Bank depositors caught in stock storm
Operation iron fist plus velvet gloves
Atal dodges Brajesh stepdown
Successor strife simmers, Naidu cries off
Vigilance gets say in CBI chief selection
Importance of being George ‘sahib’
Govt seal on Basu perks
IBM to run course in schools
Ambush taint on hill veteran
PF freezes Hind Cables accounts

Lucknow, March 21: 
The trauma of the stock market crash spread from small investors to savers as the disappearance of a stock-broking firm’s owners ignited a run on one of the most high-profile co-operative banks in Uttar Pradesh.

The crisis erupted after bolted doors greeted investors at the office of Century Consultants Ltd, a 20-year-old stock-broking firm. The management of Century controls City Co-operative Bank, a favourite deposit base of Lucknow’s powerful bureaucrats and police officers.

As rumours rippled through the city that owners of the firm had disappeared with nearly Rs 400 crore, investors thronged police stations and filed nearly a hundred FIRs.

Since the owners control the co-operative bank, depositors besieged its four branches to withdraw their money. The bank tried to calm the nerves by accepting as many withdrawal slips as possible.

The branches were kept open till 8 pm. But the bank, which has accepted Rs 30 crore as deposits, could return only around Rs 1 crore.

Restive depositors said they do not expect the branches to reopen tomorrow. Reports also circulated that police have asked the managers to stay away from the branches tomorrow fearing violence.

Police had to be called today as some clients of Century Consultants threatened to lynch the bank staff. The employees pleaded that they had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the firm’s managing directors, Anand Kumar Johri and his brother Arvind Kumar Johri. They are rumoured to be in Singapore.

As many as 30,000 people, including the bank depositors and investors of Century Consultants, have been affected by the unfolding chaos. The investors had either bought shares or put money in a fixed deposit scheme of an infotech company floated by the stock-broking firm.

Century Consultants closed its doors after failing to pay up the margin money of Rs 50 crore to the Bombay Stock Exchange against a default of Rs 250 crore. Margin money is the minimum amount of cash or security that a broker has to deposit with the exchange when he buys and sells stock.

The company has also been pushed to the wall by a legal notice served by Central Depository Services India Ltd, which shut down the firm’s terminal late last night.

The stock-broking firm, which was also running a finance company, had attracted a lot of investors by promising them dividends as high as 24 per cent on their fixed deposits.

It had tried to cash in on the infotech boom by floating Cyberspace Infosys India Ltd. The price of Cyberspace shares had zoomed to Rs 1,000 each, but plunged to Rs 38 during the market bloodbath.

Allegations have now begun to surface that the management pumped money to shore up prices of the share and was pushed into a cash crunch. The investors turned suspicious yesterday when some cheques issued by the firm for a few crores started bouncing.

“Where do we go?” cried Savita Chaudhary, outside the firm’s Ashok Marg office. “All my life’s savings had been invested in this company. I will give my life if I don’t get back my money.”


New Delhi, March 21: 
The beleaguered A.B. Vajpayee government today struck an aggressive stance and took a series of steps to control the Tehelka damage.

The government’s strategy is to keep allies in good humour and launch a no-holds-barred attack against the Congress.

As part of the gameplan, the CBI today resurrected a disproportionate assets case against Vincent George, secretary to Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

The Prime Minister’s managers also got the Shiv Sena to go back on its demand for the removal of Vajpayee’s aides Brajesh Mishra and N.K. Singh and its criticism of his foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya.

While the case against George will serve as a diversion, the government is planning to dig out the various scams during Congress regime for the benefit of the BJP campaign.

Vajpayee’s aides and parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan got in touch with Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray after his party mouthpiece Saamna, in an editorial titled Sou Chuhe Khakar Billi Chali Gayi Haj Par, demanded the removal of Mishra and Singh. The editorial also said the government should ensure that Bhattacharya has nothing to do with the PMO.

Sena parliamentary party leader Anant Geete was asked to clarify the editorial at the BJP’s daily press briefing today. Geete said the editorial was written by co-editor Sanjay Raut, not Thackeray.

“Raut had only supported the government but had expressed an opinion (on PMO). Thackeray is not happy with the editorial,” Geete said.

