Sonia puts off soothe-satrap mission
Headache front in Bengal
PM sets up firefight date with parties
Bush offers Clinton Vision small consolation
Bypoll heartache for all players in heartland
Gujarat govt washes hands of relocation
SFI apology breaks varsity deadlock
Race to beat bandh ends in tragedy
Attack proof blow to Saifuddin
CPM draft to educate cadre on Congress

New Delhi & Kochi, April 9: 
Congress president Sonia Gandhi continued to grope in the dark over the stalemate in Kerala as she abruptly called off emissary Ambika Soni’s tour to Thiruvananthapuram.

Faced with a defiant Karunakaran and a jittery A.K. Antony, Sonia plans to buy time before embarking on a “peace mission”.

The Congress chief believes the rapprochement should include “minor adjustments” such as striking a balance between the Antony and Karunakaran groups.

But the veteran leader has other plans. His first priority is to dislodge rival Antony as chief ministerial candidate — a proposal unacceptable to Sonia.

Through the day, the party chief stayed in touch with functionaries handling Kerala. Several calls were made to MP P.C. Chacko in Thrissur who is considered close to Karunakaran. Sonia also chaired a meeting of office-bearers at 10 Janpath to break the impasse.

Party strategists are working on two plans. First, to redistribute the seven seats allegedly allotted against Karunakaran’s wishes. Only two of the seats were given to his camp. Sonia’s managers are hoping both sides will be happy if the seats are shared on a four-three basis.

Second, to identify a person who could talk to Karunakaran because Sonia is against sending either Ghulam Nabi Azad or Ahmad Patel, largely held responsible for the present state of affairs.

Sonia might pick former Karnataka chief minister Veerappa Moily. She is also thinking of sending Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh. Bengal unit chief Pranab Mukherjee, seen as a man for all seasons, is busy with the selection of candidates for the elections.

Karunakaran defiant

Karunakaran today remained defiant and the high command fears that he could field rebel candidates in all the seats. But barring one, no loyalist has come out in public in support of the old warhorse.

Only Sarala Devi, a member of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee executive, announced that she will fight the official candidate in Aranmula near Thiruvananthapuram.

Other Karunakaran loyalists are either keeping quiet or have made it clear that they are unwilling to rock the Congress boat.

K.M. Thomas, a trusted lieutenant of Karunakaran and a candidate for the Ernakulam seat, has distanced himself from the squabbling and is stressing on the need for unity to defeat the ruling Left alliance.

“Karunakaran, of course, feels terribly hurt and his feelings must be assuaged...anyway, we must put our house in order before it is too late...I’m not going to blame any one individual for the current mess,” Thomas said.

Asked what he would do if Karunakaran decided to revolt, Thomas said: “I’m a Congressman and I’ll remain one, whatever the circumstances.” Karunakaran’s daughter Padmaja, however, said she would abide by the high command’s decision.

The high command is afraid that firebrand youth leader Sarat Chandra Prasad, another staunch Karunakaran supporter, might contest against the official nominee in Attingal. Prasad is a more powerful leader than Sarala Devi and is closer to Karunakaran. However, he has been silent so far.

Unlike yesterday, when Karunakaran loyalists burnt effigies and shouted slogans, there were no public demonstrations of support anywhere in the state today. However, Karunakaran’s residence remained a hive of activity, with a large number of supporters thronging it.

Turning to the other problem area, Sonia today pulled up Karnataka chief minister S.M. Krishna over the A.K. Koujalgi affair, being dubbed as a mini-Tehelka. Krishna had called on the party chief.

Sonia was unhappy she was kept “in the dark” about the case when it was pending before the lokayukta for three-and-a-half years. Search for a new Karnataka party chief is on. But this time, Sonia said, she will make “independent inquiries”.


Calcutta, April 9: 
Upset at being denied poll tickets following an electoral alliance with the Trinamul Congress, dissident Congress workers today floated a Congress Bachao Committee to field rebel candidates in at least 28 Assembly seats.

