Rebel and rain keep out crowds
Ally files Malda papers
‘Blair of Bengal’ banks on New Left & Tina
Cong spanner in budget voice-vote plan
Sangh siblings lock horns over Yashwant
Jaya banks on stars, sympathy
Ramakrishna book backlash in House
MPs meet Sinha with list of demands
Deshmukh saves deputy, stings predecessor
Unicef doubts Gujarat’s Narmada claim

Suti (Murshidabad), April 18: 
It was Banquo’s ghost revisited. An absent Adhir Choudhury did to Mamata Banerjee in Murshidabad what the CPM hasn’t been able to do anywhere in West Bengal: make her worry about the size of the crowd at her first election meeting in the district.

Dekho, lok hobe na (See, there won’t be a decent turnout),” she constantly told her close aides on the 75-km journey from Behrampore to Suti.

The signs were, admittedly, ominous: not a single Trinamul flag greeted her in Behrampore; the first Trinamul flag was seen more than 35 km outside the town; and the black flags at Mangaljon put up by Congress supporters did nothing to cheer Didi up, still reeling under Ajit Panja’s near-KO punch delivered in Calcutta yesterday.

Party-r katha party bolbe (The party will react to intra-party matters),” was what a sullen leader of a one-woman party told the media as she emerged from her “lucky” room at Behrampore Circuit House.

The room was lucky, a Trinamul activist explained, as it was from here that Mamata had called her first successful Bangla bandh in 1998. But if the room doesn’t turn out to be as lucky this time, it won’t be for lack of effort.

From reciting couplets to showing the largely minority-dominated crowd at Suti that the Trinamul symbol had something for every religion, it was a performance that should have fetched a bigger crowd and a more enthusiastic response. But the rains — and the potentially unwise decision to field Shis Mohammad, who was an RSP leader even two months ago — perhaps explained the missing sparks. “Don’t be afraid of the rains,” Mamata said as the first drops fell. “They are god’s blessings and follow me around.” But as soon as it became evident that the “blessings” weren’t doing the trick, she changed tack: “They are actually Allah’s tears; the state of West Bengal under the Left Front rule is making the gods weep.” The cheers were a little louder this time.

Then it was the turn for a bit of family feeling: if slain Trinamul activists were her brothers, then the women who’d turned up to hear her were her “mothers and sisters”. Intro over, it was then time for a delayed “shubho noboborsho”. Pleasantries over, it was the turn for a few promises. The first dealt with the low wages for bidi-makers; Suti is part of Murshidabad’s bidi territory: “We’ll increase the minimum daily wages from Rs 32 to Rs 67.”

Murshidabad is also Bengal’s flood-zone. So the next point was about last year’s floods. But there wasn’t any promise, merely castigation of the CPM’s failure to tackle floods and erosion.

Another deluge of couplets followed the bit about floods. The racy “Trinamul dourobe, CPM palabe” followed the more sedentary “CPM jak, Bangla thak” and then there were some more quotes from Nazrul and Rabindranath.

But there wasn’t a single reference to contentious issues like the intransigence of the Congress MPs from Behrampore and Malda, Adhir Choudhury and Ghani Khan; Murshidabad wasn’t the place to do that. Instead, there was some “gentlemanly” reminder about the “gentleman’s agreement” between her party and the Congress to Congress rebels. Murshidabad, however, doesn’t seem to be in a mood to reciprocate.


Malda, April 18: 
Four more Trinamul Congress candidates have filed nomination papers at Englishbazar, Old Malda, Gajole and Ratua Assembly seats in Malda, where A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury has refused to accept his party’s deal with Mamata Banerjee.

Three Trinamul candidates had submitted their papers on Monday. Nominations for the four remaining seats would be filed in a day or two, said Krishnendu Chowdhury who is contesting from Englishbazar.

Apart from Krishnendu, those who filed nomination papers today were Phani Ray from Old Malda, Naba Kumar Hembrom from Gajole and Mohammad Ishaq from Ratua.

Krishnendu said the candidates had submitted their papers following directions from Mamata. He blamed Ghani Khan for the break-up of the alliance with the Congress in the district.

The Malda strongman had initially wanted the alliance but has now backed out, he said. “We do not believe in the kind of politics Ghani Khan is indulging in. We will win the elections and establish the people’s support is with us,” Krishnendu said.

The election campaign had begun in full swing in Malda, the Trinamul leader said. Mamata is also scheduled to address rallies here.

“Malda is a prestige issue for us and we are confident our candidates will win,” he added.

