Dilip vs Shabana in battle of stars
Rivals snigger at CPM shallow war chest
EC shoots down excise transfers
Symbol scare for small allies
BJP booth force facelift
Hill Opposition leader on suspect list
2 held for CPM leader murder
Upbeat Cong plans Parliament breather
Basu star at maiden meet to plot Atal fall
Anti-incumbency star shines for Cong

 
 
DILIP VS SHABANA IN BATTLE OF STARS 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, April 2: 
Bollywood is descending on Bengal’s battlefield.

Thespian Dilip Kumar has agreed to campaign for the Trinamul-Congress alliance, Shatrughan Sinha for the BJP and the husband wife duo of Shabana Azmi-Javed Akhtar is pitching in for the Left Front.

The Congress campaign managers have written a letter to “Yusuf Bhai” seeking his services. Dilip Kumar is a Congress Rajya Sabha member from Maharashtra. Party sources said that Trinamul’s minority department had made a special request to the Congress to bring Dilip Kumar to Calcutta and other Muslim-dominated areas of Bengal.

The party is hoping to encash Dilip Kumar’s popularity in his Bangla films like Pari and Sagina Mahato. The thespian’s performance in these films had left an indelible imprint on Bengali films, several Congress leaders suggested.

Sushma Swaraj, the BJP’s campaign manager for Bengal, has a good working relationship with ‘Shotgun’ Sinha. Shatrughan is expected to play a key role in the campaign on the Bengal-Bihar border, especially in the Durgapur-Asansol belt. The BJP feels that the Hindi-speaking population in this belt is sympathetic to the party’s cause.

The AICC’s campaign for the state is being handled by Ahmed Patel, Kamal Nath, Ambika Soni and other functionaries. The party has prepared 25-minute edited version of Tehelka and 400-odd video cassettes in Bengali will be circulated in an attempt to put the BJP on the backfoot.

The Congress was also planning to field Sunil Dutt, the party MP from Mumbai, but the actor is bed-ridden after the aircrash last week. Though Dutt cannot make it, another former hero from the Congress stables, Rajesh Khanna, will have the chance to address the Bengali “babumoshai”. Senior party leaders said that Sonia Gandhi will devote at least two days to Bengal. “She is keen to campaign jointly with Mamata Banerjee but a lot would depend on how the alliance talks go on,” an AICC functionary said.

   

 
 
RIVALS SNIGGER AT CPM SHALLOW WAR CHEST 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, April 2: 
The CPM today said it will set up a Rs 75-lakh fund to meet its expenses for the Assembly elections. However, Opposition parties expressed “doubts” over the figure, saying in reality the party would have to spend more.

State CPM secretary Anil Biswas said the targeted fund was far less than the level fixed by the state election department.

Under instruction from the Election Commission, the state election department has announced that a candidate can spend Rs 6 lakh on poll preparations. But with a Rs 75-lakh kitty, the per-head cost for its 208 candidates works out to less than Rs 1 lakh.

In a circular to all party units across the state, Biswas has asked CPM functionaries to initiate a drive to raise the fund. “We have asked all party members, supporters and sympathisers, to donate generously for the purpose,” Biswas said.

During the 1996 Assembly elections, the CPM had spent about Rs 50 lakh to meet its expenses. Justifying the higher expenditure this time, Biswas said since prices have increased, the cost of running the election campaign has also gone up.

CPM members who are in government and other services have been asked to donate a day’s salary to the party fund to meet campaign expenses.

The party will also seek financial help from the public, Biswas said. Party supporters have organised a number of fund collection drives in different parts of the state. “Such drives will be conducted in every sub-divisional and district towns,” a state party leader said.

However, Opposition parties wondered how the CPM could make do with only Rs 75 lakh when it had to fund as many as 208 candidates.

Pradip Bhattacharjee, PCC general secretary, said the actual cost will be much more. “The party has fielded 208 candidates out of a total 294 Assembly constituencies. Should I believe that each of the 208 candidates will be granted less than Rs 1 lakh to meet his or her campaign costs?” he said.