Hundreds of party workers from South 24-Parganas held a convention at the MLA Hostel here this morning to announce the committee. Abul Basar Laskar, sitting MLA from Magrahat (West), and Sudhir Bhattacharya, the Congress legislator from Falta, were among those present.

At least 15 Congress legislators, including Laskar and Bhattacharya, are being denied tickets this time after the party entered into an electoral alliance with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul which set aside only 57 of the 294 seats for her poll ally.

Laskar was appointed convener of the front and Bhattacharya was made its general secretary. “This is the only way left for us to protest against the state Congress leaders’ abject surrender to the Trinamul netri,” said Laskar. All the 28 candidates, he added, would contest the polls as Independents under the committee’s banner.

He said a workers’ convention has been lined up at Diamond Harbour on April 15 to discuss the forum’s next course of action. “We call upon all Congress MLAs who are being denied tickets to join the committee and fight the elections as Independents,” he said.

In a similar development, two Congress MLAs from Suti and Jangipur Assembly seats in Murshidabad decided to contest the elections as Independents after being denied tickets. While Sorab Hossain from Suti resigned yesterday, Habibur Rahman, from Jangipur, quit the party this morning.

Worried over the party MLAs’ decision to contest as Independents, Atish Sinha, leader of the Congress Legislature Party in the Assembly, said today this would definitely affect the prospect of the official nominees to be fielded by the alliance.

“But we cannot prevent them from doing so as they have genuine grievances against us,” he said, adding that the party had rightly staked fresh claim over six seats — two each in Malda, Murshidabad and North Dinajpur districts.

But the Congress demand has created problems for the Trinamul in releasing its final list of candidates.

Congress MPs, A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi and Adhir Chowdhury are refusing to part with some of the Assembly seats in their respective strongholds in Malda, Murshidabad and Raiganj.

The six seats, which have become the bone of contention between the two parties are Englishbazar and Old Malda in Malda, Raiganj and Itahar in North Dinajpur and Bharatpur and Naoda in Murshidabad. However, while Englishbazar, Old Malda and Raiganj have sitting Congress MLAs, Left Front nominees won from the other three seats in the 1996 polls.


New Delhi, April 9: 
Anticipating a stormy session when Parliament resumes on Monday amid phone-tapping charges, stock scams and Tehelka, Atal Bihari Vajpayee has decided to convene an all-party meeting to resolve the impasse.

To ensure that the second part of the budget session runs smoothly, Vajpayee will probably call the meeting on April 14. He will also elicit the views of all parties on rescheduling the session on account of elections in five states on May 10. The second part of the budget session is scheduled to last till the third week of May.

The Opposition had earlier complained that the Prime Minister had not convened an all-party meeting when parliamentary proceedings were crippled for seven days last month following the Tehelka revelations.

Announcing the all-party talks after a meeting of the NDA coordination committee, convener George Fernandes said the government will try to ensure that Parliament functions normally and issues of concern to common people are discussed.

“All parties should sit together and discuss the dates on which specific subjects can be debated,” Fernandes said. He added that the date of the all-party meet will be announced by parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan.

The NDA leaders will also have a separate meeting before the budget session resumes.

Apart from Defencegate, which paralysed Parliament for a week before it adjourned for recess on March 22, the Opposition has fresh ammunition with which it will try to put the government on the mat. The stock scam, the arrest of excise chairman B.P. Verma and his alleged link with some important politicians and the alleged phone-tapping of Opposition leaders are some issues that may crop up.

But Congress and Left sources said barring some token protests on the opening day, they are not likely to stall proceedings.

While many MPs will be away campaigning in the states, the CPM is planning to hold a campaign in and outside Parliament. As part of this strategy, it is in their interest to allow the House to run so that they can highlight the government’s failures. Sources said the Left will work in tandem with the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

The Congress may not stall proceedings beyond a point as the party has lost much firepower following corruption charges against Sonia Gandhi’s personal secretary Vincent George and A.K. Koujalmi, who was forced to quit as Karnataka state unit chief last week.

