Parivar targets PMO for Atal trial by fire
Basu back to the front
Congress waits for family reunion
Mamata sends too-late signal
Clerks cripple court after judge assault
Police swoop on bandh ‘killers’
Power board plans May makeover
Mobike pile-up in Midnapore
Fire fury in border town
Bodies found

 
 
PARIVAR TARGETS PMO FOR ATAL TRIAL BY FIRE 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, March 15: 
After George Fernandes, the next targets of a large section of the Sangh parivar are Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the Prime Minister, and N.K. Singh, officer on special duty in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

This section feels that with the PMO and Vajpayee’s son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya finding prominent mention in the Tehelka tapes, the NDA government’s “integrity and probity” was under cloud.

“To us Atalji is like sona (gold), but even gold is often not unalloyed. If Atalji wants to graduate from being sona to kundan (a polished gem), he must pass this trial by fire and drop these persons from his government,” said BJP sources.

However, while Mishra and Fernandes are referred to in the tapes, there is no mention of N.K. Singh.

Sources said the Sangh parivar now perceives Vajpayee to be in a “vulnerable” position and would pressure him into following its diktat. The Sangh’s hands have been strengthened by Bangaru Laxman’s resignation and the appointment of Jana Krishnamurthy as party chief. This, sources said, would only make Vajpayee lose his grip over the party as Krishnamurthy is close to the hardliners.

Sources close to Vajpayee said he was not in a mood to bow to the Sangh’s pressure and though he has had to agree to Fernandes’ departure, he would try to hold on to Mishra.

“In one sense they act as a protective shield against the RSS and can absorb and countenance its pressure,” sources said.

The defence minister had proved to be Vajpayee’s most able hand when it came to placating “difficult” alliance leaders like J. Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee. Fernandes also proved handy in defending the government on sensitive matters like attacks on Christians and the Ayodhya demolition. The fact that a Christian espoused views close to the parivar’s weakened the secular ranks’ campaign against the BJP.

With home minister L.K. Advani regaining his stranglehold over the BJP, thanks to Jana Krishnamurthy, Vajpayee’s followers were “apprehensive” that he would push through his own appointees in the PMO.

BJP sources said it was Advani who was instrumental in clearing Krishnamurthy’s appointment as Laxman’s successor within a few hours although Laxman’s team was packed mostly with Joshi and Vajpayee loyalists like Pyarelal Khandelwal and Madan Lal Khurana.

Yesterday, hours before Krishnamurthy was announced to be the new BJP president, Advani came over to the party headquarters and directed spokesman Narendra Modi to make it clear to the press that the appointment was permanent and not a makeshift arrangement.

“Advani feels the party’s honour and reputation should be salvaged before it is too late. After all, the BJP was seen as a crusader against corruption and a champion of clean politics. We have lost the Ayodhya issue, and if we lose out on corruption and national security, the party will be finished,” said sources.

However, the BJP officially said there was no question of the government resigning.

BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra went hammer and tongs at the Opposition, especially the Congress. “The mindset of the Opposition gets revealed by the stand of the Congress that they want the NDA to quit the government and then only they will go in for inquiry,” Malhotra said. “The NDA government is not going to oblige the Opposition,” he stressed.

Malhotra commended former party chief Bangaru Laxman for quitting. Only an “impartial and thorough inquiry by a competent authority” would reveal the “truth”, he said, and regretted that the Opposition was bent on thwarting such an exercise.

   

 
 
BASU BACK TO THE FRONT 
 
 
FROM MONOBINA GUPTA
 
New Delhi, March 15: 
The script is jaded, the cast too familiar — only the title has changed.

The third front today reinvented itself one more time under a new rubric — the People’s Front — and the man chosen to lead it was none other than former Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu.

President of the new incarnation, Basu will have by his side the front’s convenor, Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. “We, the third front parties, had unfortunately disintegrated. But efforts are being renewed to come together. We will be tested in the forthcoming Assembly polls,” Basu said at a joint press conference this afternoon.

Doors are open for any party willing to commit itself to a Common Minimum Programme that the front will lay down soon, informed Basu. “It will be an ever-expanding front,” he added.

But the gathering was a pale shadow of the 1996 line-up — most other partners who had then given the front its “unassailable” image have hopped to the other side. Even Mulayam had moved away from the conglomerate when the Left was ready to back a Sonia Gandhi-led government. But now he is back, though tight-lipped about what the front’s relations would be with the main Opposition party.

When asked about the possibility of a third-front led government without the Congress, Mulayam retorted: “You do not have to think about it. We will think about it — the people will.”