The Prime Minister met sulking Janata Dal (United) leader Ramakrishna Hegde, who had threatened to quit the NDA yesterday, and almost apologised for George Fernandes’ behaviour. Hegde is upset because an invitation to him to attend a National Democratic Alliance meeting was withdrawn under pressure from Fernandes. Vajpayee told Hegde he would ensure the leader was not humiliated again.

The Prime Minister also met civil aviation minister and Janata Dal (U) president Sharad Yadav who is trying to keep his restive MPs together following the scam.

The absence of V. Sreenivas Prasad, minister of state for consumer affairs and public distribution, from Fernandes’ residence on December 28, when the Tehelka team is said to have paid Rs 2 lakh to Jaya Jaitly, has come as straw in the wind for the Samata Party and the government.

BJP leader and rural development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu addressed a joint press conference today at Fernandes’ residence with railway minister Nitish Kumar and Sreenivas Prasad.

They said Prasad was in Karnataka when the alleged payoff took place and claimed that no money was received by Jaitly.

“The party has become a victim of bundle of lies unleashed by the news portal,” Kumar claimed.

However, Tehelka editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal said it was a technical mistake which did not mitigate the enormity of the scam. When Jaitly told the Tehelka team to send the money to Prasad, they thought he was among those present in the room. The investigators mistook the person who took the money for Prasad, who is not a well-known politician, Tejpal added.

Taking refuge under the technical error, Kumar and Naidu said it demolished the entire case against Jaitly.

“Where is Rs 2 lakh? There is no money and neither is there anyone receiving the money. All these are wild allegations,” they said. “If the money was not given to Prasad, who took it?” they asked.

“You don’t send money to somebody who is present in the room,” Kumar said. “The tapes have been recorded for 100 hours. At least somewhere someone will be shown accepting money,” he said, and wanted to know who took the amount.


New Delhi, March 21: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was today ambivalent on the resignation of his principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, who has come under a cloud after the Tehelka expose.

Vajpayee, who is under increasing pressure from hardliners in the BJP and the Sangh parivar to remove Mishra, gave conflicting answers to reporters on the issue.

Asked if he would tell Mishra to quit, Vajpayee said: “He (Mishra) does not hold public office.” Subsequently, the Prime Minister claimed he had not said that Mishra should not quit.

Asked again whether Mishra should not resign, Vajpayee said: “Maine aisa nahin kaha (I did not say that).” He was talking to reporters after a civil investiture ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

To a question if the Shiv Sena had demanded the resignation of Mishra and N.K. Singh, officer on special duty in the PMO, he said: “They (the Shiv Sena) did not tell us this. It is only in the media.”

The Prime Minister’s remarks came a few hours after Ram Jethmalani, a friend of the Sena chief and former law minister who was asked to quit by Vajpayee, said the government was following “double standards” on the Tehelka expose.

The government had pressed the panic button while reacting to the situation, he said. “It has gone into a funk.”

“If a minister is asked to resign and leaders of two political parties are made to resign on the basis of the tapes, then the same standard should apply to others,” Jethmalani told a news agency.

The criminal lawyer said “the tapes obviously refer to Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Brajesh Mishra’s name has been taken. There cannot be double standards in this unless there is some method of distinguishing between the cases of George Fernandes and Mishra”.

The former law minister said Vajpayee has not come out with any particular method of distinguishing between the two.

Defending Fernandes and Jaya Jaitly, Jethmalani said: “If the government has gone by the tapes, there is hardly any reason why George should resign.”

The Prime Minister blamed the Opposition for the impasse in Parliament. Asked if the government was planning to initiate talks with the Opposition to break the stalemate, he replied: “We will consider your suggestion.”

He said even though those named in the expose have resigned, “no guilt has been proved”.

Lamenting the Opposition’s conduct, the Prime Minister said the government was prepared for a discussion on corruption in Parliament.


New Delhi, March 21: 
Uncertainty loomed over the fate of acting BJP acting president K. Jana Krishnamurthi as none in the party was willing to say if his appointment as Bangaru Laxman’s successor would be ratified by the national executive.

The question mark persisted even as rural development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu denied he was in the race for the post, saying he was “not mature enough to take on the responsibility”.

The BJP’s national executive, its highest decision-making body, is slated to meet in the capital on March 24 and 25 for an emergent session, necessitated by the Tehelka-created crisis both in the NDA government and the party.