Fernandes hinted that the government will not spare the Congress. “The NDA will also focus on the extraordinary assets” allegedly acquired by Vincent George, he said.

Before Parliament adjourned for recess, the BJP had suggested a brief session to pass the budget. Alternatively, they had asked that the session be rescheduled to allow members to campaign for Assembly polls. But the Opposition did not oblige as it felt the BJP was not willing to face the House amid the Tehelka revelations.


Washington, April 9: 
Even as Indian officials here and in New Delhi are ecstatic over the unscheduled and rare meeting between US President George W. Bush and foreign minister Jaswant Singh, the Republican administration here has subtly cautioned New Delhi against taking Indo-US relations too much for granted.

Although secretary of state Colin Powell acknowledged that Singh’s meeting with Bush “is indicative of the importance with which we view our relationship with India”, his spokesman Richard Boucher warned that the architecture of Indo-US relations may not, in future, be the same framework that former president Bill Clinton had put in place last year along with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Boucher went so far as to say, “they are not scrapping it”, when he was asked about the new administration’s position on the framework created by Clinton and Vajpayee last year at two meetings within a span of six months.

The framework includes a “Vision Statement” signed by both which was seen by the previous administration and is still viewed by South Block as a road map for Indo-US relations in future.

Boucher said: “I don’t want to say that it is strictly sort of that framework.” He pointedly added that “this administration will have its own ideas about how to proceed”.

While all has gone well with Singh’s visit, even exceeding expectations, it is these “own ideas” of the Republican administration that Boucher is talking about which should create nagging doubts about American objectives in Indian minds.

There is general speculation here that the gesture by Bush in inviting Singh into the Oval Office was triggered by the stalemate in US efforts to win the release of the crew of an American spy plane now in China. Hamstrung by its macho rhetoric during last year’s election campaign and thereafter in office, the Republicans are now clutching at any straw to give China a diplomatic black eye in the battle of wills over the spy plane.

Powell and other US officials told Singh that they wanted Indo-US relations to stand on its own and not in any way be linked to America’s ties either with China or with Pakistan.

But the undercurrents are there for all to see. Even a Congressman as supportive of India as Ed Royce, co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on India, could not help bring in China and the spy plane tangle in a statement commending Singh’s visit.

Royce underlined the significance of the Bush-Singh meeting, but in the same breath pointed out how flawed Clinton’s policy of cosying up to China has been.

Another nagging worry about the Republican administration’s “own ideas” on Indo-US ties is the quid pro quo which Washington would demand of New Delhi for anything done in its favour.

In this, the Republican administration is certain to be quite different from its predecessor: Clinton never really asked anything of India except to be invited to make a state visit as part of the effort to fill what he called a gap in his life. Indeed, he was willing to let India have its way on many things as part of this personal objective.

But with the Republicans, it will not be the same.

Powell has already said that he envisages a peace-keeping role for India in the Indian Ocean region.

In plain language, it means that this administration expects India to answer America’s calling in the region just the way the Australians are doing it for Washington in the Indonesian archipelago and the Europeans in the Balkans.

That this White House will not give anything away to India for free was also obvious from White House spokesman Ari Fleischer’s characterisation of Singh’s meeting with Bush. It lacked any of the enthusiasm or jubilation with which the Indian side described the meeting.

Fleischer said: “The Indian defence and foreign minister was in the White House this morning meeting with Dr Rice (National Security Adviser). He had a brief exchange of pleasantries with the President in the Oval Office. But his meeting took place with Dr Rice.”


Lucknow, April 9: 
Haidergarh bought chief minister Rajnath Singh’s big promises of development and swept him to victory in the Assembly byelection.

But Rajnath’s victory margin of 40,364 votes could not turn into a celebration for the BJP as it lost the Sadabad seat to the Rashtriya Lok Dal.

In the first speech after the results were declared, Rajnath thanked the people of Haidergarh but left out partymen from the victory credits.

