CBI goes after Sonia’s aide
BJP obliges Mamata
Delhi remembers refugees
George is news, Sonia bad news
Calcutta Weather

 
 
CBI GOES AFTER SONIA’S AIDE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 21: 
The CBI today slapped a disproportionate assets case against Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s personal secretary Vincent George, coinciding with the Opposition’s relentless onslaught on the government after the Tehelka tape scandal.

The CBI is not required to act at the behest of the Centre, but the timing of the case makes the beleaguered Vajpayee government vulnerable to charges that it has mounted a counter-offensive to silence the Opposition.

Sources said a high-level meeting was convened five days ago, after which the CBI received the nod to file the case against George. Sonia’s secretary was implicated by Ashok Agarwal, a deputy director of the Enforcement Directorate, and Abhishek Verma, a former Congress MP’s son. Agarwal is now an undertrial.

According to the case filed by the CBI’s anti-corruption branch, George allegedly amassed disproportionate assets as private secretary to Rajiv Gandhi, when he was the Prime Minister, and therefore a public servant.

The CBI began a preliminary inquiry on March 14 last year on the basis of statements made by Agarwal, who had claimed he was closely associated with George. The bureau’s FIR says that George and his family acquired moveable and immovable assets worth Rs 2.5 crore between November 1984 and December 1990. The acquisition of property and assets increased after George ceased to be a public servant. According to the CBI, George “could not explain” how he acquired the property and assets.

The CBI is also trying to find out whether George held any other landed property not acquired through his known sources of income. Agarwal is believed to have told the agency that he used to help George file his tax returns and would advise him on investment and property. George and his wife Lily were questioned by the CBI several times last year.

Caught off guard by the case, the Congress viewed today’s development as an act of political vendetta. Senior leaders said the Vajpayee regime’s retaliatory action would prove counter-productive. “Let the people judge it. The government is refusing to act against those who openly accepted bribes. Now it is digging up an old case to settle scores and send a signal as if the main Opposition party is equally corrupt. That is just not true,” an AICC general secretary said. He added that technically George was not even a char-anna-paying member of the Congress party, but is still an important person.

The Congress felt that if the government had acted against those named in the Tehelka tapes, the move against George would have had a ring of credibility. “We are for the law to take its course, but the government cannot have two sets of rules. If it’s serious about corruption, it should act against Bangaru Laxman. The whole world has seen him accepting money,” the general secretary said.

The government swung into action to control damage. Vajpayee’s managers convinced ally Shiv Sena to rescind its demand for the removal of PMO officials Brajesh Mishra and N.K. Singh. The Prime Minister met a sulking Ramakrishna Hegde and almost apologised to him for being ignored for an NDA meeting.

The Samata Party got a shot in the arm as it was able to prove that its junior minister Srinivas Prasad was not present in George Fernandes’ residence on December 28 when the Tehelka team is said to have paid Rs 2 lakh to Jaya Jaitly. Prasad was away in Karnataka then.

   

 
 
BJP OBLIGES MAMATA 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, March 21: 
Paving the way for Mamata Banerjee to join hands with the Congress, the BJP today snapped its electoral alliance with Trinamul and decided to contest all 294 Assembly seats.

“We have identified 115 seats for party nominees and the rest will be sorted out by tomorrow,” said Kailashpati Mishra, the BJP vice-president in charge of Bengal who was sent by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to try and reach a last-minute understanding with Mamata.

Signalling that his talks with the Trinamul leader had drawn a blank, Mishra, talking to reporters after their meeting, invoked Rabindranath Tagore to say: “Jodi tor dak shuney keu na aashey, tobe ekla cholo re (If no one responds to your call, then go alone).”

“We have decided to go it alone in the elections as Mamata does not show any interest in keeping the alliance going any longer,” he said.

Minutes after the BJP announced its decision, an upbeat state Congress president Pranab Mukherjee said his party would tie up with Trinamul and the Mamata-led combine will win a majority in the elections.

He added that Sonia Gandhi would hold talks with Mamata shortly to work out the modalities of the pact.

For Mamata, the BJP decision has come as a blessing as she has been spared the unsavoury task of snapping the understanding. She was reluctant to cause further hurt to Vajpayee, whom she holds in high esteem.

Officially, Trinamul refused to say whether it, too, had parted ways with the BJP. Party leader Pankaj Banerjee said the offer of 39 seats to the BJP was still valid.

“But there is no question of changing 15 seats. If they say no, the choice is theirs,” he said.

The CPM scoffed at the possibility of a Congress-Trinamul understanding with Jyoti Basu describing the alliance as “opportunistic”. “I’m certain that the people of Bengal will reject the combine as it has compromised with communal forces,” he said.

State Congress leaders have already begun talks with Mamata on the alliance. Congress sources said the party will ask for at least 70 seats.

“Going by indications, we feel that Mamata will not have any seat adjustment with the BJP,” Mukherjee said. “We are not in a hurry and that is why we have not yet finalised the list of candidates.”

Miffed BJP leaders said they were unhappy because Mamata “chose to misinterpret” the fax message sent to her from the PMO.

