Third front readies for Bofors rerun
Mamata best bet for Cong
Aniruddha on the other side of camera
Smaller heads roll in defence
Jaya refuses to quit
Delhi din music for Laloo
Naidu draws caution lesson
Trinamul rivals see Tehelka trump card
Left leaders die in Kamtapur strike
Health camps to curb school dropouts

New Delhi, March 14: 
Rising from the ashes, the third front parties have decided to launch a People’s Front to strike a death blow at the crisis-ridden Vajpayee government and unleash a movement reminiscent of the Bofors storm that had flattened the Rajiv Gandhi government more than a decade ago.

“Tomorrow we will announce our plans to bring this government to its knees,” Left leaders said. The preparations began this morning when the protagonist of the 1989 drama, V.P. Singh, met up with his “natural allies” — Left stalwarts Jyoti Basu, Harkishen Singh Surjeet and A.B. Bardhan — at the CPM general secretary’s residence.

It was time to build bridges with fellow traveller Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, who attended the meeting along with former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda. Surjeet has spoken to Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Laloo Prasad Yadav in Patna. While MPs were jamming Parliament, their leaders were laying down the outlines of an agitation plan, which includes an all-India protest next Tuesday.

During the Bofors days, V.P. Singh had spawned Jan Morcha that became a political home for all disgruntled Congressmen.

Armed with an issue more ballistic than the Bofors gun, the third front parties once again want to get into the Bofors agitation mode that they hope will be their political mascot.

For the time being, no one in the third front is broaching the sensitive subject of drawing the main Opposition party, the Congress, into the agitation.

At the outset of today’s meeting, Gowda said the third front parties should put the past behind them. Otherwise, making common ground will be extremely difficult. Gowda said barring Left parties, all others have “sinned” and it is better not to rake up old hostilities.

The strategy so far seems to be to stall proceedings in Parliament till the government at least gets rid of tainted defence minister George Fernandes. Outside Parliament, the parties will take to the streets — the focus will be on state capitals.

Tomorrow, at a joint press conference addressed by Jyoti Basu, Singh and Mulayam, the leaders will announce their protest programmes.

“We will proceed step by step,” Left leaders said. The Congress will be kept at an arm’s length outside Parliament, even though inside the House, they will plan their moves together to pin the government down.

The Left leaders have made it clear that Uttar Pradesh is the key state that can make or unmake political parties. “Without Uttar Pradesh, we have no chance of ousting the present government at the Centre. In Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav is the main player against the BJP,” a Left leader said.

The Congress will come into the third front’s calculations only if the political crisis deepens to a point of forming an alternative government.

“We have an alternative plan ready. But the government first has to go,” Surjeet said.

The strategy hinges on building up a groundswell of opposition to the NDA government before the states go to polls.

Yesterday’s revelations have turned the tide for the Opposition, which is hoping to see the BJP beaten in the Assembly elections.


New Delhi, March 14: 
The Congress is desperately trying to woo Mamata Banerjee to mark what it describes as the “beginning of the end” of the Vajpayee regime over Defencegate.

Sensing the lacklustre response from allies, the Congress is not making an all-out effort to form an alternative government as the numbers do not add up. Moreover, the Samajwadi Party, the RSP and Forward Bloc have not revised their stand that stalled a Sonia Gandhi-led government from assuming office in May 1999. The Congress is also wary of playing on a far-fetched possibility of a third front headed by Jyoti Basu.

The Congress strategy is to keep the heat on the government, stall Lok Sabha proceedings, erode Vajpayee’s authority and derive political mileage in case the NDA coalition succeeds in tiding over the crisis. “The BJP’s image has taken a severe beating. The facade of unity cannot go on as there will be introspection, soul-searching and the Sangh parivar would intervene. But we will be in a win-win situation,” a close Sonia associate said. She added that the development could not have come at a more appropriate time as Sonia is going to make a “vision speech” during the Bangalore plenary, giving a call for “new millennium, new commitment”.

The main Opposition party made it clear that it will not settle for a probe by the Joint Parliamentary Committee, a no-confidence motion or a discussion under rule 184\193 (which entails voting) unless the Vajpayee regime demits office on moral grounds. Sonia today chaired a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) that passed a resolution stating that “the government has lost the moral right to continue in office”.

The CWC felt that the Congress should wait a while before going for the kill. Describing the political developments as “stage one”, party leaders said the government will have to take the initiative to break the parliamentary impasse. “We will not let the House run. It is the government that has to push through legislative business,” a Congress floor manager said. He, however, clarified that there would be no threat to the Union and rail budgets. “The government can always get the votes on account even in the din,” he said.

