Advani takes Lahore II to Wagah
UP setback, not shock, for BJP
Atal taps business for reform balm
Mumbai port in China folly
For talks & Ramzan, Valley looks to Pak
Calcutta Weather

Wagah, Nov. 26: 
Acting as Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s emissary, L.K. Advani today indicated that the government was prepared to talk to Pakistan if “all goes well” during the Ramzan ceasefire.

The home minister chose to throw hints of improving relations with Islamabad at this border checkpost on the Grand Trunk Road, which is barely 50 km from Lahore, and from where Vajpayee had undertaken the famous bus journey last year to herald the first peace initiative by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government.

Advani opened the gallery for viewers who watch the evening retreat at the checkpost, the sub-continent’s Checkpoint Charlie.

As he spoke on the Lahore peace initiative, it was obvious what agenda the home minister had come here with a day before the beginning of the Ramzan ceasefire.

Attired in the formal bandhgala, Advani said: “Last year from this very gate Vajpayeeji crossed over to Pakistan and went to Lahore. That was a historic initiative. We were prepared to talk, but then Pakistan wanted to resolve problems by other means.’’ He was hinting at Islamabad’s Kargil misadventure.

Later, speaking to reporters on the return flight to Delhi, Advani described the government’s ceasefire offer for the holy month of Ramzan as “Lahore II”.

He said the government “did not rule out the possibility” of extending the ceasefire if militants do not violate it during Ramzan.

Advani indicated that if the ceasefire was “honoured” by Pakistan, “at whose behest the militants act”, the Vajpayee administration would have no hesitation in restarting dialogue at the government-to-government level.

Earlier, before witnessing the retreat at Wagah, the home minister said Pakistan had “failed to seize the advantage which had come about as a result of Lahore. A few days back, the Government of India launched a second initiative, and I expect Pakistan to take advantage so that both countries live in peace and prosperity. I request them to reply to our call for peace”.

Advani, however, said there would be “no tripartite talks” as demanded by some militant groups. His message was heard in stony silence by a crowd that had gathered across the “zero line” that constitutes the border. There were no claps from across the border and it took some time before the statement could sink in among the Indians who had come to view the retreat.

Advani felt that “if Pakistan responds positively” to Indian overtures, it “would be a tacit admission that in the last 10 years it had been fuelling terrorism in Kashmir”.    

New Delhi & Calcutta, Nov. 26: 
Early results of the Uttar Pradesh civic polls indicate that the BJP’s gamble to replace Ram Prakash Gupta with Rajnath Singh as chief minister has paid off only marginally.

Singh has been able to arrest the BJP’s downslide, but he has been unable to retrieve much of the ground that was lost to the Opposition in the last Lok Sabha polls. The Samajwadi Party lived up to its image of a tenacious challenger and touted the result as proof of its growth in urban areas.

The results brought some good tidings for the Congress. Even Samajwadi sources admitted that despite its preoccupation with the organisation polls, the Congress had succeeded in picking up seats. A leader felt that a large section of the minority votes had shifted to the Congress.

But Independents were the biggest surprise, pulling ahead of both the BJP and the Samajwadi in several areas. It will be of little consolation to the BJP that several of the Independents were once supporters of the party. “Our rebel candidate won in Bareilly,” rued Singh, who conceded that his party would have fared better but for the infighting.

Of the 186 results for nagarpalika chairmen, Independents walked away with 170. Out of the 1,150 nagarpalika members declared elected, 666 were Independents, 193 were from the BJP and 126 from the Samajwadi.

Among the nagarpanchayat chairmen elected, Independents had won 66, the BJP 28 and the BSP 20. The BJP won six of the 11 mayoral contests.

The BJP, which draws strength and sustenance from the urban vote, has lost two of the eight corporations it controlled. It conceded Bareilly to the Samajwadi and Gorakhpur to a eunuch who fought as an Independent . The Congress was leading in Kanpur but the result has been withheld for a recount.

Further humiliation was meted out in Lucknow, the Prime Minister’s constituency, which the BJP managed to hang on to by a slender margin. “The writing on the wall is clear,” said Samajwadi spokesman Amar Singh.

“We have won a majority of the corporations in spite of being in the Opposition and the occurrence of large-scale malpractices,” he added.

BJP spokesman J.P. Mathur demurred. “The BJP is ahead of the other parties and the results show that the picture that was painted earlier of us losing heavily has been contradicted.”