“I thank the people of Haidergarh for their faith in me and I will serve them to the best of my ability,” Rajnath said as he left senior leader Kalraj Mishra to fend questions on the BJP’s defeat in Sadabad.

“We lost the Sadabad seat because of the polarisation of a section of votes,” Mishra said, adding quickly that the BJP was happy with the results as they have pointed to some “very positive things for the party”.

The main reason for Mishra and his party’s happiness is that the Tehelka tapes have made little impact on the rural electorate.

While Rajnath won with a whopping margin in Haidergarh, getting nearly 51 per cent of the votes, the BJP came second in Sadabad.

The ruling party is also relieved that the Samajwadi Party has failed to give it a “telling reply”. While it was a distant second in Haidergarh, it came third in Sadabad, trailing behind the BJP. If anything, the party that called itself the BJP’s “nemesis” has done worse than before. In the last Assembly elections in Haidergarh, it had got 33 per cent of the votes. This time, it could manage only 21 per cent. The going was not good for the BSP either. It came third in Haidergarh and fourth in Sadabad.

The Congress was routed in both constituencies. In Haidergarh, its candidate Sarvesh Bajpai lost his deposit and in Sadabad, it trailed behind the four major parties.

A cheerful Mishra crowed: “The Samajwadi Party, the BSP and the Congress are in a disarray. As everyone can see, they are far behind the BJP in both the constituencies. It is a clear indication of the way things will turn out in the Assembly elections.”

If the bypoll results are any indication, the Opposition will have to do much more than rake up the Tehelka tapes to counter the BJP.

With Assembly elections round the corner, time is fast running out.


Ahmedabad, April 9: 
The Gujarat government has washed its hands of the relocation problem in Kutch and left it to the people to decide their fate for themselves.

“Ideally, the government would like all four devastated towns — Bhuj, Anjar, Bhachau and Rapar — to be relocated,” said roads and building minister Nitin Patel.

“But except Anjar, where people are willing to shift, residents of other towns have yet to reach a consensus decision,” he added.

“Whatever they decide (on relocation) will be acceptable to us and the government will have no say,” the minister said.

While launching Kar Seva — a rebuilding drive — at Bhuj on April 2 along with Union rural development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu, chief minister Keshubhai Patel had promised that the contentious issue of relocation would be resolved within four days.

Naidu had expressed concern over the state government’s inability to decide on relocation even two months after the towns were razed. While expressing confidence that the issue would be resolved soon, he had said: “The state government will have to take a final decision... irrespective of the people’s opinion.”

But the state decided to steer clear of a stand when residents grew restive. They had demanded that the government declare a rehabilitation package and, among other things, disclose the total relief material it had got from other states/countries and how it had been distributed.

The government has refused to bring out a white paper on how much aid/relief it had got and what it proposed to do with the money. Dismissing the demand as “unjustified”, the minister said: “Everything is transparent. We have nothing to hide. So, where is the question of a white paper?”

Some professionals in Anjar, under the banner Group 2001, had demanded a white paper. They are agitating against the government’s inability to declare a rehabilitation package and take a firm decision on relocation “for which the entire town is ready” .

But the minister said the idea was not practical. “More than one crore people were affected by the earthquake. We cannot satisfy everybody. We cannot issue a white paper every time somebody asks for one,” he said.

Not everybody, though, is convinced with minister’s argument. Group 2001 members have started on a padayatra to Gandhinagar to highlight the problems faced by people in Anjar. They are expected to reach their destination in a couple of days.


Midnapore, April 9: 
SFI activists today tendered an unconditional apology to vice-chancellor of Vidyasagar University, Anandadeb Mukherjee, for manhandling him on March 21, paving his return to office after a gap of 18 days.

The SFI had assaulted Mukherjee in his chamber during a demonstration in support of some of their demands. Mukherjee left the campus the same day. A professor of Geology in Jadavpur University, Mukherjee was working from his office there.

Immediately after the attack, Mukherjee met higher education minister Satyasadhan Chakraborty and Governor Viren J. Shah and informed them about the incident. Both Shah and Chakraborty urged him not to quit.

