Backfoot BJP takes battle to people
Tieup ultimatum to Mamata
Sparks in Samata over somersault
Cong dusts clean-funds campaign plank
Plenary pride of place to ‘Chanakya’
Missed smoke signal before Kanpur fury
Left has answer, no solution
Mailman builds bridge over border
Image sermon to police
Ghising strike arrest

 
 
BACKFOOT BJP TAKES BATTLE TO PEOPLE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 19: 
The BJP today took a defensive stand after Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s offensive at the party’s 81st plenary in Bangalore where she accused the Vajpayee government of selling the country’s honour for a “fistful of riches”.

“Even an enemy of the BJP cannot dare to accuse the BJP men and women... of ever selling away the honour of the seats they occupy,” said Jana Krishnamurthi, the BJP’s newly-elected president.

“It is not BJP men or women who have done a ‘Bofors’ nor are they shying away from inquiry like the Congress... shied away from a demand for inquiry when the Bofors scandal erupted,” he said.

He stressed that “unlike the Congress which is not ready to agree to any inquiry”, the BJP was willing to have any kind of probe into the Tehelka expose.

Responding to the Congress’ call to take the battle against the Vajpayee government to the streets, Krishnamurthi said: “We accept the challenge of the Congress. The BJP also feels that it is the people who are the best judges in a democracy. Let Sonia lead the Congress to reach the people and we will, under the leadership of Vajpayeeji, approach the people. Let the people choose between Vajpayeeji and Soniaji.”

Human resource development minister Murli Manohar Joshi sounded more aggressive than Krishnamurthi. In a statement, he accused the Opposition of carrying out a campaign of “mischievous vilification and calumny” against the government and claimed the Congress was “afraid of facing the truth” if an impartial probe was ordered and the mater discussed in the House.

In a press briefing, BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra said Sonia’s speech in the Bangalore plenary was in “bad taste”. “To call the PM and PMO traitors is a manifestation of indecency. Sonia said there should be no forgiveness, no mercy. She has become a self-appointed god as if anybody is waiting for her to show mercy,” he said.

He alleged that the Congress’ refusal to have a debate in Parliament on the Tehelka tapes and its dismissal of the probe by a Supreme Court judge as “meaningless” were signs of fascism. “This is fascism which originated in Italy. She belongs to Italy and she knows fascism thoroughly,” said Malhotra.

But the Congress responded in kind to the BJP’s counter-attack. Congress spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy said the party was not confident about the “moral sensitivity” of the Vajpayee government and, therefore, it was launching a series of protest rallies, the first phase of which would begin on March 24 and conclude on April 10. The rallies, he said, would be staged in district headquarters and small towns.

The Congress planned to distribute several thousand copies of the Tehelka videotapes and their transcripts. That Sonia meant business was evident from the fact that she intended to keep tabs on each district unit’s involvement in the protest agenda.

Congress sources said, after a long time, an issue involving corruption had managed to cement the rank-and-file whereas in the past, planks like Ayodhya and agriculture did not arouse the same degree of enthusiasm because of the communal and class underpinnings. “This is our revenge for the Sangh parivar’s campaign on Bofors,” they said.

   

 
 
TIEUP ULTIMATUM TO MAMATA 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, March 19: 
The BJP today talked tough with the Trinamul Congress, making it plain that it would go it alone in the Bengal polls unless Mamata Banerjee made clear her party’s standing with the NDA.

BJP vice-president Kailashpati Mishra, who is the central prabari (in charge) of West Bengal, said the party’s state unit has also decided to jettison the Trinamul unless Mamata swapped more than a dozen of the 39 seats allotted to the BJP at present.

A BJP delegation of its two central ministers from West Bengal — Tapan Sikdar and Satyabrata Mukherjee — state president Ashim Ghosh and Mishra briefed the Prime Minister today on the state of the alliance with the Trinamul. The team, led by BJP’s new president, Jana Krishnamurthi, emphasised the state unit’s two main demands.

“We are not demanding additional seats. The problem is not with the number of seats allotted to us by Mamata but with the nature of the constituencies. At least a dozen of them are losing seats.... We want to exchange these with the Trinamul,” Mishra said.

He added that there was no clarity in Mamata’s stand on the NDA. “She had said two days earlier that she has severed links with the NDA, yet she had great respect for Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This type of conflicting statements raises a question. So, the BJP has to wait for a clarity on this issue and only after that negotiate with her on the seats we want,” said Mishra.

The BJP’s other precondition was that Mamata’s allies such as the JMM (Soren) and Kamtapuri People’s Party, with which she has struck an understanding independent of the BJP, must not be allowed to put up candidates against the party.