Basu and his party’s general secretary, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, were non-committal as their main objective at this juncture seems to be to keep Mulayam within their fold.

The other Yadav protagonist, RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav, was conspicuous by his absence. “There are problems but these will be sorted out,” Basu said.

The RJD, which has tied up with the Congress in Bihar, may not want to be seen as part of this alliance at the moment. But as Surjeet said: “The door is always open for Laloo Yadav.”

The Congress seemed to be in a benign mood, ready to give a willing nod to the efforts of the third front parties. “We cannot but be friendly to secular parties,” said spokesperson Jaipal Reddy, treading cautiously on the prickly Congress-Samajwadi relations. The latter had refused to support a Congress-led government at the Centre, paving the way for the BJP to come to power in 1999.

“We have floor co-ordination with all non-NDA parties, including the Samajwadi Party,” Reddy said, hinting that the Congress could bury the hatchet with Mulayam if only to topple the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

However, both the Congress and the People’s Front indicated that the numbers game was not on their cards at the moment. They do not want to stretch their speculation and would rather wait for events to happen before taking hard decisions. This means the Front will have to talk to the Congress, which has to be flexible to support a People’s Front-led government if the situation arises.

“This government has lost all credibility and it must go,” said front leaders, hoping that contradictions within the NDA will rip it apart.

   

 
 
CONGRESS WAITS FOR FAMILY REUNION 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
Bangalore, March 15: 
The Congress is raring to go along with Mamata Banerjee in Bengal. AICC general secretary in charge of Bengal, Kamal Nath, spoke to Mamata twice today congratulating her for her “brave move” that has rocked the National Democratic Alliance.

Nath said a mahajot with the Trinamul Congress was still possible though Mamata has already announced 270 candidates for the upcoming Assembly polls.

Congress chief Sonia Gandhi plans to talk to Mamata after Nath does the groundwork.

Sonia had invited Mamata to “come back home” minutes after the Trinamul chief had taken oath as railway minister. “That day, Mamatadidi could not say yes, but today, if Soniaji repeats the offer, she will not say no,” an associate of Mamata said, recalling how she had always held the AICC chief in high esteem. “In exchange, the Congress will have to dump the Left,” he said.

Trinamul leaders said they were willing to enter into an understanding with the Congress but that Congress dissidents who had joined Mamata would maintain their separate identity.

The Trinamul posture may dampen the Congress spirit but senior leaders said they would accept Mamata’s stand. “She is one of us and, sooner or later, we will be together,” a Sonia aide said, terming Mamata as a “great mass leader”.

“Soniaji will be prepared to campaign with her against the Left misrule if Mamata wants her to do so,” she said.

“The female bonding will now come into play,” a Congress Working Committee member said. According to her, survival of the Vajapyee regime was not the issue before the main Opposition party. “Vajpayee has been reduced to a lame-duck Prime Minister. His continuation in office will further erode his authority. We are in a win-win situation,” she said.

The Congress think-tank in Bangalore is revising its political document again, fine-tuning it with a difference.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a CWC member termed the Left as “unpredictable allies”, ruling out support to the newly-floated People’s Front headed by Jyoti Basu. “We will prefer Mamata over the Left any day,” he said.

In Bangalore, where the party’s 81st plenary is scheduled to meet over the weekend, the mood is upbeat. Thousands of Congress delegates have arrived. The talk is confined to the Tehelka expose with partymen smelling power once again.

“The BJP will collapse and the Congress will emerge as a clear alternative,” a delegate from Orissa said.

In the fluid political situation, the Congress strategy is to wait for the Vajpayee regime to lose further ground. It does not intend to back a third front, preferring an NDA government minus Vajpayee.

The prospects of a Sonia-led government are bleak owing to the composition of the 13th Lok Sabha. Congress leaders said going for elections will be the last option.

“But we will gain in that scenario too as the BJP will be down and out,” a member of the Congress think-tank said.

Sonia’s vision speech on Saturday and the CWC meet tomorrow will focus on the political situation in Delhi.

   

 
 
MAMATA SENDS TOO-LATE SIGNAL 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, March 15: 
Mamata Banerjee has said her decision to quit the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was final.

Even after defence minister George Fernandes put in his papers, which was what Mamata had demanded, the Trinamul Congress leader stood by her decision, saying there is no question of returning to the government.

“We had sent two letters (to the Prime Minister) and waited for three days...why was there a delay in taking a decision on such an emergency situation? We told the Prime Minister’s aide that we had to take this decision with a heavy heart. It is too late now,” she added.