Ghani Khan maintained a stony silence, refusing to speak to reporters who went to his Kotuali home this morning. The Malda strongman, however, met partymen at the residence of Goutam Chakraborty, the Congress nominee for Englishbazar.

When some Congress workers asked who was contesting from Englishbazar, an angry Ghani Khan said: “How many times you want me to repeat the same thing? Gautam is my candidate from Englishbazar. Let the rumour-mongers spread rumours.”

Ghani Khan said there was nothing unusual about false propaganda during elections. “This happened in the past also. The only difference is that this time the rumours are too many, he told party colleagues.

The Congress leader asked partymen to start election work. Ghani Khan said he had been with the Congress from the beginning and was not bothered about what others thought about him. He told the workers that his nominees would start filing nomination papers on Friday.


Jhargram/Kharagpur, April 18: 
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee pauses for a deep breath almost always before telling the people what they want to hear. The crowds know it too and inevitably reserve the loudest cheers for Blair of Bengal for the moment when his voice mellows to match the note of contrition.

“You have known us for 24 years,” Bhattacharjee says. “Known what we have done, what we can do, what we want to do and… what we have not been able to do.”

In the playground in front of Jhargram’s Kumud Kumari Balika Vidyalaya, where, half an hour ago, the processions were coming in from Binpur and Gopiballavpur and Nayagram and Dahijuri, a hush descends and the sound of the wind in the willows rises above the murmur.

“I have told doctors, you cannot take salaries and not treat patients; I have warned police officers that they will be punished if they do not give a patient hearing to all complainants; in government offices, in Writers’ Buildings, we have made a good beginning: the employees are coming on time and they are being made to work. They have been told that they are accountable to the people. Even if there is something they cannot do, they must explain it to you.” Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee raises visions of a New Left.

The crowd erupts. The tribals who accompanied the processionists beat their dhamsas furiously. Someone shouts a slogan in praise of the chief minister.

Bhattacharjee is speaking from a podium with a red backdrop. On it, the thermocol lettering reads: “The alternative to the Left Front is a more mature Left Front.” (Baam Front-er bikalpo, aro unnato Baam Front).

In other words, the CPM is convinced it has found the right formula against the anti-incumbency factor: Tina – There is No Alternative. Tried and tested by Rajiv Gandhi earlier, working successfully to keep Vajpayee ensconced in power at the Centre, Tina is what Buddhadeb is banking on in Bengal. On a day that an implosion called Ajit Panja tore into Mamata’s arrangement with the Congress, Tina works magic for the Left.

“In my village, there is this yearning for change, but who do we vote for?” asks Salku Hembrom of Bathandanga village, “There are three Jharkhand parties, one of which is supported by Trinamul and the Congress. “This time also it looks like the Left will win.” Hembrom is not speaking for his village in Binpur — where the Jharkhand Party’s Chunibala Hansda is the sitting MLA who is still favoured to win — but is thinking aloud on how the CPM’s campaign might impact on the rest of the state. “Did you notice how people cheered when the chief minister said he will punish police officers who do not treat people well?”

In Kharagpur, Buddhadeb repeats his speech almost word for word. “Now we promise to achieve in industry what we have achieved in agriculture. We know we need more engineering colleges, so we have asked private companies to start them because the state government cannot do it by itself. Our students are meritorious but they do not get enough opportunity. We need to open their eyes to the new opportunities: in knowledge-based industry, in genetics and biotechnology and information technology.”

Kharagpur town, too, is a Congress bastion. Old warhorse Gyan Singh Sohanpal has won in the worst of times for his party. But the Buddhadeb effect pushes CPM cadre to follow a new line.

“Jyoti Basu wanted to retire earlier. But the party refused. Now is not the time to analyse why the party went wrong. That will come later. But it is just as well that Buddhadeb is accepting that the government has its weaknesses,” says Anil Modak, a former DYFI activist who has revived his links with the party for the election campaign. What weaknesses?

“Government offices and employees have often been rude with people and we in the party have faced the music for that,” he says.

Contrition is the key to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s combativeness.


New Delhi, April 18: 
The Congress today opposed an early adjournment of the budget session and passage of the general and rail budgets by voice vote, saying voters would give a fitting reply if the government went ahead with such unprecedented measures.

The main Opposition party is keeping up a brave face in spite of its “isolation” in the Lok Sabha. Congress floor managers said they would insist on a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe against the Tehelka accused till the government met at least one of the two demands. But in view of Assembly polls, the party does not expect much from the ruling coalition.

The Congress seemed “unimpressed” by the government’s threat to get Parliament adjourned sine die after passing the budget by voice vote without a discussion. If this happens, it will be the first time that a budget is passed by voice vote.