The BJP has also decided not to have a common manifesto with the Trinamul and campaign jointly. “Any election manifesto of the NDA partners has to be within the NDA agenda and now that Mamata is out of the NDA she is not bound by its agenda,” Mishra said.

Though the BJP was not a serious contender in the five states going to polls with the exception of Assam, and was content playing second fiddle to its allies, there was a feeling that if the NDA lost the polls it would have an impact on the Union government.

But the Tehelka expose seems to have taken the edge out of BJP’s poll preparations.

“For us, these elections don’t matter at all. After all, look at our strength in each of these states. In Kerala we are zero, in Tamil Nadu we have two MLAs only, in Pondicherry none, two in Bengal and four or five in Assam,” said a BJP leader.

   

 
 
SPARKS IN SAMATA OVER SOMERSAULT 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, March 19: 
The Samata today hurtled towards another crisis as six rebel MPs threatened to split the party to protest the decision of Nitish Kumar, Digvijay Singh and Sreenivas Prasad to rejoin the Union Cabinet.

The three ministers had resigned last week expressing solidarity with George Fernandes, who quit as defence minister following the Tehelka exposé. However, the Prime Minister did not accept their resignations and, today, following an appeal by the Samata parliamentary party, they decided to rejoin the government.

Samata rebels, especially Prabhunath Singh, suspect that Nitish struck a deal with a section of the BJP top brass, including home minister L.K. Advani, while Fernandes was forced to cool his heels.

Sources in the rebel camp said the agriculture minister has been holding talks with Advani and Fernandes, “without knowing, was playing into Kumar’s hands”.

The NDA government has reason to worry because the Janata Dal (United) is also convulsed by squabbles with leader Ramakrishna Hegde insisting that Fernandes be dropped as alliance convener.

“My objection is that after removing him from the defence ministry, what is the point in continuing with him as the NDA convener,” Hegde, who deferred his decision to quit the NDA, said. He relented following an assurance from party chief Sharad Yadav that he would take up the matter with Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The Dal (U) parliamentary party, which discussed the issue today, passed a resolution condemning Fernandes for inviting Hegde to the NDA meet last Wednesday and then insulting him by withdrawing the invitation. Prominent Dal (U) rebel Devendra Prasad Yadav did not attend the meeting.

As a divided Samata teetered on the edge, leaders in the Nitish camp alleged that Prabhunath was upset because the leadership was not favourably disposed to his demand for a berth in the council of ministers, now that there are some vacancies.

Prabhunath denied the charge. “If that was true, I would have indulged in boot polishing. That is not my cup of tea,” he said, adding that his group would continue to support the NDA.

Prabhunath and the five other rebels — Raghunath Jha, Brahamand Mandal, Mahendra Baitha, Arun Kumar and Manjay Lal — held an emergency meeting and drafted a six-page letter addressed to Fernandes to protest the decision of the three leaders.

Prabhunath said he would forward his resignation from the Lok Sabha to Fernandes as he was “hurt” at the decision. “What will people in our constituencies say if these ministers do such drama of resigning one day and withdrawing it another day,” he said.

   

 
 
CONG DUSTS CLEAN-FUNDS CAMPAIGN PLANK 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
Bangalore, March 19: 
With an eye on the polls, the Congress plans to take a series of measures to regain its “primacy” in national politics.

Projecting her party as a crusader against graft, Sonia Gandhi said the Congress would take the lead to “put in place a more transparent and honest system” of financing political activities. “We have talked enough about it but made little headway,” the AICC chief said while speaking on organisational matters.

Other measures include ending the distinction between primary and active membership and making parliamentary-Assembly constituencies basic units rather than the district. Sonia said the Congress would take a final view after the “Panchmarhi two” brainstorming session scheduled to be held within the next six months.

At the party’s 81st plenary, which concluded yesterday, the delegates favoured the proportional representation and list system for the country to check parochial and casteist tendencies. The proportional representation system insists on candidates getting more than 50 per cent votes. A section of the Congress is, however, opposed to “sweeping changes” without a nationwide debate.

A Congress team consisting of Natwar Singh, Salman Khurshid and Anand Sharma, which had visited Britain to study how Labour returned to power under Tony Blair, had recommended switching over to constituencies as the basic unit instead of districts.

At present, the district Congress committees are focal centres in the organisation. They select probable candidates for elections and forward the names to the state and central unit. But, as district boundaries are constantly redrawn, the system poses both administrative and political problems.