“The fax is neither a threat nor an ultimatum as Trinamul has described it. Instead, we had just wanted to know whether she would support the NDA from outside,” Mishra said.

BJP sources said party leaders refused to talk to Banerjee when he called up to protest against the missive. “There is no point of talking to Banerjee as we have already decided to go alone,” said a BJP functionary.

   

 
 
DELHI REMEMBERS REFUGEES 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
New Delhi & Calcutta, March 21: 
Having lost Mamata Banerjee, the BJP is seeking refuge in settlers from East Pakistan. With elections in Bengal round the corner, the Union Cabinet today announced a rehabilitation scheme for those who came over to the state from East Pakistan.

Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan was quick to deny any political motive behind the scheme which the Cabinet cleared yesterday.

The plan is to develop 11,699 plots in urban colonies in 15 districts of West Bengal to resettle families which migrated to Bengal before the Bangladesh liberation war. So, only those who crossed over till 1971 will be eligible for the scheme.

Mahajan said work will begin this financial year itself. The government has sanctioned Rs 6.5 crore for work till March 31.

Opposition parties linked the Centre’s urgency to get the project started with the approaching elections in the state. They feel the BJP believes it can improve on its 10 per cent vote bank in the state with this scheme.

The plots will be developed in Cooch Behar, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Siliguri, Darjeeling, Malda, Nadia, Howrah, Midnapore, Murshidabad, Burdwan, Hooghly, South 24-Parganas and North 24-Parganas. Purulia and Bankura have been left out because there aren’t many settlers in these districts.

Without condemning it, the state CPM saw little merit in the Centre’s scheme. Kanti Biswas, Bengal’s minister for refugee rehabilitation, said it was “a virtual eyewash and grossly inadequate”.

“The Centre had spent a lot of money on refugees who were displaced from West Pakistan but had done injustice to those who arrived from East Pakistan after the partition,” said Biswas.

“However, the Centre’s gesture is good. It has at least done something — however little it might be. A working group set up by the state government in 1993 had said that Rs 1,670 crore would be required to rehabilitate refugees staying in over 2,000 refugee colonies in West Bengal. The amount of Rs 6.5 crore is a meagre sum. We need much more,” Biswas said.

Former refugee rehabilitation minister Prasanta Sur said it was “politically motivated and a fruitless effort on the eve of the Assembly elections to win over 12 million people who had come to West Bengal as refugees”.

   

 
 
GEORGE IS NEWS, SONIA BAD NEWS 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
New Delhi, March 21: 
There’s a saying: ‘Whoever goes to Lanka becomes Ravana’. In modern-day India, that is Bharat — if not quite Ramrajya yet — it would come with an appendage: They also discover the “value of news”.

For, that is why the I&B ministry has rejected Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi’s request for time on Doodarshan since George Fernandes was granted the favour while resigning in a cloud.

I&B minister Sushma Swaraj said Prasar Bharati, which runs Doordarshan, had allowed telecast of Fernandes’ address because it was “exclusive” to DD and “because of its high news value it was picked up by other channels”.

It suggests Prasar Bharati has decided whatever Sonia has to say on the Tehelka fallout does not have “news value”. The decision to disallow her from speaking was, however, announced by the I&B minister and not Prasar Bharati which she described as an “autonomous” organisation.

If the decision whether or not to let Fernandes go on TV had been the Prasar Bharati news room’s — as she claimed it was — Sonia’s request, too, would be expected to be left to it to accept or reject. Swaraj did not say the news room had decided Sonia — bad news as she might be for the government — was no news at all.

Prasar Bharati, she said, was prepared to offer a slot for a debate, pitting Sonia against someone from the other side.

“In case you wish to participate personally in such a discussion, the government would also be happy to nominate a person of an appropriate stature,” Swaraj said in a letter to Sonia.

The Congress turned down the offer, its spokesman Jaipal Reddy describing it as a “tactical ploy” to divert attention from the Tehelka revelations.

Swaraj said Sonia could also speak in Parliament — paralysed since the exposé — in a debate and that could be telecast live. The BJP, too, pitched in.

“It is indeed ironical that Sonia Gandhi is asking for prime time on Doordarshan to address the nation when she is not ready to have a discussion in Parliament. After holding up the House’s proceedings, to ask for TV time is an improper demand,” spokesman V.K. Malhotra said.

Congress’ riposte to this was: “Transparent action against those involved in the exposé must precede any debate, including one in Parliament.”

Reddy dubbed the I&B ministry’s response an “essay in escapism”. He said the claim that Prasar Bharati enjoys autonomy was a “humourless joke”.

The born-again Congressman would not, of course, remember that his party had shown how to use the official media in the service of the government of the day.

The BJP could always say it is merely upholding tradition. Whoever comes to power becomes the Congress.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 36.6°C (+3)
Minimum: 25.4°C (+3)

Rainfall:

Nil

Relative humidity

Maximum: 93%,
Minimum: 34%

Today

Partly cloudy sky. Maximum temperature likely to be around 36°C.
Sunrise: 5.43 am
Sunset: 5.44 pm
   
 

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