America fate in army hands
Tata double bid in offers for airline twins
Atal campaign fitness in doubt
Brajesh roots for himself
Calcutta Weather

Washington, Nov. 10: 
In what promises to be an irony of ironies, America’s presidential election may be decided by the US army.

With the recount of votes cast in Florida failing to resolve the deadlock in the marathon for the White House, the outcome of the state’s ballot now hinges on overseas postal votes, which could total more than 2,000. After the final unofficial count in Florida, Republican George W. Bush was leading Democrat Al Gore by 327 votes.

These mail-in ballots are mostly from Floridians serving in US army bases abroad. With the outcome of the voting in Florida too close to call, these votes may provide the key to who occupies the White House in January. Traditionally, these votes have split in favour of Republicans. In 1996, Bob Dole lost the election, but received 54 per cent of the absentee ballots in Florida.

Brushing aside cries of irregularities, Bush declared victory over Gore after the unofficial recount. But Gore campaign chairman William Daley said it was premature to conclude the election was now resolved. “Again we want the true and accurate will of the people to prevail and that means letting the legal system run its course,” he said.

Florida election officials announced that with the recount done in 65 of the 67 counties, Bush had a lead of 960 votes. But the tally did not include Hernando and Palm Beach counties.

Palm Beach was scheduled to begin a second recount tomorrow. Its first found a swing of 643 votes to Gore, which would take the Bush margin down to just over 300 votes. In addition, a court hearing was scheduled for Monday on a lawsuit seeking a repoll in Palm Beach on grounds that the ballot was misleading.

The slender lead was enough for the Bush camp to ask the Democrats to drop legal challenges. “The vote count on Tuesday night showed Governor Bush won Florida’s election and a recount has confirmed his victory,” Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said.

But Gore’s aides refused to give up. “Contrary to claims made by the Bush campaign, the election is not over,” Daley said.

Both Bush and Gore — stuck on 246 and 260 — need the 25 electoral college votes from Florida to reach the majority mark of 270.

The suspense over the final result may not even be broken by votes from soldiers posted overseas, though.

Fresh confusion was created today with the possibility that recounting may be ordered in at least four other states.

In Oregon, the only state other than Florida for which results are unavailable, the gap between Gore and Bush is a mere fraction of one per cent. Unofficial, but final, vote count in Oregon showed Gore with 666,997 votes and Bush with 664,805: the difference between the two candidates is 0.16 per cent.

Oregon, which allowed all voters to use postal ballot in this election, has seven votes in the electoral college. The state’s law requires that if the margin of victory for a candidate is less than one-fifth of one per cent — just under 3,000 votes — a recount has to be ordered.

The Bush campaign said they were considering a request for recounting in Wisconsin, which the Republicans lost by only 6,000 votes.The Republicans were also planning to ask for a recount in Iowa, which Bush lost by 5,000 votes. To secure a recount, Bush will have to write personally to auditors in each of Iowa’s 99 counties by early next week.

In New Mexico, election officials in Bernalillo County said they were unable to tally postal votes and early ballots because of a technical problem. About 37,000 votes are outstanding in this county where the latest gap between Bush and Gore is less than 7,000 votes.

But even without these recounts, the official result from Florida may not be available until the middle of next week. Postal ballots in Florida have to be counted manually and the deadline for finishing is November 17.    

New Delhi & Calcutta, Nov. 10: 
The dogfight in the Indian skies began in real earnest today when six bidders tossed their hats into the ring vying for the 40 per cent stake in Air-India that the government of India has put on the block.

Indian Airlines, the national carrier in which the government is divesting 26 per cent, found only three suitors.

The Tatas, the Hindujas and a British Airways-led consortium that included Qantas of Australia, steel magnate Laxmi Narayan Mittal and Kotak Mahindra, the Mumbai-based merchant banker, expressed their desire to bid for both the airlines.

The Rs 39,695-crore house of Tatas has teamed up with Singapore Airlines to bid for the Air-India stake but by all accounts is going it alone in its bid for Indian Airlines.

Today was the last day for submitting the bids. JM Morgan Stanley and ANZ Investment Bank have been appointed advisers for the Air-India and Indian Airlines selloff respectively.

The others suitors for Air-India include the Delta Airlines-Air France combine, Emirates Airways, and the Indian Pilots’ Guild.

The big surprise was that Reliance Industries and cigarette-to-hotels conglomerate ITC decided to opt out of the race although they had evinced interest in the selloff when the government invited bids in September. In fact, an official from one of the groups quipped, “Hum log hawa mein udna nahin chahate, zamin pe rahena pasand karte hain” (We do not want to soar in the sky; we prefer to have our feet on the ground.)

A Bombay House spokesperson confirmed that preliminary bids — which the government has termed as expression of interest — had been filed for both the airlines. The Tatas said they would bid jointly with Singapore Airlines for Air-India but wanted to go it alone in the case of Indian Airlines. “We may seek a foreign technical collaboration for Indian Airlines at a later stage,” the Bombay House spokesperson said.

The qualification criteria stipulated that the strategic partner for Air-India should have a combined net worth of Rs 1,000 crore or $225 million. The foreign holding in Air-India will be limited to 26 per cent.

The Hindujas intend to route their bid through Ashok Leyland, the Chennai-based truck and bus maker, in order to pass the litmus test in the first round: each bidder must have a minimum net worth of Rs 1,000 crore.