“First, the district committee and the candidate’s office become rival power centres. Then, many a times, the district committee falls in another parliamentary or Assembly constituency,” a state unit chief said.

Young Turks in the party also want Sonia to simplify the organisational poll process. By the present system, a primary member has to become an active member by enrolling 30 primary members to contest elections from block to the AICC\CWC level.

The idea of primary membership, floated by Mahatma Gandhi, was aimed at involving more people in the freedom struggle. But, in independent India, the system has spawned huge numbers of “bogus” members. There are numerous instances in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal where Congress candidates in Assembly or parliamentary seats have got much less votes than the strength of their “primary” members.

“It happened because genuine organisational polls were not conducted and the district committee merely copied the electoral rolls prepared by the Election Commission,” a Congress leader said.

Many Congressmen also feel that the British model will not help the party.

   

 
 
PLENARY PRIDE OF PLACE TO ‘CHANAKYA’ 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
Bangalore, March 19: 
The highlight of the Congress’ 81st plenary was the rehabilitation of “Chankaya”. Former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao sat next to party president Sonia Gandhi on the dais throughout the proceedings.

Sonia appeared almost electrified, raring to wage a war on Atal Bihari Vajapyee and the BJP, but made no attempt to hide the fact that she was seeking guidance from the cerebral politician on various policy papers.

Rao gave several suggestions on the international situation and economic and political resolutions. He even endorsed the party’s revisionist approach towards reforms, underlining the need for pro-poor tilt.

To many party delegates itching to regain the Delhi durbar, the Rao-Sonia combination appeared a perfect match. Rao has played his innings and has vast experience. Sonia has charisma and the support of partymen all over the country but they feel she lacks political acumen.

“If the two combine, join hands, I see no reason why the Congress would not return to power,” a delegate was heard saying yesterday.

Rao today denied any differences with Sonia and snubbed journalists who asked him if he had patched up with the Congress chief. “The media is suffering from optical illusion,” he said.

In party circles, Sonia’s praise of the Rao regime (1991-96) for weathering “gravest economic and political crisis” is seen as a clean chit on Babri too.

While the Congress had been acknowledging the Rao government’s success on economic reforms, it had been silent on the “political crisis” —- Ayodhya and the JMM bribery case.

A month ago, party spokesman Anil Shastri said Rao did whatever he could to save the Babri Masjid.

Sources close to Sonia she had always held the former Prime Minister in high regard and her invitation to Rao was a signal to all Congressmen that she should not be seen as a factional leader of the party.

“As a head of the Congress parivar, Soniaji does not want to make a distinction between Congress Tiwari and those who stayed with the parent organisation during the 1994 split,” an AICC functionary said.

Having stamped out dissidents, Sonia was now aiming for “bigger role” in national politics, sources said.

“With the BJP waging a grim battle, the prospects of the Congress bouncing back have increased,” a party MP said claiming that “Madam” had some plans for the former Prime Minister.

Party leaders said Rao’s presence at the Bangalore plenary sent a positive message in the southern region.

“After all, he was the first southern leader to have broken the north’s hegemony.

On that count, he is still respected by many,” a party leader said.

   

 
 
MISSED SMOKE SIGNAL BEFORE KANPUR FURY 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Kanpur, March 19: 
Residents of Kanpur have rarely seen such violence. Terrorised into hiding behind walls and under beds, they now talk in furtive whispers about the “battle of Kanpur”.

Anwar Alam of Beconganj relives the ordeal every time he remembers the staccato bursts of AK 47 rifles. But not all have dived under their beds. There are others like young Aftab Hussain who are clearly impressed by the siege of Kanpur “by a handful of Jehadi jawans”.

“I had only heard from my father about freedom fighters attacking police chaukis, but this time I saw how it happens,” Aftab said. Asked what kind of freedom the youths of the Students Islamic Movement of India were fighting for, he said: “Freedom from fear.”

Though he would not confirm if he was a Simi activist or sympathiser, Aftab says it was “liberating” to see “our boys” take on the whole administration.

According to the Local Intelligence Unit (LIU), it is boys like Aftab that they had warned the administration about nearly a year ago. “The Simi is getting more militant and stronger by the day,” says an unit officer. “But for some unknown reason, the administration refuses to take the threat seriously.”

The unit says it had informed the administration about a “particularly volatile” meeting of militant Muslim units on March 7 when 11 organisations, including Simi, the Jamat-e -Islami and Indian Muslim League, had met in Kanpur to chalk out a strategy to answer the reported Koran burning incident.

“But they refused to even consider it seriously, forget about acting on our tip-off,” the officer said. “If nothing else, 19 lives could have been saved.”