Samajwadi sources said the party has proved that it could improve its tally even in urban areas. They attributed this trend to the increasing caste polarisation in urban areas and a backlash against the BJP’s “Brahminical politics”.

“What else do you expect when there is a Brahmin Governor, a Brahmin Speaker, a Brahmin chief secretary, a Brahmin DGP and a Thakur chief minister? It has upset the backward classes and even those who were earlier unwilling to vote for the Samajwadi Party,” said Amar Singh.    

New Delhi, Nov. 26: 
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee today asked corporate India to share the burdens of a government desperately seeking a human face to usher in drastic economic change.

Vajpayee made his appeal at the opening of the World Economic Forum-hosted India Economic Summit, the largest gathering of Indian and overseas business with interests in the country.

The Prime Minister’s appeal comes ahead of the next burst of reforms that he said “entails difficult decisions”. And the backdrop is the growing unrest cutting across political lines.

Vajpayee expressed his worry that the language of liberalisation did not match the rhetoric of reform because of a growing perception that it only served the interests of the rich and the powerful. Pointing to the protests against the WTO and the World Bank-IMF, Vajpayee feared dissent against economic change was spilling over national boundaries.

“Is it that governments are unable to ensure that the fruits of development percolate to the grassroots? Or, is it that globalisation is increasingly being perceived to be elite-driven, conferring benefits on large corporates while bypassing millions of poor and marginalised people? In India alone the number of such people is nearly 300 million,” he said.

The Prime Minister sought a pledge from industry that it will carry out its obligations. These he outlined in a nine-point charter:

Industry, especially foreign investors, must have a long-term commitment;

As the Companies Act and competition laws are updated, companies must adhere to free and fair competition;

Higher standards of corporate governance;

Companies should invest more in human resources development, in training, retraining and educating employees and their families;

More investments in technology, research and development;

India must be considered a profitable location not merely for outsourcing of infotech services but also for manufacturing;

Companies must be sensitive to environmental concerns;

The rural sector needs high- quality products to derive the advantages of globalisation;

The corporate sector must help the government provide education and healthcare.

Vajpayee asked the Confederation of Indian Industry, co-host of the summit, if each of its 4,000 member companies and the 300 foreign companies represented at the meet could take charge of at least one primary school and one healthcare centre.

CII vice-president Sanjeev Goenka’s immediate response was to give a firm commitment, though a murmur of dissent was evident. “Next, the government will ask us to build temples,” said a construction magnate.    

New Delhi, Nov. 26: 
Early this month, a Chinese vessel, Chi Van, carrying a 36-member crew dropped anchor near the Mumbai Port Trust docks.

The mission: dredge the Mumbai harbour — home to India’s most sensitive naval base, the Western Command.

The navy and the defence ministry were about to lose a desperate race to block a Chinese floating post at the doorstep of India’s marine defence frontline.

But before Chi Van could get down to business, the defence SOS sneaked past red tape and reached the surface transport ministry which cancelled the dredging contract.

Had naval chief Admiral Sushil Kumar not approached defence minister George Fernandes on time, the dredging contract would have gone to Chi Van’s owner, China Harbour Engineering Company.

The naval authorities pointed out that the contract would have allowed the Chinese to keep an eye on the Western Command, where warships and submarines are berthed. More important, state-owned firms operating out of China are not allowed to keep secrets to themselves.

Investigations by The Telegraph revealed that around May this year, the Union surface transport ministry floated global tenders for dredging. Six foreign companies bid for the project.

The tenders were opened in August and the lowest bid of Rs 46 crore was by the Beijing-based China Harbour Engineering. The contract was given to the company in the third week of September.

However, Indian naval intelligence soon got wind of the contract and alerted the Western Command. The navy tried convincing the surface transport ministry to persuade the port’s board of trustees to reconsider the contract. The force pointed out that never in the past had any Chinese company been awarded contracts for dredging the Mumbai docks.

“Several reminders were given, but they hardly showed any alacrity to even try and understand the risks. They simply insisted that they were bound by the tender liabilities,” a naval source in Mumbai said.

An exasperated Sushil Kumar then approached Fernandes, who had once described China as India’s “potential threat number one”. The minister sent letters to the Indian security establishment to discreetly go into the antecedents of China Harbour Engineering. In early November, the navy chief also directly approached the Intelligence Bureau to provide inputs.