Krishnamurthi was named Laxman’s successor a day after the latter quit on being shown taking a bribe in the Tehelka tapes. Although BJP general secretary (organisation) and spokesman Narendra Modi had emphasised that his elevation would be a “permanent arrangement” while announcing his appointment, Naidu continued to refer to Krishnamurthi as “acting president” even today.

Naidu parried queries at a news conference on Krishnamurthi’s status and clarified on his own position. Attempting to scotch reports that he was emerging as a “consensus” candidate, he said: “We are fighting a political battle against political opponents. These sort of stories will send the wrong signal.”

BJP sources said a decision on whether the formal ratification of Krishnamurthi’s appointment would form part of the agenda of the national executive was expected to be taken in a meeting of the Central office-bearers tomorrow. As of now, the agenda only includes the adoption of two resolutions — a political one and the other on the general budget — and deliberations on the five coming Assembly elections. However, Krishnamurthi will make the opening remarks.

According to the BJP’s constitution, if the president was to be changed mid-term, the senior-most vice-president —Krishnamurthi in this case —would automatically fill in for him. The national executive would formally endorse his appointment and he would continue for the rest of the term.

But if he was to be changed mid-way or he resigned, an election would be called, beginning with the filing of fresh nominations. The final seal of approval would be given by the national council, which comprises the electoral college.

But sources said there were indications that Krishnamurthi would probably stay on. For one, he is expected to move into the cabin occupied by former presidents, L.K. Advani and Kushabhau Thakre. Laxman had created a new office for himself in keeping with the dictates of Vaastu Shastra, but the plush suite with fancy tiled floor and brand-new furniture has been shut and will be opened only for VIP visitors like Vajpayee and Advani.


New Delhi, March 21: 
The Cabinet finally empowered the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) last evening, giving it the teeth it had been seeking for the past year-and-a-half.

The CVC, including the vigilance commissioners, will have a say in the selection of the chiefs of the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate. Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan said the Centre has accepted all changes that a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) had recommended in the Central Vigilance Commission Bill, 1999.

The Bill will be introduced in Parliament in the second half of the budget session. The Cabinet decision will require parliamentary ratification before the recommendations are implemented. The 30-member JPC, headed by Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, had recently submitted its report to the government. However, two MPs, Nitish Sengupta of Trinamul Congress and Kuldip Nayar, had submitted to the JPC dissent notes on changes in the Bill.

The government’s acceptance of the JPC’s recommendations comes in the wake of the Tehelka tapes which levelled charges of corruption against bureaucrats and other Central government officials. Among the important recommendations is the retention of the “single directive” principle for the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate to seek the government’s permission before proceeding against officials of the rank of joint secretary and above. However, the cases to be pursued by the CBI against officials will be with regard to the provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act.

Another JPC recommendation was to reduce the number of vigilance commissioners from four as originally stated in the Bill to “not more than two”. This, it was felt, will not give rise to any differences of opinion in important cases. The committee also suggested the extension of tenure for the commissioners from three to four years.

The vigilance commissioners will also form a part of the high-powered committee comprising the CVC chairman and the Union home and personnel secretaries, which selects the directors of the CBI and the enforcement directorate from a panel of officers.

The retirement age of the chief vigilance commissioner and his deputies has been fixed at 65 years, but the vigilance commissioners will be eligible for appointment as CVC chairman depending on their age and tenure in office. This is in line with the elevation of election commissioners to the office of chief election commissioner.

But, after demitting office, the chairman cannot be reappointed as chief election commissioner or considered for a diplomatic position abroad, nor as administrator of Union Territories or other office of profit.


New Delhi, March 21: 
It is not for the first time that Sonia Gandhi’s private secretary Vincent George has come under a cloud.

In his long and chequered tenure as trusted backroom executive officer of the Nehru-Gandhis, George has constantly been accused by a number of senior and middle-rung leaders of being an integral part of the small coterie around Sonia.

Low-profile and soft-spoken, George’s clout dates back to the time when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister. He was picked from among the pool of AICC stenographers. Rajiv took an instant liking for this hard-working and loyal Roman Catholic who never flaunted his close association with the Prime Minister and his family.