Unit officials say the district magistrate and the SSP had been intimated a year ago about the Ikhwan Conference, where “Simi cadres discussed violent methods of subterfuge with impunity”.

Residents of Muslim-dominated areas, who have nothing to do with Simi and other groups, say that it is open secret that sophisticated arms were being stockpiled and that there were AK-47s in every gully.

According to LIU agents, the stockpiling has taken a “dangerous urgency” in the last eight to 10 months in areas like Yatimkhana, Anwarganj, Chamanganj and Beconganj.

The Uttar Pradesh government has transferred the district magistrate and the SSP of Kanpur. Alok Kumar, the new SSP, claims that the situation has been brought back to normal. Apart from the recovery of a cache of arms, a total of 144 arrests have been made till now while curfew has been relaxed in eight police station areas.

But despite police claims that the situation was limping back to normal, Kanpur remained a dead city as no one dared to venture out into the streets.

Schools have been declared closed till March 21. Fear still lurks in every corner. Motor mechanic Mushtak Siddqui, a local resident, says their fear will go away only after Kanpur has been rid of “every gun and every crude bomb. I know what happens behind my house. I also know that the administration can do scarce little.”

   

 
 
LEFT HAS ANSWER, NO SOLUTION 
 
 
FROM MONOBINA GUPTA
 
New Delhi, March 19: 
Ask any Left leader how the Opposition will bring down the government and he reels out a standard reply: the National Democratic Alliance will crumble. What after that? “Everything will fall in place. We have an alternative arrangement.”

The leadership says there have been enough instances in the past to show that events spin on their own momentum and governments fall into place in no time. Have we not seen the third front coalesce into the United Front government, they ask.

“Things will happen on their own,” insists a Left leader. But in 1999, things did not happen on their own and the Opposition cut a sorry figure after Mulayam Singh Yadav scuttled its efforts to form an alternative government.

The Left does not want to talk about the Congress at this point, especially when it has Mulayam sitting pretty by its side. Barring informal talks with the top leadership, it will also not hold any official dialogue with the Telugu Desam, which first split open the heart of the United Front government.

But the Desam, with 29 members, holds the golden key that could open the lock of success for the topple-Vajpayee plan.

Actually, there is no plan —-the Congress’ action plan is just a blueprint of a sundry agit-prop campaign any party adopts when it wants to reach out to the people.

The Left says it will hit the streets and spark a Bofors-type movement that will shove the government out of power. But the Bofors movement was led by a man from within the Congress —— V.P. Singh, who handled the purse strings of the Rajiv Gandhi government. Far from splitting ranks after the Tehelka controversy, the BJP is rallying together.

The Opposition says it is ready for the long haul but does not know how to fill the breaches within its own ranks and narrow down Centre-state contradictions.

Will Mulayam Singh atone for his 1999 “betrayal” and back a Congress-led government? Will the Congress do penance for refusing to support a third front-led government the same year and back it now? Jyoti Basu, though the leader of the new People’s Front, will not accept an invitation to lead an alternative government. At least, so says the Left.

   

 
 
MAILMAN BUILDS BRIDGE OVER BORDER 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Sherathang (East Sikkim), March 19: 
Diminutive Amar Bahadur Gurung is a postman with a difference. The 50-plus Gurung is perhaps the only runner to cross an international border, that, too, at an altitude of over 14,000 feet, to exchange mailbags.

Twice a week, Gurung unites relatives separated by Sikkim’s Indo-Tibet border.

Under an agreement between the Indian and Chinese governments in 1992, a programme on the transfer of mail across the Indo-Tibet border was introduced. The programme was implemented at the Nathu La border post, located at an altitude of 14,500 feet, some 53 km east of Gangtok, on the erstwhile silk trade route between the Sikkim capital and Lhasa.

At the crack of dawn every Thursday and Sunday, Gurung puts on his postal department’s uniform and traverses the five-km stretch between Sherathang and the Nathu La border pass to cross over into Tibet with the official sanction of both the Indian and Chinese authorities.

Braving wind velocity averaging over 80 knots and heavy snow, Gurung crosses over a strand of barbed wire that separates the two countries and enters a concrete shed on the Chinese side. Inside the shed, Gurung hands over a mailbag to his Chinese counterpart. Hardly a word is exchanged and the operation lasts three minutes.

The ritual is repeated every Sunday with the Chinese postman from the Tibetan village of Yathung crossing over into India to hand over mail bags inside a two-storeyed conference hall.

