after the state government announced tighter security to curb militant activities in north Bengal, suspected militants on Saturday gunned down CPM leader Dipenkar Ghosh near Phasidewa in Siliguri sub-division.

Ghosh (45), an additional public prosecutor and planter, was a resident of Shivmandir near Bagdogra. He was killed by two bicycle-borne militants on his way back home from his tea garden.

This incident comes six days after suspected Kamtapuri rebels abducted Om Prakash Agarwal and shot his teenage son Gopal at Rangdhamali in Jalpaiguri last Sunday. Agarwal is still untraced.

The CPM, who blames the Kamtapuris for the killing, has called a 12-hour Siliguri sub-division bandh tomorrow and demanded immediate arrest of the killers.

Though the local police and the ruling Left Front blame the Kamtapur People’s Party (KPP), they have no concrete evidence of the organisation’s involvement.

Sanjay Chander, Darjeeling SP, told The Telegraph that the Kamtapuris were the prime suspects in Saturday’s killing, but there was no concrete evidence of the militant Kamtapur Liberation Organisation’s (KLO) involvement.

“We are yet to get any specific leads as to who are involved in Ghosh’s killing. But the modus operandi strikes us as similar to those in the recent past. Just as in the last two killings in neighbouring Jalpaiguri when two teachers were gunned down at Dupguri and Dhaksin Maulani on August 17 and the recent abduction and killing at Rangdhamali last Sunday, the miscreants used two-wheelers. The fire-power too suggests that sophisticated weapons were used in all the three incidents.

These acts were to create and spread panic. Ghosh was shot five times in his chest and stomach. The killer had no other intention but bump him off,” he said.

Ghosh had, over the years, acquired a 10-acre tea garden. He was also CPM Matigara general committee member.

The KPP alleged that Ghosh, who began as a modest lawyer, had amassed substantial wealth through his CPM connections. His assets include several multi-storied buildings at Shivmandir, forest plantations, tea plantations and vehicles and even 25 acres of paddy field near Shivmandir.

Ghosh’s involvement in real estate promotion should also be looked into, KPP leaders said. With land prices skyrocketing in Shivmandir, a Siliguri suburb, he was trying to promote his plot by constructing an illegal approach road, they alleged.

Refuting the CPM allegation, KPP president Atul Roy said that whenever there was any criminal act, it was attributed to the Kamtapuris. “Why don’t the police or the CPM come out with names of suspected activists they allege to be behind these acts and arrest them?” the KPP chief asked.    

Surat, Oct. 29: 
Surat quacks are suddenly in demand, and not just by the poor and the ignorant. Navsarjan, a city-based NGO, plans to involve them in AIDS awareness programmes in the slums.

Under the project, which started in 1998 with funds from a British agency, Navsarjan health workers disseminate information about sexually-transmitted diseases (STD) in 18 slums of the city. As slumdwellers patronise quacks in search of low-cost healthcare, the NGO is seeking to tap them.

The proposal has evoked mixed reactions. The Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) — a collaborator in the project — and doctors of the civil hospital have given Navsarjan the go-ahead, but many medical professionals have opposed the idea.

Navsarjan director Father Vincent feels that the doctors critical of the project could have a vested interest in opposing it. He argues that “uncertified practitioners” can help spread awareness about AIDS, HIV and STD in the slums because “they already have some credibility among slum dwellers”.

“They will be our contact men, as they are in regular touch with slum dwellers and the migrant population,” he says.

Navsarjan has already set up outlets at various clinics of the quacks for free distribution of contraceptives. For the only city in Gujarat that has clearly defined red light areas, such measures are immediately needed, say doctors working among sex workers.

SMC deputy commissioner (health and hospital) I. C. Patel says he has no objection to using quacks as counsellors as long as “they work with the NGOs already active in the slums”.

Dr Pushpa Gupta, a government employee, also feels that trained and educated quacks can be helpful in doing this job.    


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