Realising the crucial blow Mamata can deal to the NDA by walking on the coalition, Congress leaders Priya Ranjan Das Munshi and Kamal Nath met her today and yesterday, encouraging her to uphold “values”. Party sources said Sonia was keen about Mamata’s response and kept inquiring from Kamal Nath if she would be leaving the NDA.

For the first time in the recent past, the leadership is upbeat over the prospect of Mamata leaving the NDA. So much so, that though Mamata has released a list of 270 Assembly candidates, Sonia is still prepared to back her if she ditches the Vajpayee bandwagon.

The Congress’ interest in Mamata is also a reflection of Sonia’s disappointment with the Left that joined hands with Mulayam Singh Yadav.


New Delhi, March 14: 
Since yesterday, the phones have not stopped ringing at’s Soaminagar office here. Aniruddha Bahal takes a call. Almost immediately, his mobile trills. He looks tired, juggling between the handsets. Tired, but happy. He has many more interviews to give during the day — New York Times, Time....

He is aware of all the media interest in him and Matthew Samuel — the other undercover reporter who went videotaping the gory, secret lives of politicians, bureaucrats and the army top brass.

Sitting in his small office, wearing an orange shirt and khaki trousers, Aniruddha seems reconciled to the fact that he can’t escape media attention.

It all began, says Aniruddha, with the fire at the Bharatpur ammunition depot. The fire was the result of negligence. “The seed of this story was sown after the fire.... We started working with the arms story in June and completed it in January.”

The name of the fake firm, West End, was coined by a friend of Aniruddha’s. “We thought of London as the location of the company because it sounded good. We knew these politicians would try to contact us, so we gave a friend’s number. The middlemen would keep calling the number looking for us.”

It was Aniruddha’s idea to work on this defence expose. Since his was a known face in the media, he sported a beard and put on a British accent while going to meet politicians and bureaucrats. He did most of the talking, while Samuel carried the money in an attache. “At every juncture, we felt we would get caught, and our identity would be discovered,” says Aniruddha.

He came to Delhi 10 years ago from his hometown in Allahabad to become a journalist. “I tried my hand at all types of reporting,” Aniruddha who worked for India Today, Down to Earth and Financial Express. He even launched his magazine Cricket Talk but it flopped. Then he joined Outlook, where he first broke the match-fixing story in 1997. Last year, he joined and shot to fame after collaborating with former cricketer Manoj Prabhakar to get to the bottom of the match-fixing business.

He then began work on another expose but it did not work out. “Not every investigation comes through,” says Aniruddha.

Although many are critical about the use of spycams and feel this sort of clandestine investigative reporting is not ethical, he refuses to subscribe to this view.

“I have no moral qualms about the way I went about the match-fixing story and the defence expose. In fact, I am very happy that I exposed people who played around with our money for personal greed. Instead, this huge fund could have been used to eradicate illiteracy and poverty.”


New Delhi, March 14: 
Smaller heads rolled as the defence ministry suspended a Major-General and three officials and a rattled army ordered a Court of Inquiry against officers shown to have accepted favours from Tehelka undercover reporters.

The decision to act swiftly was taken late last night at a meeting chaired by defence minister George Fernandes and attended by top officers and bureaucrats.

The defence ministry issued a statement this morning that following a preliminary probe, Major-General P.S.K. Choudary, who is additional director-general of the weapons and equipment department, additional financial adviser Narendra Singh, Ordnance Factory Board staff officer H.C. Pant and army HQ assistant P. Sasi have been placed under suspension.

Three other officers shown in the spycam having accepted money and other favours from reporters posing as representatives of a fictitious firm, West End International — Maj. Gen. Manjit Singh Ahluwalia, Brigadier Iqbal Singh and Colonel Anil Sehgal — will also be suspended soon, sources said.

Maj. Gen. Ahluwalia, who was in Shimla, has reached Delhi and has been questioned by senior army officers. The other two officers are expected to arrive tomorrow to report to their superiors before being served suspension orders.

Sources said the suspension order will stay, pending the findings of the Court of Inquiry. “The inquiry will recommend what punishment should be meted out to the officers,” they said.

The inquiry will carry out a detailed investigation of the alleged corruption in the procurement of stores in the armed forces. The purpose is to “clean up” the services and their weapons and procurement wings which, sources said, are dominated by arms brokers and middlemen.

But they are doubtful what action the government can take against the middlemen.

The careers of Maj. Gen. Choudary and Maj. Gen. Ahluwalia appear to have virtually ended. As senior officers in charge of technical evaluation of military hardware and procurement, both officers not only passed on sensitive information to the fictitious firm peddling non-existent hand-held thermal cameras, but also accepted money in return.