Gurung, a resident of Sherathang, one of the few villages dotting the eastern tip of the Indo-Tibet-Bhutan tri-junction, is happy with the job he is so committed to. “Be it snow or rain, I have to trudge up the five-km stretch from Sherathang to Nathu La as no civilian is permitted to reside near the border pass. Once at the border post, it is a short process. We just exchange the bags and leave the shed. There is hardly any chance of any conversation,” he says.

Gurung’s only regret is that the post and telegraph department has still not made him a permanent staff. “Despite rendering such selfless service over the years, I have not yet being absorbed into permanent service. The only facility that I have been provided with is an official quarters behind the Sherathang post office,” he says.

The Nathu La post commander said people living in the border villages such as Sherathang, Kupup and Khangkhosla benefit from the mail exchange programme as they are mostly of Tibetan origin. “For security reasons, all letters exchanged through the border are first vetted at the postal research centre in Siliguri,” an army official says.

“If not for the programme,” explains Gurung, “letters would have taken months to reach their destinations on either side.” Before the mail-exchange programme was started, letters, after being posted in Sikkim, would have reached Yathung after travelling through Delhi, Hong Kong, Beijing and Lhasa.

   

 
 
IMAGE SERMON TO POLICE 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, March 19: 
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today said he is unhappy with the role of a section of the state police and urged the department to take steps to regain its lost glory.

At a meeting with chief secretary Manish Gupta, home secretary S.N. Roy, police commissioner Dinesh Vajpai and director-general of police Dipak Sanyal, Bhattacharjee said that several incidents could have been dealt with effectively had the force played a more pro-active role.

“Why should the people lose faith in the police? Police should be the friend of the public and have to respond as and when required by the people,” the chief minister said.

With Assembly elections round the corner, the government wants to ensure that the Trinamul Congress does not get any handle to beat the government with on the law and order front. The party has already submitted a memorandum to the Governor and the Union home ministry, demanding Central intervention as law and order had “deteriorated” in the state.

Sanyal countered that there was nothing to complain about as far as the overall situation in the state was concerned.

“Only some police station areas in a particular zone are facing problems because of political clashes and violence. We are making all efforts to contain it and restore peace there,” the state police chief said.

Leaders from the Non-Gazetted Police Karmachari Samity and Police Association, who were also present in the meeting, pointed out that the force is plagued with a variety of problems and despite several appeals, nothing has been done.

They said many policemen do not get housing and medical facilities, many police stations do not have an adequate force, vehicles or equipment. Several police station buildings are in a sorry state and could collapse any day. The leaders demanded that police hospitals be set up in all districts.

The chief minister agreed that policemen were facing several problems, but they have to work for the people in spite of the difficulties.

“I know that you are facing some problems and not getting adequate facilities but it should not be a hurdle to your performance,” Bhattacharjee said.

Convict arrested

A one-eyed convict who had eluded the police for 20 years was arrested today from his hideout in Phoolbagan under the Pandaveswar police station area.

Police said Ram Avtar Jadav had murdered an employee of Eastern Coalfields in Kenda, under the Andal police station area, in January 1982. “Jadav threw bombs at the victim, but also lost one hand and an eye,” police said.

   

 
 
GHISING STRIKE ARREST 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Siliguri, March 19: 
Police have arrested another key conspirator in the Subash Ghising ambush case.

An official connected to the special investigation team said Gunge Lama of Kurseong was picked up on Saturday night. Lama, a former militant leader of the now-defunct Gorkha Volunteer Cell is said to be Sharan Dewan’s “right-hand” man and the “second-in-command” of Operation Panhkabari — the plot to assassinate Ghising.

“We have been able to break the final link between the militants and the conspirators behind Ghising’s attack. Gunje Lama, who ran lodge at Kurseong’s hat-bazaar, was one of the main links man in the conspiracy. Vijay Rai alias Dhiren Rai, the slain militant Kamal Thapa and the Maoist area commander of eastern Nepal, Mohan Gurung, had stayed at Lama’s lodge in Kurseong between February 7 and 8. AK-47 rifles, carbines and Chinese-made hand-grenades were brought over from Nepal and handed over to Lama,” the official said.

Gunje’s lodge was used by the conspirators and militants as the meeting place before they carried out the operation on February 10. They had chalked out a plan to assassinate Ghising along with the GNLF’s Kurseong chief I.N. Pradhan. “Gunje has confessed that he and the other conspirators had initially planned to kill Pradhan. The plans were, however, changed later. On January 15, AK-47s, carbines and grenades were stashed at Sharan’s Singhel Tea estate residence.

   
 

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