Stalemate continued at Vidyasagar University following the absence of the vice-chancellor. Mukherjee had also informed Shah and Chakraborty that he would not attend his office in Midnapore unless the situation altered.

Chakraborty is believed to have taken serious exception to the incident. He took up the issue with the state CPM leadership, which asked the SFI not to indulge in such activities.

SFI leaders Somnath Bhattacharjee and Partha Mukherjee today arrived here and apologised to the vice-chancellor. Later Mukherjee held a joint news conference with the SFI leaders.

Partha Mukherjee told newspersons: “We have come all the way from Calcutta to tender our apology to the vice-chancellor. We have also instructed local SFI leaders not to be so rude with academicians while organising movements in support of their demands. The demands for which our boys were agitating were genuine, but we object to the way they handled it.”

“I told them that I am happy that they have come from Calcutta to beg apology for the March 21 incident. After all, they are like my sons and I am happy that they have realised their mistake,” he added.

SFI leaders told newspersons that their supporters were organising movements on the campus in protest against the leakage of last year’s political science (honours) question papers.

The vice-chancellor, however, said he had appointed a committee to look into the question paper leakage and the committee was probing the allegation.

It is learnt that the SFI leaders had succumbed to pressure from state CPM leadership who had disapproved the agitation on the eve of the Assembly polls.

SFI leaders were visibly annoyed when journalists wanted to know whether they had been asked by the CPM leadership to come here and tender an apology.

“The CPM has not dictated us on anything. We have come on our own to tender an apology because we want academic institutions to function without any interruption,” both the leaders said angrily.

But university teachers believe that the SFI in the university was “forced” to launch their agitation against the vice-chancellor as he had selected some of the non-teaching staff for appointment, ignoring the district CPM leadership’s recommendations.


Siliguri, April 9: 
At least 12 people, most of them home-bound labourers from Bihar who were trying to beat the hill bandh that began from 6 am, were feared drowned in the Teesta early this morning when the driver of their jeep lost control.

Five children are believed to be among the dead.

Eight labourers working at a construction site in East Sikkim’s Pakhrin Bazar and their seven children were returning home to East Champaran in Bihar. They wanted to cross the hills before the GNLF-sponsored indefinite Darjeeling hill bandh started.

The group hired a Trax jeep and left Pakhrin Bazar for Siliguri a little after midnight. The driver lost control of the vehicle and plunged into the Teesta at Likhuvir on National Highway 31A, two km from Teesta Bazar, around 2 am.

Five persons, including two minors and the jeep’s helper, escaped. They have been admitted to the Rhambi block primary health centre.

Sub-divisional police officer, Kalimpong, Anand said the bodies of three children have been recovered. They have been identified as Jasmin Ansari (6), Rukshana Khatoon (10) and Digu Ansari (13).

“The driver may have, in his effort to avoid the bandh at 6 am, been travelling at a high speed and lost control at Lihkuvir, a landslide-prone stretch on NH 31A,” Anand said. “Nine people, including the driver, are still missing. We fear the fast-flowing river may have carried them downstream. There is also no trace of the jeep.”

Hill crippled

Life in Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong has skidded to a halt following the bandh.

Darjeeling superintendent of police Sanjay Chander said that though most of the 70-odd tea gardens in the hills remained closed, work was usual in Liza Hill, Chongtong and Rongmuk gardens. Partial work was reported in eight gardens in Mirik, Sonada, Kurseong and Tindharia.

“Work in the six cinchona plantations in Kalimpong was totally affected. The toy train did not ply during the day. But there were no reports of untoward incidents. We ensured that Sikkim-bound vehicles plied normally on NH 31A. Heavy deployment of mobile units have been pressed into service to ensure that bandh supporters do not obstruct smooth flow of traffic between Sikkim and the plains of north Bengal,” Chander said.

The ongoing higher secondary board examination was held as scheduled.


Calcutta, April 9: 
Chief electoral officer Sabyasachi Sen today said the Burdwan district magistrate has not found any evidence that breakaway CPM leader Saifuddin Chowdhury was attacked by his former party’s supporters on Saturday.