Asked how much the Congress would spend on each of its candidate, Bhattacharjee said: “We have not yet decided on this because we have yet to finalise our candidates. But we will not be able to give more than Rs 50,000 to each candidate because of a shortage of party funds,” he added.

Mukul Roy, Trinamul Congress all-India general secretary, said: “We have not yet decided on this (amount per candidate). But we will organise door-to-door campaigns instead of holding big public rallies. We hope this will help us save party funds.”

A state BJP leader said his party will go by the election department’s directive on costs. “(But) there is no doubt that our expenditure for each candidate will be within Rs 6 lakh as specified by the state election department,” the official said.

Asked to comment on the “doubts” expressed by the Opposition, a CPM leader said: “The CPM is the only party which submits its statements on poll expenditure to the Election Commission. What we are saying about our cost will be placed before the commission which is the proper judge to verify our statement,” he added.

Pre-election arrests

In a pre-election drive throughout the district, police arrested 95 people, including many MCC and PWG supporters.

Officer-in-charge of Garbeta police station Nikhli Bose said: “Most of the arrests were made from Sandhipur, Dhadhika, Sitarampur and other places. The arrested persons were wanted in a number of cases.” Police also arrested 22 persons from Jhargram. Five of those arrested belonged to the MCC, police said.

   

 
 
EC SHOOTS DOWN EXCISE TRANSFERS 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
Calcutta, April 2: 
The West Bengal government has not been able to have its way with the Election Commission which has rejected its request for largescale transfer of officials in the excise department on the eve of the Assembly elections.

The commission announced the poll schedule for the polls on Saturday. The model code of conduct, that bans transfer of officials till elections are over on May 10, came into effect from Sunday.

Keeping in view the code that guides state governments and political parties, the commission told West Bengal not to transfer officials till elections are over. It has ordered the transfer of deputy commissioners of Naugaon and Sonitpur in Assam, one of the five states going to polls along with West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry.

The Left Front’s main adversary, the Trinamul Congress, has been piling up heat on the Election Commission, expressing fears that the alliance would manipulate and rig the polls.

One of Trinamul’s main allegations is that the CPM uses its hold over the state administration to transfer officials to its advantage during elections.

Trinamul MP Sudip Bandopadhyay recently met chief election commissioner M.S. Gill and alerted him about the Left Front’s possible “designs” to influence the elections.

Transfer of officials on the eve of polls has always been an issue of friction between the commission and state governments. In the early nineties, then chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan had fought a bitter battle with Laloo Yadav, who was then at the helm in Bihar, over transfer of officials on election-eve.

Laloo’s opponents accused him of posting Yadav officials who would help him “unfairly” in crucial districts where he stood on shaky ground.

West Bengal chief electoral officer Sabyasachi Sen is sending a list of returning officers and their assistants who have been serving for over four years in the same post in the districts.

The Election Commission has directed that officials who have been serving in the districts for more than four years cannot remain there during the polls. The directive, however, is not valid for the Calcutta Metropolitan Area and Darjeeling district.

Sen said that while none of the district magistrates, who are also the returning officers, were holding tenure for more than four years, 39 officers were eligible for transfer. Among them are seven additional district magistrates and 32 block development officers and sub-divisional officers.

Sen said that barring the steps on officials conducting polls, the poll panel has frozen all transfer of state government employees till the end of the polls. “We have also received a request from the state government not to transfer officials who have less than a year for retirement,” he added.

The state election chief said the government’s request had been forwarded to the commission. Sen said the state home (personnel and administrative reforms) department would furnish a full list soon.

   

 
 
SYMBOL SCARE FOR SMALL ALLIES 
 
 
BY OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Calcutta, April 2: 
Five small Left Front constituents are in a fix over contesting the Assembly elections on the CPM symbol in the wake of an Election Commission directive. The Left Front has convened an emergency meeting tomorrow to discuss the issue.