Accusing the government of stonewalling “any credible inquiry” into the Tehelka charges, party spokesman Jaipal Reddy said: “We are totally opposed to ideas such as passing the budget in a din through voice vote. Under the Constitution, the government has no right to get the session adjourned sine die. Such a discretionary power is vested in the Speaker.”

A decision on sine die adjournment of Parliament cannot be taken unless there is an all-party consensus, Reddy added. The Congress chief whip has written to all party MPs to be present in Parliament tomorrow and on Friday.

The Congress spokesman said the party wanted a comprehensive debate on the budgets. “We cannot be privy to any unceremonious passage of budget. We will oppose it with all parliamentary skills at our disposal,” Reddy said.

If the government adjourns the House sine die, the party will make it an issue in the Assembly polls. “The outcome of the Assembly polls will be a referendum on Tehelka. We will shape up response accordingly,” a Congress Working Committee member said.

A five-nil verdict against the National Democratic Alliance would trigger a chain reaction, the party believes. “In such a scenario, we would not like to do much. The NDA and the Sangh parivar will take care of it,” the CWC member said.

Congress floor managers admitted that Parliament had been reduced to a “football ground” with all sides trying to score points in the run-up to elections in Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Pondicherry.

The party is not upset with the charge that it has been isolated in Lok Sabha, pointing out that the Left Front was hardly expected to stand by it in view of the acrimony in Bengal, Kerala and Assam.

Reddy blamed the “intransigence” of the government for the “unhappy stalemate”. He wondered why the government was refusing to accept the demand for a JPC probe into the expose.

Stoutly denying the charge that the Congress was paralysing Parliament, the spokesman said: “The government has paralysed rule of law by not initiating action against those seen culpable in the videotapes. It is the government that is running away from setting up a JPC.”


New Delhi, April 18: 
The BJP has slammed Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) founder Dattopant Thengadi for calling finance minister Yashwant Sinha names at a public rally here on Monday, bringing into the open the war between the two major Sangh parivar outfits.

BJP general secretary Narendra Modi issued a press statement late last night, expressing “deep dismay at the disapproval of the economic policies of the Vajpayee government by Shri Dattopant Thengadi”. He added that while the party welcomed “constructive criticism from any quarter, especially from those who belong to our ideological school”, the “content and tenor of Shri Thengadiji’s censure of the NDA government in recent times, culminating in his objectionable speech at yesterday’s BMS rally, leave us with no option but to counter his criticism”.

Modi released the statement only after a formal go-ahead from Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani, perceived to be closer to the Sangh. Interestingly, the BJP earlier chose to ignore Thengadi whenever he went after the government, as on the Sankhya Vahini data base project.

This time, BJP sources said, the top brass considered it “appropriate” to counter his allegations publicly because the government was already under attack from the Opposition on Tehelka. It was feared that the Sangh’s criticism would add grist to the Opposition’s mill. “Our internal problems don’t usually come out into the open, but sometimes circumstances leave us with no choice,” the source added.

In the Delhi rally, the architect of the BMS — the RSS’ labour wing — called Sinha a “criminal” for usurping the labour ministry’s constitutional rights. He was referring to the finance minister’s announcement in his last budget speech that industrial units employing up to 1,000 workers were not required to seek official permission while retrenching workers.

He also accused Sinha of “suffering from amnesia” once he became the finance minister. The context was the alleged short shrift given to the swadeshi lobby by Sinha after he assumed the post with the help of the RSS and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. But instead of placating the swadeshis, Sinha went full steam ahead with reforms and ushered in the phase of “second generation reforms” in a bid to outdo the Narasimha Rao regime.

Thengadi did not spare Vajpayee either. He began his speech with an allusion to the media’s capacity for “image-building”, and quoting from management guru Peter Drucker’s book, Beware of Charisma, said: “A country cannot progress merely by building one or two persons’ image. Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini are examples of image-building destroying personalities and their organisations.”

Without directly countenancing this criticism, the rest of Modi’s statement held a brief of the Vajpayee government’s economic policies. “The BJP, which is a leading constituent of the NDA, is uncompromisingly committed to protecting and promoting the nation’s economic interests,” it said to dilute Thengadi’s charge that Balco was sold for a song and that bureaucrats were deliberately turning healthy PSUs into loss-making units.


Madurai, April 18: 
Carefully avoiding the Raahu kalam — the inauspicious hours — Jayalalitha today filed her papers for the Andipatti Assembly constituency amid some lusty cheering by her supporters.

Today, the Raahu kalam fell between 12 noon and 1.30 pm. Jaya left her hotel around 11 pm, with an hour to spare. She reached the Theni collectorate at 1.45 pm to hand over her papers.

