She resigns, he rejects, she relents
Mamata gamble to tame officials
Catholic priest shot dead
Signal for ceasefire extension
Board bats for national interest
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Dec. 4: 
Mamata Banerjee resigned for the second time in just over two months only to change her mind faster than she had done on the past occasion.

Less than 24 hours after her resignation as railway minister, Mamata received a written communication from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee rejecting her offer to quit.

Although Vajpayee had told her verbally that there was no need for her to resign owning “moral” responsibility for the train accident at Jivanpura in Punjab on Saturday, sources close to the Trinamul Congress leader said she would like the Prime Minister to put his rejection on record.

“I have declined to accept the resignation of Mamata Banerjee,” the Prime Minister had told reporters at the Navy Day function earlier in the day.

He followed it up with a message that reached Mamata in a television studio. It said: “I realise that the present situation in the railways has arisen because of long years of neglect. The problem will not be solved in your resigning your office. What is required is redoubling your efforts towards reforms and restructuring. I assure you that all such efforts will receive my personal attention and support.”

Sources said the Prime Minister’s camp was not too worried this time, unlike in September when she and ministerial colleague Ajit Panja resigned protesting against the petroleum price hike.

Yet, leaving nothing to chance, Vajpayee despatched his aide Sudheendra Kulkarni to her residence this morning to plead with her. Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan also tried to persuade her to not press for acceptance of the resignation.

Mamata visited the accident site early Sunday morning and a morally indignant railway minister sent her resignation to Vajpayee late in the night through her secretary, Sunil Chaturvedi.

In her letter, Mamata said she had been constantly “soul-searching” since receiving news of the accident. “I reached the conclusion that in order to adequately respond to my conscience, I should resign from the office of the railway minister,” she said.

Mamata said though a minister is not involved in day-to-day operations, as head of the 16 lakh members of the organisation, she could not escape or avoid taking “moral” responsibility.

Talking to reporters later, she justified her resignation. “It is my moral obligation as a human being.” Asked if the Prime Minister had insisted she should stay back, Mamata said: “Till now, I have not received any communication from the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is the captain of his team. I leave it to him.” This was a hint that she would not press him to accept her resignation.

She said: “I am grateful to all political parties, barring one (read CPM, which sought her resignation in the Lok Sabha today) for expressing sympathy with me. A minister does not run (drive) a train. Whenever there is an accident, the minister’s resignation is demanded.”

Asked again if she would insist on quitting, Mamata said: “The Prime Minister is heading the ministry. I do not want to disturb the NDA. I want the government to be stable. It (resignation) is my moral responsibility and it is not going to solve the problem.”

She also contested the suggestion that during her tenure rail mishaps had increased. “Those are not accidents, only small incidents. Even if a bogey derails, we record it accurately,” she said.

Mamata disagreed with a reporter that she spent more time in Bengal than in Rail Bhavan. “You are wrong, I spend maximum time in my ministry,” she snapped.

Immediately after Question Hour in the Lok Sabha, the railway minister made a statement on the accident without giving any hint of her resignation. She said seven railway officials had been asked to proceed on leave to facilitate an “impartial and unbiased” inquiry into the accident.    

New Delhi & Calcutta, Dec. 4: 
By playing out a seemingly incredulous resignation drama, Mamata Banerjee may have wangled what she bargained for: a promise of a free hand to run the railway and tame intransigent bureaucrats.

The letter from the Prime Minister which turned Mamata around carries a pledge to support her “efforts towards reforms and restructuring”. “I assure you that all such efforts will receive my personal attention and support,” Vajpayee said in his fax message.

Mamata focused on the offer of support while hinting at a rethink on her resignation. Mamata told a television channel: “I am going to discuss with the Prime Minister the problems facing railways. I am grateful to him for his assurance to help solve the problems.”

The railway has many problems. But more important, Mamata has problems with a section of the railway bureaucracy, which she feels is orchestrating a campaign against her in the capital.

Mamata’s frost-caked relations with the Railway Board came to the fore at the accident site itself yesterday. She confronted four members of the board, asking them why the preliminary cause report — a document key to fixing responsibility for accidents — was not being made available to her. Railway rules require the divisional manager and general manager to forward the report to the board for action.