The Election Commission has stipulated that candidates, who do not belong to recognised political parties, will have to accept free symbols.

The Left Front constituents affected by the directive are the West Bengal Socialist Party, Forward Bloc (Marxist), Democratic Socialist Party, Biplabi Bangla Congress and Revolutionary Communist Party of India.

The total number of candidates of these constituents is 10. The concerned parties have been contesting polls on the CPM symbol since 1982.

West Bengal Socialist Party chief and state fisheries minister Kironmoy Nanda said his party had appealed to the Election Commission to provide the free symbol, bungalow, to its four candidates.

“We are a registered party and consistently winning at least three of the four Assembly seats since 1982. Moreover, my party has a minister in the state Cabinet. The commission has asked for a few more details about functioning of the party and we hope that our appeal will be considered,’’ Nanda said.

State chief electoral officer Sabyasachi Sen admitted that Nanda’s party had asked for the bungalow symbol. But the commission had not taken any decision on the issue.

Minister for fire services and Forward Bloc (Marxist) leader Pratim Chatterjee admitted that his party might face an electoral debacle if it was not allowed to contest on the CPM symbol.

“We have only two candidates this time. Party workers have already completed 75 per cent of wall-writing, clearly indicating that the CPM symbol is also our symbol. Now we have to pick one of the free symbols available for the Independents at the time of filing nomination. If so, we have only 10 days left for campaigning with the new symbol. It is difficult for us to convince voters that it is the same party with a new symbol within such a short time,’’ Chatterjee said.

The Democratic Socialist Party is contesting two Assembly seats. Its chief and state parliamentary affairs minister Probodh Sinha is not very perturbed over the issue. “This will be discussed at the Left Front meeting tomorrow and we will abide by the consensus arrived at in the meeting,’’ he said.

According to the state election office, it has been made mandatory for a candidate to submit a declaration from the recognised party that he/she is a party member and should be allowed to use its election symbol. The commission will not allot the symbol of a recognised party only because the candidate is enjoying its support.

   

 
 
BJP BOOTH FORCE FACELIFT 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 2: 
The BJP’s Bengal unit has forced a change in the name of the booth management committee for the Assembly polls from Kesariya Vahini to the “more secular and acceptable” Booth Suraksha Committee.

The booth management committees, set up by the BJP’s youth wing — the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) — have traditionally been termed Kesariya Vahini, which literally translates as ‘saffron brigade’.

The Vahini’s slogan is “Ten youths for every booth”. It was set up to counter the “booth management techniques” of parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party in BJP strongholds in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

BJP sources said the idea behind the Vahini was to “beat” the party’s opponents in the game of booth-capturing and rigging.

While the Kesariya Vahini nomenclature went down well in the Hindi heartland and Hindutva-friendly Gujarat, the Yuva Morcha was “advised” by the Bengal unit to opt for a more “secular” name in Marxist indoctrinated Bengal and spare itself the “ignominy” of being branded “far right”.

Sources said another reason for the suggestion was not to antagonise the Trinamul Congress — when it was still part of the BJP-led coalition — and risk angering Mamata Banerjee’s Muslim voters. But even with the partnership off, the BJP decided to drop Kesariya Vahini in Bengal.

The Booth Suraksha Committees will distribute pamphlets and other publicity literature apart from “protecting” polling booths.

The brief for the elections apart, the Yuva Morcha plans to set up a Deendayal Study Circle in every district headquarters to familiarise activists with contemporary issues and indoctrinate them with the Sangh ideology.

Sources said that while experts from outside would be invited to lecture on contemporary subjects, the ideological inputs will be supplied exclusively by the parivar.

   

 
 
HILL OPPOSITION LEADER ON SUSPECT LIST 
 
 
FROM PROBIR PRAMANIK
 
Siliguri, April 2: 
Investigators claim to have stumbled upon vital clues on the involvement of a senior hill Opposition leader in the assassination attempt on Gorkha National Liberation Front leader Subash Ghising.