After Rajiv’s assassination, George stuck by Sonia, though a large number of party leaders stopped visiting 10, Janpath till Sonia decided to enter politics in 1998. Over the years, what impressed Sonia most was his unflagging loyalty and dedication.

The private secretary turned down several lucrative offers during the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime — a government that never got along well with 10, Janpath. His detractors hold him responsible for the bad-blood between Rao and Sonia.

Rao also refused to give him a Rajya Sabha ticket from Karnataka, months after taking over as Prime Minister — a fact denied by him and many party leaders who claimed to be in the know of things.

Today, technically, George is not a member of the Congress party in the sense that he is neither an AICC nor a PCC member from Kerala, his home state. Yet, his proximity to Sonia has, perhaps, made him the second-most important person in the party.

A number of Congress chief ministers, functionaries, MPs and other bigwigs addresses him as “George sahib” and regard him as the eyes and ears of the high command. But no matter how hard the Sonia camp tries to dispel this impression, the importance of being Vincent George can scarcely be missed.

Every time a campaign against Sonia gains momentum, George becomes the instant target. The gameplan always remains the same: remove George and Sonia will become weak without the luxury of having the Mr Dependable by her side. George knows virtually every important person in the party, works 16 to 18 hours a day, survives on tandoori chicken and coffee, can give political advice, take down notes and maintain complete confidentiality.

What has the future in store for George? He is too important a man to be sacrificed, especially at a time when the Congress views the government’s action as a political vendetta. For once, even those against him in the organisation feel that the timing is wrong.


Calcutta, March 21: 
The Cabinet today formalised the special facilities and privileges given to Jyoti Basu after his retirement.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said the benefits were granted to Basu following a home department notification issued on November 6, 2000, the day he stepped down.

“The matter came before the Cabinet as a mention case. We do not discuss old matters brought before us in the Cabinet meeting as a matter of information. Such cases are automatically deemed approved,” Bhattacharjee said.

The legal department is learnt to have suggested to the government that the notification on facilities given to former chief ministers and Speakers should be approved by the Cabinet so that they can be continued if there is a change of government.

According to the government notification (No. 307 and 307 A — Home) issued by chief secretary Manish Gupta on November 6, 2000, Basu will continue to enjoy all privileges he got as chief minister, except his salary.

The notification says: “The state government is of the opinion that any person who has served for at least one full term of five years as the chief minister or as the Speaker of the Assembly should be granted some facilities and privileges in recognition of the services rendered by him.”

Basu’s package includes a special security net, furnished residence along with a garden, lawn and staff quarters, secretarial assistance, unlimited medical and travel expenses, an official car with chauffeur and fuel and maintenance paid for, electricity and cooking gas, telephones with STD at government cost and a sumptuary allowance of Rs 1,500 per month.

Office furniture and secretarial equipment will be provided by the state public works department.

Former chief ministers — there’s only Siddhartha Shankar Ray alive now — and Speakers — there are none — will also be eligible for the same benefits.

Bhattacharjee, however, continued to parry questions on Basu’s perks. He refused to reply to queries on why the notification, issued on November 6, was brought before the Cabinet at its last meeting before the elections. He also refused to answer a question on why the former chief minister was given a free furnished government house when he has a personal residence in the city.

Burnpur arrests

Police arrested two firearms suppliers from the Burnpur Boy’s School ground and seized five single-shutter pipe guns and 10 rounds of ammunition from them. Officer-in-charge of Hirapur police station Atul Chatterjee said the two men were moving around the school campus yesterday when they were arrested.    

Calcutta, March 21: 
The state government has finalised plans to introduce computer courses in its secondary and higher secondary schools in collaboration with international giant, IBM.

Minister for school education Kanti Biswas today said the state government will provide fully renovated rooms in schools chosen by a joint committee, comprising government and IBM officials, in which to hold the classes. IBM has fixed a rate of Rs 130 per student as fees for the courses.

“The government’s involvement in the project is by the way of providing space and infrastructure,” Biswas said. He added that his department will see to it that the schools where the courses would be held was spread evenly throughout the state in the first phase of its implementation. The IBM-run courses be available in both state-run and state-sponsored schools.

The minister said while the nitty-gritties like course duration were being finalised, his department was negotiating with IBM for a lower fee for needy but meritorious students. “I want to see to it that all deserving students join the courses,” Biswas said.