When Mamata realised that the report would not be accessible, she consulted other officials, shortlisted five probable causes and sought the board’s views on the list.

Back in Delhi, Mamata went a step further — she picked out seven officers on the basis of the probable causes and ordered them to go on leave.

The accident was the flashpoint, but Mamata and the officials were heading for a collision soon after she occupied the railway minister’s chair.

Like A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chaudhury, one of her predecessors, Mamata is known for handling officials with an iron hand and stepping on many toes. Unlike many of her Cabinet colleagues, Mamata also made it clear at the outset that she did not want to be over-dependent on the bureaucrats at Rail Bhavan.

The gap widened when she insisted that she must be shown almost every file. She also confronted the officials with a fusillade of questions on financial decisions.

The Mamata camp believes that several entrenched quarters within the ministry resented her proactive role. Foremost among them were those who gained directly from the railway’s penchant for placing orders without advertising tenders.

Soon after assuming office, Mamata made it clear that a three-member tender committee would take all vital decisions. She also preferred public sector units to undertake railway jobs. Railway sources said a strong private lobby, with considerable contacts among the bureaucrats, was also cut up with her.

She did not win any friends in the transporters’ lobby either. Her refusal to raise freight cargo for railways had started threatening the transporters’ volume of business.

Mamata was also rankled by a whisper-campaign at Rail Bhavan that she worked for Bengal’s welfare alone.    

Imphal, Dec. 4: 
Unidentified gunmen shot dead a 30-year-old Catholic priest near Sugunu in Manipur’s Thoubal district on Saturday, police said today.

The victim, Shajan Jacob Chittinapilly, was the assistant priest of the St. Joseph’s parish in Sugunu and the third missionary to be killed in Manipur.

Sources said Jacob, who hailed from Kerala, was abducted by two gunmen from the St. Joseph’s School in Sugunu on Saturday. The duo also forced the priest’s driver to accompany them in the school jeep, they added.

Jacob’s body was recovered from Tangjeng, 7 km from Sugunu, early yesterday.

The priest was taken to a paddy field and shot in the head. The gunmen deflated the tyres of the jeep before fleeing, sources said.

According to a statement issued by the Archbishop’s House, members of the Sugunu parish launched a search operation immediately after Jacob’s kidnapping, but in vain.

Jacob’s driver, Khaidem Thoiba, was spared by the assailants. He lost consciousness when he saw Jacob being attacked. When he came to, he found the priest lying in a pool of blood. He immediately went to Sugunu and informed the police.

Sources said a particular militant outfit had demanded Rs 50,000 from St. Joseph’s School sometime ago.

However, the amount was not paid as the Church had earlier decided not to accede to the demands of militants.

Various church organisations today condemned Jacob’s killing.    

New Delhi, Dec. 4: 
As the Prime Minister signalled that the ceasefire could be extended if Pakistan cooperated, a top official in the Vajpayee administration revealed that discussions between Delhi and Islamabad were “continuing” at “more than Track II level”.

The official said that it has been conveyed to the Pakistani authorities through “their representatives” that for the dialogue to resume, the Pervez Musharraf regime has to take “more concrete” steps, backed up by “both deeds and words”.

Vajpayee today said as much as he put the pressure back on Islamabad by saying the truce could be extended beyond Ramzan if it made the right “reciprocal gestures”.

Though the Prime Minister described as “good” Pakistan’s announcement of “maximum restraint” on the Line of Control, he made it clear that further response from Delhi will depend on what steps its neighbour takes to end terror export and infiltration.

“Islamabad’s response has been good but not substantive,” Vajpayee said at the Navy Day reception in the first statement from the government acknowledging Pakistan’s offer as acceptable.

Pakistan was guarded in its response to Vajpayee’s statement, saying an extension of the truce was “welcome” but a “purposeful dialogue” was required to settle the dispute. “Extension of the suspension of military operations... is a welcome half-step,” Pakistan’s foreign minister Abdul Sattar said in Islamabad. “More crucial will be a decision to end repression and embark on the road to peace”.