Air-India, which has been racked by losses which touched Rs 89.79 crore in 1999-2000, has 17,690 employees and 23 planes.

Indian Airlines, on the other hand, churned out a net profit of Rs 43 crore in 1999-2000. It has 22,000 employees and 56 planes.

There is a lot of speculation surrounding the bids made by foreign airlines like Delta/Air France and Emirates. Observers say they could be talking to parties like Ashok Leyland.    

New Delhi, Nov. 10: 
The BJP is worried that its star campaigner, Atal Behari Vajpayee, may not be able to canvass in a big way in the Assembly polls due in five states early next year.

But more than the fear that he may not be able to use his fabled oratorical skills in Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, West Bengal, Assam and Kerala — where elections are due in April — it’s the possibility of Vajpayee being grounded during polls in Uttar Pradesh that is giving campaign managers sleepless nights.

The party’s assessment is that polls in the heartland would not be held before April 2002 — which is over a year-and-a-half away.

The BJP’s fears are based on feedback from some partymen who recently met the Prime Minister for the first time after his knee operation and felt that he was “not one-hundred-per-cent okay”.

“The Prime Minister looked outwardly well and even walked down to greet us without any support. But somehow, he seemed less sure of himself and looked philosophical as though he was prepared to accept things as they came without wanting to shape them,” said sources who attended a get-together that Vajpayee hosted for BJP office-bearers last week.

According to them, it was a “general feeling of demoralisation” which inevitably follows a long spell in hospital after a surgery. “We hope he comes out of it soon, otherwise the BJP may be in for some trouble,” they said.

Party sources feel Vajpayee’s presence is not a dire necessity in the polls preceding the Uttar Pradesh elections. “In Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, it is only (DMK chief) M. Karunanidhi who matters and in West Bengal, it is (Trinamul Congress leader) Mamata Banerjee,” they said.

In Kerala, since the BJP’s stakes are not so high, sources said the party could make do with local leaders like O. Rajagopal. Which left only Assam. BJP strategists feel the party has a fighting chance to grab power in the state as the Asom Gana Parishad is reportedly in doldrums. But here too, sources hoped, L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi would be able to save the day.

When it was pointed out that in Lok Sabha polls in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, Vajpayee was a factor in the victory of the regional parties, the sources agreed that his possible absence could prove to be a “drawback” in these states.

“But we hope to partially recompense it by using film stars Gauthami, Vijaya Shanti and Revathi in Tamil Nadu and Sushma Swaraj in West Bengal, because she is a big hit with the urban middle classes,” they added.

One reason why Sushma and Uma Bharti were hurriedly inducted into the Cabinet was the leadership’s fear that they would stay away from campaigning, especially in Uttar Pradesh.    

New Delhi, Nov. 10: 
Till a few weeks ago, Brajesh Mishra was discreetly having it said that he should continue to remain both principal secretary in the PMO and national security adviser for now. Today, he said it himself.

Coming on a day the group of ministers headed by L.K. Advani met to study the Kargil committee recommendations, Mishra’s statement is significant. What he means is that he disagrees with the panel’s suggestion for the immediate appointment of a new national security adviser.

Mishra told a private television channel that it would be better for now if he continued to hold both posts. Claiming he was not making a prescription to suit his cause, he said in other countries too, “both national security and the job of principal secretary require people who are totally trusted by the Prime Minister”.

The BJP was guarded in its response to Mishra’s statement. A party spokesman said: “It will not be right to comment at this stage without having heard the interview or having gone through the entire transcript.”

Mishra, who headed the external affairs cell of the BJP years ago, does not have too many friends left in the party. Even in the top rungs of the bureaucracy, remarks that Mishra had taken it on himself to convey his indispensable status in the government, were doing the rounds.

The RSS, which had once spoken favourably of Mishra, did not agree with him either. Seshadri Chari, editor of the Sangh mouthpiece, The Organiser, said: “There is no doubt that Brajesh Mishra enjoys the complete trust of the Prime Minister. But since the RSS and the BJP believe in the norm of one-man-one-post in the party as well as the government, why should the same principle not apply to important posts in the government? What the Subrahmanyam committee says is very correct in its own way.”

He added that Mishra’s statement that the “post should be given to only trustworthy persons does not form very sound logic.”

In recent months, Mishra has come under attack for neglecting his job as national security adviser. Not only does the National Security Council (NSC) meet very irregularly, there is also an effort on the part of the government to pass off meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) as those of the NSC.

Though key players involved with the CCS are almost the same as those given ex-officio membership in the NSC, the CCS deals with day-to-day issues. The NSC is supposed to concentrate on long-term security, an aspect neglected by Mishra and the government.

Mishra said the country was in the first stages of installing a national security system and that “in my view at this time, it is better for the two jobs to remain with one person but this should not be the ultimate solution. You may come to a point a year or two later when you can separate the two jobs.”

He said the Pokhran tests were conducted as there were threats of war soon after Vajpayee assumed office. But he added that: “Well, actually discussion (on the nuclear policy) took place two weeks or so after the Prime Minister took oath (on March 19, 1998) and we left it at that. Then came the missile, and all the claims from the other side, of a war. And at that point, the Prime Minister said: “OK, let’s go ahead (with the tests).”    



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