An official connected with the special investigation team said that the arrested militant leader, Chhattray Subba, has disclosed during interrogation that the Opposition leader belonging to the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists — a breakaway group of the CPM — was part of the conspiracy.

Subba, the leader of the Gorkhaland Liberation Organisation, has also disclosed that the assailants received arms training from Naga militants.

“Subba has revealed that a senior Opposition leader of the breakaway hill Marxist group, the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxist (CPRM), had attended a series of meetings with other conspirators at Birtamod in eastern Nepal. The meeting had taken place immediately after the November 12 shootout between suspected Naga militants and the police in the Tinkataria jungles in Kalimpong,” the official said.

An SIT team has been sent to Nagaland to follow up on the attackers’ involvement with Naga militants. The operation has been codenamed “Operation Monkey-eaters”.

The team will also investigate the role of Subba’s co-conspirator: former GNLF militant leader and acting president of the Akhil Bharatiya Gorkha League (ABGL), Tseten Sherpa.

“While Subba has strong family links in Nagaland, Tseten Sherpa had also spent over a decade in the northeastern state. Sherpa left Nagaland to join the Ghising-led GNLF in the mid-1980s. Subba’s first wife (of Nepali origin), his son and daughter still live in Nagaland. Sherpa, too, has strong links with Nagaland,” the official said.

“Another team of the SIT will also visit Nagaland to look into the NSCN(I-M)’s possible connection with extremists in Nepal. Both Subba and Tseten Sherpa were instrumental in acquiring arms training from the NSCN (I-M). We are also probing if arms had been procured from the Naga outfit as claimed by the GLO chief. Another team will visit Nepal on a follow-up mission. We have information that Tseten Sherpa is being sheltered by a prominent ruling party member in Kathmandu,” the official added.

Political observers in Darjeeling hills have raised doubts over the way the SIT investigation is being conducted. They have questioned the GNLF’s repeated decisions to defer the indefinite bandh.

“Initially, the GNLF leadership had claimed that Subba was the prime suspect. However, after his arrest the GNLF leadership has repeatedly pointed out that he was only the ninth-ranking mastermind. They are now trying to implicate the entire Opposition. Subba’s reported confessions too smack of being tailored to suit the GNLF’s whims and fancies. Now the GNLF is using the investigation to implicate political opponents,” a political analyst said.

The SIT’s disclosures have come under fire from the Opposition. “Earlier they arrested two prominent ABGL leaders on the strength of a confessional statements made by Gunje Lama, an arrested conspirator, in front of the sub-divisional judicial magistrate, Kurseong. Now they are trying to implicate other Opposition bigwigs on the basis of Subba’s revelations,” said an Opposition leader who did not wish to be named.

   

 
 
2 HELD FOR CPM LEADER MURDER 
 
 
BY A STAFF REPORTER
 
Calcutta, April 2: 
After a massive search for the last three months, police today arrested two persons who had masterminded the murder of CPM south 24-Parganas district committee member Kalipada Haldar.

The CPM had launched a statewide protest after Haldar was shot on his way back home in January.

The two accused, Pankaj Mondal and Dudh Kumar Haldar, were first spotted in the morning when they were travelling in a Sealdah-bound local train from Diamond Harbour.

Basudev Halder and Nakul Halder, two Citu members, who were travelling in the same compartment, identified the two and raised an alarm.

Basudev accused Pankaj of murdering his elder brother a year ago.

At this, Pankaj and Dudh Kumar protested and the later took out a razor. A scuffle followed in which fellow passengers inside the compartment also joined.

Severely outnumbered, the duo tried to escape as the train reached Baghajatin station. But they were chased and caught by local residents. The police later arrived and arrested the two.

As the news spread, people from neighbouring areas came running to the spot. CPM leader and leader of the Opposition in the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, Kanti Ganguly also arrived at the spot.

Police said Pankaj and Dudhkumar were wanted in connection with several cases including murders and dacoities.