Foreign minister Jaswant Singh was to have made a statement in Parliament on Pakistan’s offer. He could not because both Houses were adjourned early.

Pakistan today sent another indication of its interest in the ceasefire by asking the All Party Hurriyat Conference to enter into negotiations with Indian authorities. But Delhi preferred to wait and watch.

“Ever since their release some months ago, Hurriyat leaders have been insisting they are prepared to talk to us. But at the moment, it is Pakistan which matters and it has to take steps to stop cross-border terrorism and any kind of support to militant outfits,” sources said.

Most Hurriyat leaders arrived in Delhi after getting the nod from Islamabad. Tight-lipped Hurriyat sources, however, said they are here to attend an iftar hosted by the Pakistan high commission tomorrow.

South Block is wary of Pakistan’s proposal that the Hurriyat hold parallel talks with India and Pakistan. Describing the suggestion as a smart move, foreign ministry officials pointed out that it is another attempt by Islamabad to involve a “third party” in bilateral talks with Delhi.

“It’s the same old agenda of Pakistan’s, but the only thing is it is trying to bring it in through the back door,” a senior official said.

Though there has been no major strike in the state since the ceasefire took effect last Tuesday, the government is not yet prepared to describe the situation as “positive”. “We are going to be very cautious, guarded and careful in our approach because we have learnt lessons from past experiences,” top sources said in a reference to the Kargil intrusions and the massacre of Amarnath pilgrims after the July truce called by the Hizb-ul Mujahideen.    

Ahmedabad, Dec. 4: 
Come tomorrow and India will become the third country, after Pakistan and South Africa, to hand out match-fixing related punishments. An announcement from Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president A.C. Muthiah, on behalf of its disciplinary committee, is expected by early evening.

“Our decision will be in the best interests of Indian cricket,” was all that Muthiah would tell The Telegraph, when contacted in Chennai today.

There will be no change in the announcement-plans, even though one of the three committee members, BCCI vice-president Kamal Morarka, may not attend the body’s sitting in Chennai tomorrow morning. Muthiah himself and another vice-president Ram Prasad complete the committee.

Indications are former captain Mohammed Azharuddin and Ajay Sharma will get the maximum of a life ban, while the punishment to be meted out to Manoj Prabhakar (who quit the game in 1996) and Ajay Jadeja was unclear till late tonight. According to well-placed sources, Jadeja “has to sit out for three years”.

Initially Prabhakar, too, was a candidate for a life ban (largely to pre-empt a mischief-creating comeback announcement) but there appears to have been a re-think. All because of Jadeja: If he is let off lightly, then how can the punishment be severe on Prabhakar?

Nayan Mongia may invite a one-year ban, or could even be let-off with a reprimand, while Kotla groundsman Ram Adhar Choudhury will be cleared. Both were probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and both cleared by BCCI commissioner K. Madhavan.

Despite Madhavan’s clean-chit, Mongia still faces some action as the disciplinary committee is not bound by the commissioner’s report.

Incidentally, late tonight, there was talk that one soft-option before the committee was to punish Azhar (and Sharma) for five years which, in effect, would mean a life ban as their careers would be over. Azhar turns 38 in February, while no one is really too bothered about Sharma. He will be punished only because the BCCI has to act.

Those advocating the soft-option have probably been influenced by Azhar’s top backer, Raj Singh Dungarpur, who has allowed sentiment to relegate everything else to the background.

Of course, it remains to be seen how far this impresses Muthiah, whose stand on cleaning Indian cricket has been consistently firm.

Asked whether he would sleep in peace, tonight, Muthiah laughed and replied: “I should, unless there’s fresh pressure from a new quarter.” The past few days, specially, have seen Muthiah subjected to enormous pressure from different quarters. Certain politicians would head this list.

It’s significant that members of the Indian team, currently here for the second ODI against Zimbabwe tomorrow, are more than just interested in how the BCCI acts.

In fact, captain Sourav Ganguly even casually asked, during a Media conference: “When will the verdict be known?”

Others haven’t gone public with their queries but, nevertheless, are awaiting one of Indian cricket’s most momentous days.    



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