It is learnt that some Chinese officials got in touch with top officers at the naval headquarters in Delhi so that paper work and other clearances for the contract were quickly taken care of. However, by then the Indian security agencies recommended that the contract be cancelled purely from the point of view of national security.

Once the contract was cancelled, a Chinese diplomat made enquiries at the ministry of external affairs about the circumstances under which China Harbour Engineering was denied the job. The ministry is learnt to have cited “national security” reasons.    

Srinagar, Nov. 26: 
New Delhi may be rife anew with talk of dialogue to untie the Kashmir knot but Srinagar is still posing a few old questions: Who with? And what about?

This summer’s effort with the Hizb-ul Mujahideen lies in a shambles and the winter initiative has been left rather cold. And, as Kashmir turns from one hopeless season to another, expectation fades into cynicism.

“Why do they keep talking about talks when they are still fighting about what they should or should not talk about?” asked an elderly Kashmiri on the flight in from Delhi. “The involved parties are shadowboxing, Kashmiris are getting hurt.”

So far, no credible Kashmiri leader or group has responded in a way that could remotely be construed as a breakthrough. The signs, if anything, are of continuing breakdown, of sabotage: five killed after sectarian segregation on the Jammu-Srinagar highway a day after the ceasefire call, another five killed after sectarian segregation in Kishtwar days later.

The routine Kashmir killings — the daily tally that goes into the single-columns of newspapers — are, of course, routine killings. They have been taking their routine course. The highway incident and the murders in Kishtwar were a specific response. It is as if they had heard the peace call and raised an alarm. “The phrase in the old days was that they bayonet peace in the cradle,” the elderly Kashmiri on the flight said. “In Kashmir today, peace is aborted simultaneously with conception.”

On the eve of Ramzan and a whole week after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s new initiative, the government is still waiting for an interlocutor across the table. Unilateral ceasefire has thrown up but one prospect — the futile prospect of unilateral talks.

Nobody is ready to talk. Or, if some are, they have been duly warned and muzzled. Faint hints that elements in the Hurriyat Conference may be ready to open the door for talks have drawn immediate fire from Pakistan-based militants.

In a no-nonsense statement issued today, Masood Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammed said any political group “showing readiness to talk” with the government of India will face “serious consequences”.

The statement was shrill in cautioning those that might go for the new initiative. “Those who are appreciating New Delhi’s move have already been rejected by the people of Kashmir … the move (for ceasefire and consequent talks) has already been rejected by the militant groups.”

Other groups that are slightly more careful about the global and diplomatic implications of turning down talks than the feisty-fiery Masood Azhar have chosen a more insidious exit. They have mined their conditions and presented a path more and more impossible for New Delhi to tread on.

The Hizb, for instance, is not only talking of unconditional tripartite talks now, they are talking of a general amnesty and the withdrawal of all Indian troops into barracks before negotiations can be contemplated. New Delhi had found —- and still does —- the first two conditions unacceptable, chance would be a fine thing if it considers accommodating the new demands.

The Hizb, the one militant group Delhi is keen to bring round, may not have rejected the ceasefire initiative on paper but it has done so on the ground. It has swatted away talks, wielding improbable conditions and it is not joining the ceasefire. In the process, it has also straightened the confusion of the Hurriyat Conference whose befuddled antennae forever look Pakistan-wards for direction.

No matter what this or that Hurriyat leader may say individually, the organisation is strictly hands-off on the ceasefire, if only for fear that even so much as approaching the subject may earn it the terrible wrath of militants.

As one Hurriyat sympathiser put it: “The Hurriyat leaders are a confused and insecure lot. They themselves do not know who among them is reporting to the militants or to people in Pakistan, who really calls the shots.”

Indeed, who really does call the shots is slightly more evident tonight in Srinagar than on some other occasions. The opening of Ramzan — the sighting of the sickle moon and the offering of the first “tarraveh” (Ramzan’s special prayer) — is eagerly awaited in the Valley.

But the onset of the unilateral ceasefire is only a small reason for this collective anticipation; the essential reasons are older and deeper and have to do with faith and culture. But as they wait for the heralding of Ramzan, Kashmiris are looking not towards the Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid — the latest in a long line of failed peace impresarios —- but to Imams across the western border.

All of India may commence Ramzan on the Delhi Imam’s call but for Kashmiris the Ramzan will begin when it begins in Pakistan. Of the ceasefire, they say, it may never really begin.    



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