Asked if she would bail out the Vajpayee government in case the Opposition tables a no-confidence motion, Mamata said she would not answer hypothetical questions.

Immediately after announcing her decision to walk out of the coalition this evening, Mamata and junior foreign minister Ajit Panja sent their resignation letters to Vajpayee through an emissary. Along with the letters, they sent a covering note and a copy of the “unanimous” resolution adopted by the party to pull out of the government.

Addressing a news conference at Trinamul MP Akbar Ali Khandoker’s residence, Mamata said: “We cannot compromise on security and national interest of the country. The government should be more transparent in these kind of deals. The government should come clean.” Mamata said that by quitting, she wanted to send a message to the people that she would never compromise on corruption and national security.

The Trinamul chief, however, did not discuss her course of action. But she ruled out any tie-up with the Congress, saying she still respected Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as “leader of the nation”.

Mamata said she would discuss the “West Bengal” issue later. Her party colleague Sudip Bandopadhyay, however, hinted that the alliance with the BJP in the state could continue, saying the Bengal situation and the pullout decision should not be linked.

Mamata said she had written two letters to Vajpayee and given him three days to take action against those who were shown up in the Tehelka tapes. But, she said, the Prime Minister had taken no action and the party was left with no option but to pull out.

After receiving Mamata’s missive yesterday, Vajpayee had sent a letter inviting her to a discussion at his residence at 12 noon today. But Mamata refused to meet Vajpayee.

In his letter, the Prime Minister had not given any assurance about securing Fernandes’ resignation, one of her major demands.

Party sources said Mamata might meet Vajpayee tomorrow. “There is no harm in meeting him, after all he is still the Prime Minister,” a Trinamul leader said.

The party will soon write to the Lok Sabha Speaker asking for separate seating arrangements for its MPs, Bandopadhayay added.

   

 
 
CLERKS CRIPPLE COURT AFTER JUDGE ASSAULT 
 
 
BY OUR LEGAL REPORTER
 
Calcutta, March 15: 
Bench clerks today began a two-day ceasework in Barrackpore court in protest against a litigant attacking a judge in the courtroom.

The ceasework hampered the regular functioning of the court. Lawyers said little work would be possible tomorrow as the bench clerks were unlikely to call off their protest. They are demanding greater security and deployment of additional police forces in the court.

Trouble started when Samyabrota Sarkar yesterday announced his decision to defer the trial of a case. Respondent of the case Dilip Samanta immediately broke out in protest, climbing on to a chair and shouting loudly.

According to Samanta, this was the 13th day that he and his wife — also a respondent of the case — were attending court and the case was not being heard.

Though the judge repeatedly asked Samanta to calm down and restore order in the courtroom, he continued to scream and shout, turning a deaf ear to all requests. The judge then asked the police to lead him out of the court room. Furious, Samanta strode up to the judge’s chair and started beating him up.

Police arrested Samanta and his wife for violence inside the courtroom. The judge was taken to Barrackpore hospital and released after first aid.

As news of the incident spread, chaos erupted on the court campus. Lawyers and other court officials took out rallies on the premises protesting against delayed police action.

Bengal Bar Council chairman Saradindu Biswas said more protection should be provided to legal members in district courts.

A judicial services association spokesman condemned the police for not adequately protecting the judge. “For the last 10 years, we have been demanding more security from the police. On earlier occasions also, we were assaulted by the litigants and the police played the role of mum spectators.”

Bandh call

The RSP has called a 24-hour bandh in Basanti tomorrow to protest the murder of party worker Jamaluddin Sheikh allegedly by Trinamul supporters. Nine Trinamul supporters had been arrested.

   

 
 
POLICE SWOOP ON BANDH ‘KILLERS’ 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Siliguri, March 15: 
Two All-Kamtapur Students’ Union activists have been picked up in connection with yesterday’s killing of Left leaders in Dhupguri.

Jalpaiguri police superintendent Ranvir Kumar said Sailen Roy and Ranjit Roy were part of the gang that pumped bullets into CPM Kisan Sabha leader Maidul Alam and CPI leader Mumtajuddin on the first day of the 72-hour north Bengal bandh. A truck driver, Sunil Jha, who refused to stop his vehicle on NH 31 was also shot.

Though the police had claimed the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation was behind the killings, Kumar said bandh hardliners among the AKSU were responsible.

“Both Sailen and Ranjit were part of the 10-member AKSU group trying to enforce the bandh. They opened fire on the scooter-borne Left leaders and the driver of a passing truck. While the other eight fled into the nearby jungles, we picked up the duo last night after witnesses identified them. The other eight, all residents of the nearby Uttar Kalighat area, have also been identified.”