   

 
 
UPBEAT CONG PLANS PARLIAMENT BREATHER 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, April 2: 
After stalling Parliament for 10 days on Tehelka, the Congress plans to join the Lok Sabha after the recess on the pretext that it will not create a “constitutional crisis” in blocking the Union budget.

Revising her strategy after Mamata Banerjee’s exit from the National Democratic Alliance, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi is now prepared to allow the “lameduck” government to continue and launch another assault after the Assembly polls in Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Pondicherry.

According to the party’s calculations, the NDA would draw a blank in all the five states, a development it believes could lead to the final break-up of the coalition.

So upbeat is the mood in the main Opposition party that it has put the coalition issue on the backburner. It is also lukewarm to the idea of consulting other Opposition parties like the Left and the Samajwadi Party on floor strategy.

“Let the Left and others choose their own course. We are a responsible Opposition party,” a Congress floor manager said.

The Congress has already demanded a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Ketan Parekh bank scam. The government has said it would consider the demand if the Congress returns to parliamentary business.

“We have to raise a lot of issues such as the bank scam, CBI raids and corruption in high places,” a Congress MP said. “We have got the feedback that our move to avoid Parliament has not gone down well with the masses.”

Sonia’s move to distance herself from the Left is aimed at “pleasing” Mamata, who had made it a “precondition” for the Congress-Trinamul tie-up in Bengal. Congressmen from Kerala and Assam had also put pressure on the high command to publicly distance from the Left.

“We now have openings in Bengal and Tamil Nadu to fill the non-NDA space. In the general elections, the two states can fetch 50-odd seats for us and that is a big boost,” a working committee member said, implying that the party’s dependence on the Left for “secular governance” had lessened.

Congress strategists believe an “extra push” in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar could bring back the “good old days” when the party was in power.

On its part, the Congress is prepared to share power with the likes of Mamata, ADMK chief Jayalalitha, RJD boss Laloo Yadav and other “trusted allies”.

Sonia, who has set up a special committee to revive the party in the heartland, will go to Lucknow on April 12 to hold a public meeting on the Tehelka exposé. Headed by Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh, the seven-member panel includes Balram Jakhar, D.P. Yadav, Sheila Dixit and Chowdhury Prem Singh to woo Jats, farmers, backward castes and Brahmins.

Party sources said Sonia appointed the panel as the Uttar Pradesh Congress was not getting its act together.

Everyday, 10 Janpath is being flooded with complaints against UPCC chief Sri Prakash Jaiswal. Sonia, however, is not inclined to frequently change state unit chiefs.

   

 
 
BASU STAR AT MAIDEN MEET TO PLOT ATAL FALL 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 2: 
The People’s Front has begun stitching together its tattered remains. A fortnight ago, third front leaders, led by former Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu, launched a new front which is going to have its first meeting at the residence of CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet tomorrow.

Basu is arriving here tonight to preside over the meeting. Apart from the four Left parties, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, former Prime Ministers V.P. Singh and H.D. Deve Gowda will attend the meeting.

Formed in the aftermath of the Tehelka revelations, the People’s Front is working towards dislodging the 23-member alliance from power in Delhi and reworking the experiment that had spawned the United Front government in 1996.

The one person on whom the leaders are pinning their hope is Basu. After his exit from chief ministership, he is expected to turn his attention to national politics and the third front’s main objective of replacing the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government with a third alternative.

Tomorrow’s meeting will focus on the Assembly polls and particularly West Bengal where the Left Front is going to be under an onslaught of the Trinamul-Congress combine. The bonding between the two will alter equations between the Left and the Congress — a shift Mulayam is going to welcome more than anyone else.

The Samajwadi Party chief, who is fighting a turf battle with the Congress in his homestate of Uttar Pradesh, split from the United Front after Surjeet heavily pitched in for a Sonia Gandhi-led government at the Centre. A Congress-Trinamul alliance will hit the CPM where it hurts the most — its best guarded fortress for over two decades.