Maj. Gen. Choudary got a gold chain and Rs 1 lakh from West End for providing technical evaluation. Initially, and during later meetings with the firm, he repeatedly asked for the company’s product range “so that he could provide a helping hand in a product other than hand-held thermals”.

In one meeting, he took pains to explain why it would be a problem to overturn his “no” recommendation to evaluation trials of a French product.

As additional financial adviser in the defence ministry, Narendra Singh was paid Rs 10,000 by Tehelka with the request to “arrange” meetings between West End and senior army and ministry officials.

But it is Shashi Menon, senior section officer in the defence ministry, who introduced Tehelka to H.C. Pant. It is Pant, claims the portal, who was linked to the army top brass and middlemen.


New Delhi, March 14: 
After evading reporters for nearly a day following the damning Tehelka exposé, Samata Party president Jaya Jaitly today told them she would not resign her post though some of her party MPs were demanding that she quit.

She also disowned party treasurer R.K. Jain and denied having taken Rs 2 lakh to help sway defence deals as alleged by the website.

Sources, however, said the NDA government is trying to make her step down as it would take the heat off defence minister George Fernandes. A BJP Cabinet minister said party chief Bangaru Laxman had resigned to help Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee cope with the crisis and that Jaitly should also step down. “There are no direct allegations against any ministers, but these two functionaries,” the minister said.

Jaitly today convened a meeting of the Samata parliamentary party to discuss the fallout of the dotcom revelation. Among those present were Fernandes, agriculture minister Nitish Kumar, minister of state for railways Digvijay Singh, Prabhunath Singh, Raghunath Jha, Renu Kumari and Brahmanand Mandal. Notable absentees were rebels like Arun Kumar, Manjay Lal and Mahindra Baitha.

Fernandes refused to comment on the tapes, saying: “I will not make any statement on the controversy at this juncture.”

Jaitly disowned Jain, her party’s treasurer, saying he had ceased to hold any post since the Samata organisational polls in January. “I am not responsible for what he has talked about with the portal. Jain’s personal activity cannot be construed to be authorised by the party,” she said.

Jaitly said the appointment with her was not made in the name of the fictitious arms dealing firm, but in the name of Surendra Sulekha, a textile businessman she is acquainted with. She said Sulekha, who used to help her party, met her accompanied by two others she did not know.


Patna, March 14: 
After the Tehelka expose, Laloo Prasad Yadav has rediscovered faith in the same media that he had decried for playing up his rebels. Today, crying “Jai Tehelka, Jai Media,” he walked into the Assembly, confident in the knowledge that there would be pandemonium enough to silence his rebels.

“The media deserves credit,” said a euphoric Laloo. “Now is time to spend money on media.”

When someone told him that Tehelka had spent Rs 12 lakh on the expose, Laloo said, “My party will raise the money from supporters and donate it to Tehelka.”

The Tehelka expose has come at a time when the rebels in the Rashtriya Janata Dal, with the backing of the Centre, were engineering a split in the party and trying to deseat chief minister Rabri Devi.

One of the dissidents, finance minister Shankar Prasad Tekriwal, resigned on Monday and was supposed to make a statement in the Assembly today.

But Laloo managed to thwart any such move. Shouting “Corrupt BJP-RSS stand exposed... Atal Bihari quit now,” Laloo managed to the bring proceedings in the House to a halt with all treasury bench members joining in the chorus.

To his party workers, Laloo said: “Look, Rabri Devi is actually a goddess. Whoever wants to unseat her will himself be vanquished.”

To some others in his party he had compared himself to Lord Krishna. “The rebels are Bibhisans who are bound to crumble whenever they try to put me in trouble,” he had claimed.

But when someone referred today to the impending court verdict in the assets case, Laloo looked confused for a while, only to recover his wit and say: “If I go to jail, George Fernandes and Jaya Jaitly would not be far away. We will all live in the same jail together.”

Laloo’s exuberance stems from the fact that the Tehelka tapes have put a question mark on the integrity of Jaya Jaitly and George Fernandes when it was their party which was spearheading the oust-Laloo campaign for his involvement in the Rs 950-crore fodder scam.

Laloo stepped up attack on Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee by sympathising with Bangaru Laxman, who was shown receiving Rs 1 lakh as bribe on the Tehelka tapes.

“He (Bangaru) was a Dalit who was forced to resign and made a scapegoat but the bigger upper-caste ones like Vajpayee and George Fernandes stuck to power ignoring the Opposition demand,” claimed Laloo.


Hyderabad, March 14: 
Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu today strengthened Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s hands by promising continued support and refusing to take a stand on the Tehelka exposé till an inquiry.

In a studied response formulated till late in the night, Naidu told reporters this morning that his party will not take a stand till an “independent body” inquired into the incident and reported in Parliament.