IBM will issue certificates to students passing the courses successfully. The training will begin from Class V and extend up to Class XII. IBM will provide the hardware and software as well as the faculty for the course.

Stating that the government wanted to spread computer education in schools across the length and breadth of the state, Biswas said the state government has set aside Rs 15 crore to introduce computer education in secondary schools. “This fund has been sanctioned by the state pay commission,” the minister said.

In another significant step, the state government has decided to introduce computer science as one of the subjects in the joint entrance examination. Biswas said the proposal sent by the school education department to the joint entrance examination board has been approved.

With this change in the joint entrance examination syllabus, the importance of computer education in schools will gain importance. “We expect to have computer science as a subject in the joint entrance examination by 2002,” the minister said.

Inspectors suspended

The school education department has suspended three district inspectors of schools. The three, based in Purulia, Malda and Bankura, were charged with corruption and issued chargesheets, Biswas said. “If they are found guilty, they will receive exemplary punishment,” the minister added.    

Siliguri, March 21: 
Police today claimed they had identified the masterminds and financiers of last month’s ambush on Subash Ghising with the arrest of two frontline leaders of the pro-Gorkhaland Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL).

The outfit’s central committee general secretary and a top lawyer, Amar Lama, and its Kalimpong unit acting president, Norden Lama, were arrested today. Police said the two men are among the masterminds of the strike on Ghising.

Darjeeling superintendent of police Sanjay Chander said the case was now “crystal clear”. “We have been able to identify all the masterminds along with their financiers. While Amar Lama was arrested from a house in Salbari on the outskirts of Siliguri, Norden Lama was picked up from his Kalimpong residence,” he said.

Claiming to have unearthed the entire plot, Chander added: “Both Amar Lama and Norden Lama were involved with the planning and execution of the conspiracy. Amar was instrumental in getting the hired gunmen from Nepal and Norden was responsible for coordinating the plot with GLO chief Chhattray Subba and militants from Nepal.”

The superintendent said the breakthrough came following a confessional statement made by the arrested “link-man”, Gunje Lama, before the subdivisional judicial magistrate, Kurseong, yesterday. “We are now on the lookout for the ABGL acting president and former militant leader, Tseten Sherpa, who has reportedly gone into hiding. Raids on several of his hideouts have not yielded any result so far. We expect to round up all the other conspirators and a couple of other key masterminds and the financiers within a day or two,” Chander said.

Sherpa, a hardcore GNLF militant leader during the Ghising-led statehood agitation of the mid-eighties, fell out with the GNLF chief in 1995 and took over the reins of the then defunct ABGL. Before he parted ways with Ghising, Sherpa was elected to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council for two successive terms and had even served as an executive councillor.

The implication of the oldest party in the hills — the ABGL was founded in the 1950s — has sent shockwaves through the political fraternity.

Many Opposition leaders in Darjeeling feel the government and the GNLF have begun a witch-hunt to implicate their political opponents.

“Earlier, the GNLF and the administration had blamed Subba. Now, having failed to find any incriminating evidence against Subba, the administration, at the behest of the CPM leadership and with the connivance of Ghising, has begun a political witch-hunt,” a senior Opposition leader said on condition of anonymity.

Brushing aside the allegation, Chander said: “There is no question of implicating anybody. We have a water-tight case now. We will arrest the other conspirators shortly.”


Burdwan, March 21: 
The Durgapur provident fund authorities have frozen all bank accounts of Hindustan Cables Limited for defaulting on payment of money deducted from employees.

A spokesman for the provident fund office said the Central government undertaking, which owed the authorities Rs 22.25 crore, had not deposited any amount since 1995.

“Though the amount has been deducted from the employees’ salary, the authorities have not deposited the sum,” the spokesman added. The company has at present a workforce of around 1,900.

The accounts frozen are with State Bank of India branches in Asansol and Rupnarayanpur.

Deputy general manager of Hindustan Cables N.C. Ghosh said the company will now find it difficult to manage its working expenditure. “Our wages and salaries are paid through the two accounts. I don’t know how we will pay salaries for the next month,” he said.

“This is a conspiracy hatched by the Central government. By freezing the bank accounts, they want to ensure a premature closure of the company and pave the way for its selloff,” said Citu general secretary Kanchan Dasgupta.


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