District magistrate Swamy Singh said in his report to Sen that neither was Chowdhury assaulted nor was his car damaged.

Chowdhury, who founded the Party for Democratic Socialism after parting ways with the CPM, had alleged that he and his associates were assaulted by a group of supporters from his former party at Islampur in Nadanghat Assembly constituency, from where he is contesting the elections.

He had lodged a complaint with the Purbasthali police station.

Chowdhury, who had asked the CPM to apologise for the “attack”, said he was preparing a detailed complaint which he would submit to the state election authorities. “I will lodge a complaint within a day or two,” he said. The Burdwan CPM unit has denied having a hand in the incident.

Sen had asked the Burdwan district magistrate to submit a report on the allegation. Quoting from the report, the state election chief said Chowdhury was not beaten up by CPM workers. However, Sen added, one of the PDS leader’s associates was assaulted by CPM men.

“A group of CPM supporters gheraoed his car and shouted slogans and there was an altercation with PDS workers. One PDS supporter was beaten up by the rival group,” Sen said.

The chief electoral officer said trouble erupted after PDS supporters, who had organised a rally to be addressed by their leader, refused to switch off the microphone during azaan.

Seeing Chowdhury’s car with the PDS flag approaching the venue of the meeting, a bunch of CPM supporters surrounded it and began shouting slogans. Sen said three CPM supporters — Rafiqul Islam, Laltu Mondal and Pintu Mondal — have been arrested on charges of creating violence.

Sen said irrespective of party affiliation, all candidates should be at liberty to campaign and police should ensure their security.

The election chief said he had asked the police and district administration to ensure that every candidate is allowed to campaign without being intimidated. “I have also urged all political leaders to give prior intimation to the local police before holding any rally or meeting,” he said.

CPM workers heldM

Four CPM workers were arrested in Arambagh today on the charge of manhandling Trinamul Congress candidate Hasan Imam. The arrest was made on the basis of an FIR lodged by Imam, said superintendent of police (Hooghly) N. Ramesh Babu.


Calcutta, April 9: 
Seething at the Congress for allying with Mamata Banerjee, the CPM is set to mount an offensive against the party and equate it with the BJP — the communists’ enemy number one.

Senior CPM officials said today that the party would release a document on April 15 that will spell out its stand on the Congress following the electoral re-alignment.

The sources said the document will be released after the Congress-Trinamul combine announces its joint minimum programme later in the week.

That the CPM would review its earlier stand on the Congress was made clear by state party chief Anil Biswas, who said a couple of days ago that the politburo and the central committee would initiate a discussion on the role of the Congress.

Biswas accused the Congress in Bengal of helping communal forces like the BJP.

“Till today, we didn’t consider the Congress communal, but in Bengal and Kerala, the party is helping communal forces like the BJP. The Congress has also changed its attitude towards democratic and secular forces,” he said.

CPM politburo member and former state party secretary Sailen Dasgupta, who is drafting the document, said the Congress had surrendered to the Trinamul.

“The Congress is compromising with communal forces like the BJP in the state as the party is already in league with Trinamul which helped the BJP strengthen its base in Bengal,” Dasgupta said.

The document will be circulated in all district and zonal committees of the CPM to help grassroots workers understand the party’s changed stand on the Congress.

Apart from criticising the economic policies of Manmohan Singh, who was finance minister under P.V. Narasimha Rao, the CPM will also “expose” some state Congress leaders who, while remaining legislators of the party, had crossed over to Mamata’s camp.

The CPM believes that Manmohan’s liberalisation policy had opened the door to multinationals. “The BJP government is just following and implementing what Manmohan Singh had adopted in his economic policy. The Congress cannot deny its responsibility in inviting multinationals to India,” Dasgupta said.

“Congress leaders are still changing allegiance. Many of its sitting MLAs have joined Trinamul. Some of them are still Congress members inside the Assembly. We will expose these leaders in our document,” he said.


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