The second day of the bandh failed to evoke response in Darjeeling. There was a partial shut down in the Kamtapuri strongholds of Kumargram-duar and Moynaguri in Jalpaiguri.

   

 
 
POWER BOARD PLANS MAY MAKEOVER 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, March 15: 
The West Bengal State Electricity Board (WBSEB) has finalised plans to set up a Rs 55-crore satellite communication network (Satcom).

Power minister Mrinal Banerjee today said the hi-tech system would be operational from May. Satcom will connect the WBSEB’s control rooms, generating stations, sub-stations and distribution points.

A power control room will be set up in Calcutta to enable monitoring of power requirement, demand and utilisation from every station. “The round-the-clock control room will be able to maintain smooth power generation and supply,” Banerjee said.

The WBSEB is the first government organisation to go for a hi-tech communications network. “If there is any problem, we will get to know it immediately and act fast. At present, our engineers face a lot of flak when they fail to rectify faults in time because they get delayed information,” Banerjee said.

The minister said the laying of fibre optic cables for the government’s wide-area network (WAN), which will enable e-governance, will start soon. “We are floating tenders this month,” Banerjee said. The WAN will be set up as a joint venture with 51 per cent shares held privately. The cost is estimated at Rs 280 crore.

   

 
 
MOBIKE PILE-UP IN MIDNAPORE 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Midnapore, March 15: 
Over 1,500 motorcycles, left behind by clashing Trinamul Congress and CPM activists, have piled up in trouble-torn areas of Midnapore over the past year. Police are in a fix over what to do with them.

The motorcycles have been piling up at the panchayat offices of Keshpur, Garbeta, Pingla and Moyna. They were abandoned by Trinamul or CPM activists either during or after a clash.

“This is for the first time we are faced with such a problem. We simply don’t know what to do with so many motorbikes,” said A.K. Maliwal, district superintendent of police.

“Motorcycle-borne Trinamul and CPM activists, heads and faces covered with black cloth, have become a common sight in troubled areas of the district during a clash,” he added.

Masked motorcyclists first showed up when clashes broke out between Trinamul and CPM workers in Keshpur about two years ago.

“They used to speed through the villages on motorcycles with two or three associates riding pillion, all carrying guns on their shoulders,” a police official said.

He said these motorcycles, all without number plates, were used to loot villages or escort villagers back to clash-ridden areas they had fled.

“The figure in a black mask with a gun across his shoulder riding a motorcycle became a symbol of heroism, fear and violence for the common Midnapore villager,” said a district CPM leader.

The CPM legislator from Keshpur, Nanda Rani Dal, said over 300 motorcycles have piled up in Keshpur alone. “We are willing to return the motorbikes if the owners promise not to resort to violence,” she said.

Villagers say the masked motorcycle-borne youths have affected their lives. “Our children shrink into a corner of the room when they hear a motorbike roar past the house,” said Rina Khatoon of Keshpur.

During his Pingla rally last month, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee asked the police to maintain a close vigil on the bike-borne criminals.

“I have ordered the police to keep constant vigil on these motorcyclists,” said Maliwal.

   

 
 
FIRE FURY IN BORDER TOWN 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Siliguri, March 15: 
A devastating fire destroyed 43 houses and damaged 13 others in Pokhriabong town on the Indo-Nepal border in Darjeeling sub-division last night. A police camp and some business establishments were also gutted.

Police sources said the fire broke out around 10 pm and engulfed the row of houses — mostly wooden structures — within minutes. It gutted an adjoining district police camp but policemen managed to retrieve all stored weapons and ammunition.

Fifteen fire tenders from Darjeeling, Kurseong and Bijonbari were pressed into service, but it took them over five hours to douse the flames Over 350 people were rendered homeless in the blaze. They have been put up at a local community hall.

The cause of the fire is yet to be ascertained. Properties worth Rs 1.3 crore were destroyed in the fire, sources added.

   

 
 
BODIES FOUND 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Chuchura, March 15: 
Bodies of three youths, with cut marks on their throats, were recovered from Hind Motor and Singur today.

Hooghly police superintendent N. Ramesh Babu said while two bodies were found inside the Hindusthan Motors factory campus in Uttarpara, the third was found beside Durgapur Road at Singur. The youths are between and 25 and 30 years of age.

None of the youths are residents of the locality. “We think they were murdered elsewhere. There were injuries on their throats.”

   
 

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