Any shift away from the Congress will motivate the People’s Front more to put together a third alternative — equidistant from both the BJP and the Congress. Tomorrow’s meeting will also discuss the possibility of widening the base of the front by including people like Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Laloo Prasad Yadav.

Laloo’s entry has been fraught with hitches. First, the Congress is Laloo’s ally, which seems to be moving more and more away from the third front. Second, the CPI, after being “let down” by Laloo, does not want him in the new front.

But the CPM has been maintaining a close bond with Laloo, even though the party had refused to have him in the United Front after he was chargeheeted by the CBI in the fodder scam. Since then, the CPM seems to have had a change of political line and is treating communalism as a greater danger than corruption.

In the May elections in Tamil Nadu, the CPM has had no qualms about teaming up with ADMK chief Jayalalitha, who has been indicted by the court in multiple corruption cases.

The People’s Front is hoping that the Assembly polls will turn the political tide around and the Vajpayee government will tie itself in knots over contradictions inside and outside the NDA.

   

 
 
ANTI-INCUMBENCY STAR SHINES FOR CONG 
 
 
FROM T. N. GOPALAN
 
Thiruvananthapuram, April 2: 
Of the five states going to polls, the Congress appears to have the brightest chance of coming to power in Kerala.

Though the CPM claims credit for the strides the state has made over the decades — Kerala has the lowest population growth rate, the highest literacy rate and an enviable sex ratio — the United Democratic Front led by the Congress could cash in on the anti-incumbency factor in the May 10 polls, feel analysts.

Political pundits feel that what seems to matter at any given point of time is the “efficiency” of a government in power. “That way the E.K. Nayanar government’s track record has not exactly been impressive,” said a political analyst.

He said Nayanar seems to have alienated a large section of the people with his “devil-may-care” attitude.

Suresh Nambath, a journalist, said: “Nayanar tends to put off people with his gawky and abrasive manners. Otherwise, there’s nothing particularly outrageous about his performance. It’s the fatigue factor or the anti-incumbency feeling... that’s going to weigh against the LDF (Left Democratic Front).”

But the CPM is attempting a facelift to take on the Congress. It has projected V.S. Achuthanandan of the backward Ezhava caste as the chief ministerial candidate. Besides, the LDF manifesto promises to “tap the rich potential of information technology” and generate a million jobs.

The party has also decided to drop most of the ministers, including Nayanar, from the list. The CPM is fielding 26 new candidates, including a famous poet, an economist and a priest.

Dr Thomas Issac, a member of the state Planning Commission who is seen as the brain behind the “people’s plan” — a decentralisation plan according to which the people of a panchayat decides what to do with an allotted funds — is making his electoral debut.

“Our efforts have been eminently successful,” he told The Telegraph. “The targets achieved in the Ninth Five-Year Plan in such areas as infrastructure and housing have been three times that in the previous plan. There have been so much devolution of funds, so much decentralisation of the panchayats that people have begun to see the real meaning of democracy. We are going to ask them whether they want more of this or not. We are confident of their answer.”

However, if the last local body polls were any indication, the Kerala electorate was not swayed by the people’s plan.

Robin D’Cruz, an analyst tracking Kerala, said the victory margins in the state are small — some 1,000 votes in each constituency. This, he said, can lead to last-minute swings.

The Congress is projecting A.K. Antony as chief ministerial candidate, giving a short shrift to the K. Karunakaran clan. Antony enjoys a squeaky clean image and the Congress hopes that would help eat into the Left vote bank. His recent statewide yatra was a big success.

The BJP, too, has made inroads in the state. While it is not strong enough to pose a challenge to the Left, it could take away the fringe votes.

But the Left has received an unexpected boost with cracks developing in the Congress camp. There were intense fights over the seat-sharing arrangements in the UDF. Besides, Karunakaran threw a fit when he was not nominated as a chief ministerial candidate.

Former KPCC president Vayalar Ravi, however, glossed over the trouble saying it only reflected the “democratic spirit” in the Congress.

   
 

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