“Such a thing (BJP chief Bangaru Laxman and Samata Party leader Jaya Jaitley receiving donations) should not have happened,” was all he said to express his unhappiness.

The leader of the second-largest block in the NDA made it clear that his party will not desert the government. “I do not even recommend the Central ministers named in the scandal to resign. They should wait till the inquiry find anything wrong in their functioning.”

Naidu felt that any hasty action will be counter-productive for the NDA.

But Naidu made the exposé an example to alert his party leaders of the need for discretion in dealing with industrialists and lobby agents. He also laid down a rule for all his ministers — they were not to entertain unknown persons and accept their invitations for felicitations and parties.

“The predicament of a party like the BJP should be a lesson for all of us,” he told several MPs and legislators, who met him this afternoon. However, the Congress leaders were jubilant. Some wanted the Central inquiry to cover Tehelka’s revelations on Naidu’s assets, while others sought the resignation of the BJP government.

Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi today said he had full faith in Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani.


Calcutta, March 14: 
The Tehelka disclosures have come as a bonanza for the CPM and the Congress which have decided to hit the road and put Mamata Banerjee on the defensive.

While chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said the Tehelka expose would help constituents of the erstwhile Third Front to regroup at the national level, the CPM and its trade union wing, Citu, lined up a statewide movement to demand the resignation of the BJP-led NDA government.

The CPM plans to make the Tehelka revelations a major plank for the coming Assembly elections to corner Mamata’s Trinamul Congress.

The beleaguered and faction-ridden state Congress got a shot in the arm and said the party would organise a statewide agitation against the BJP-led coalition. The Youth Congress has already announced a maha michhil (grand procession) on Friday to press the demand for the resignation of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Ridiculing the BJP, Bhattacharjee said at Writers’ Buildings: “One Laxman (cricketer V.V.S.) performs and gets laurels for India while another (Bangaru) turns out to be a disgrace for the nation.”

The chief minister said the emergence of a strong Third Front was a definite possibility. “Now that the corruption in the BJP is out in the open, all secular forces should come together to rebuild the Third Front,” he said.

“We require a fruitful understanding to emerge between Mulayam Yadav and Laloo Yadav for the four Left parties and V.P. Singh to forge a strong front,” Bhattacharjee added.

Asked if he has plans to meet Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the chief minister said the Congress will have no place in the Third Front.

Echoing Bhattacharjee, CPM Politburo member and state secretary Anil Biswas said the Tehelka expose will definitely have an impact on the Assembly elections. He said the party would organise protest rallies across the state on Friday. The Left Front, he said, has also lined up a public rally on March 20 at Shahid Minar where Jyoti Basu will be the main speaker.

Going a step ahead, another Politburo member Biman Bose demanded a high-level probe against all constituents of the NDA, including Trinamul.

An embarrassed Trinamul policy-making body chief Pankaj Banerjee was found looking for face-savers. “We want the government to order an inquiry either by a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament, a sitting Supreme Court judge or the CBI,” he said.


Siliguri, March 14: 
Suspected Kamtapur Liberation Organisation activists shot dead two Left Front leaders in Jalpaiguri district this morning, ending a three-month lull in violence.

Police said about 10 militants stopped the two scooter-borne leaders in Deomalai, on the outskirts of Dhupguri town, barely two hundred metres from a CRPF picket and sprayed them with automatic fire.

While CPM Kissan Shaba leader Maidul Alam died on the spot, CPI’s Mumtaj-udin succumbed to injuries on the way to hospital. The bullets also hit the driver of a passing lorry, killing him on the spot. The militants then escaped into the jungles.

The attack came during the ongoing 72-hour north Bengal bandh called by three pro-Kamtapur outfits — the All Kamtapur Students’ Union, Kamtapur Women’s Rights Forum and the Kamtapur Bhasa Sahitya Parishad.

The organisations are demanding the release of some 300 jailed activists who have been behind bars since November 27.

Senior police officials, including inspector-general (north Bengal range) N.R. Das, deputy inspector-general Mamta Reddy-Sharma and Jalpaiguri superintendent of police Ranvir Kumar have reached the spot.


Calcutta, March 14: 
The government will introduce regular health check-up camps for schoolchildren to check dropout rates in state-aided primary schools in the districts.

Measures are also being taken by the government to reintroduce mid-day meals for primary school students.

This was announced by chief minister Budhadeb Bhattacharjee today at a meeting at Bikash Bhavan in Salt Lake.

The chief minister visited the state school education department and reviewed the progress of various primary education projects.

He held a meeting with Kanti Biswas, school education minister, and senior officials of the education department.

Bhattacharjee said the scheme was a part of a project undertaken by the government to reach the target of “education-for-all” within 2006.


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