She filed her papers for the Krishnagiri constituency in Dharmapuri district in the north-western region on Monday.

The returning officer for Andipatti told reporters that she would treat all candidates equally and according to law. “The Election Commission has given us certain instructions and I shall abide by them,” she said.

The Election Commission had circulated a 1997 order which said anyone convicted for more than two years would not be able to contest polls. Madras High Court had not stopped Jayalalitha from contesting the polls, but had left room for ambiguity by leaving it to the Election Commission to take a final decision.

Jayalalitha’s decision to contest from two seats is being seen as an attempt to play safe. Analysts said by filing from two constituencies she is hoping that if one of the returning officers rejects her papers, the other might not.

As her cavalcade today sped away on a whirlwind tour of the state, one of her supporters said the ADMK would sweep the polls if Jaya’s papers were rejected.

Though she is stepping on the campaign gas, sources said Jayalalitha appears reconciled to the prospect of her papers being rejected by the returning officers of both Krishnagiri and Andipatti. Her strategy then could be to seek the sympathy of the masses for being a wronged woman.

Sources said even if her papers are rejected, she is unlikely to project anyone else as chief minister as she would stake claim after the polls if her front emerges winner. If the Governor refuses at that stage, she could put on the seat a person she could manipulate. One of the names doing the rounds is Visalakshi Nedunchezhian, widow of former ADMK minister V.R. Nedunchezhian.


New Delhi, April 18: 
A peaceful question hour in the Rajya Sabha today allowed members to hear a Telugu Desam MP express his anguish over how two books on Ramakrishna Paramhansa had denigrated the 19th century mystic.

The MP said he was more upset because an Internet site had given the books pride of place on its preferential reading list.

The books in question are Kali’s Child: the Mystical and the Erotic in Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna by Jeffry J. Kirpal and Ramakrishna Revisited: A New Biography by Narasingha P. Sil.

Home minister L.K. Advani later clarified in the House that the government had been aware of these two books for quite some time but had decided against opting for a ban. His logic: a prohibition of any sort would give these books undue publicity.

Advani agreed that the books “were highly offensive”. He said the home ministry was trying to sort out this issue in consultation with the external affairs ministry.

Monks at Belur Math also said the books contained certain objectionable statements about Ramakrishna.

In the House, members listened with rapt attention when Desam member C. Narayana Reddy voiced his strong objection to the circulation of the books.

He said the website authorities should be asked to delete these titles from their reading advisory list. He said the copies should also not be preserved in the Parliament library. “Understanding his words required what might be called erotic hermeneutics,” Reddy quoted from one book.

One book argued, according to Reddy, that “proper interpretation of Ramakrishna’s katha or talk in other words is fuelled by the same energies that drive sexual power”. The angry MP asked the House if these words could not be considered “derogatory”.

The issue also triggered an exchange of words between Reddy and Shabana Azmi. One of the two authors had described the mystic’s love as “erotic love”.

Azmi, seated next to Reddy, mumbled something, prompting Reddy to say: “Madam, I underline, erotic love.” Azmi responded, asking if there was anything wrong with erotic love.

Reddy concluded by insisting that Ramakrishna’s love was “not just erotic love. It was all together, sexual, asexual and mystical”. Azmi asked him again what was wrong with “erotic love”. Despite the Tehelka tension, the entire House burst into laughter.

The books were published almost three years ago and Kali’s Child has been almost a bestseller. Several Ramakrishna devotees had noticed the book and had lodged their protest.

Several leading Ramakrishna scholars based in the West and in India had criticised the author for reaching certain conclusions. However, the matter was in the academic domain till now.

It seemed the problem aggravated after several Internet surfers stumbled on the reading list. They brought it to the notice of Swami Goutamananda, head of the mission in Chennai.

The swami had sent a letter to the website but apparently his plea for removal of the recommendation has been ignored. Some Ramakrishna devotees based in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh had been urging politicians to bring this issue to the notice of the government.


New Delhi, April 18: 
Afraid that the impasse in Parliament will not be resolved soon with the Congress taking an unrelenting stance, the BJP appeared in a hurry to push through the Finance Bill and the railway budget and then adjourn the House sine die.

The party today issued a three-line whip to all its Lok Sabha MPs directing them to be present in the House on April 19, 20 and 23 as there is a possibility the Finance Bill and the rail budget will have to be passed by a voice vote without discussion.

The government began preparations to get the key Bills passed when finance minister Yashwant Sinha invited the MPs for “informal consultations” on the Finance Bill.

Some MPs asked Sinha to reverse the budget move to slash interest rates on small savings. They also asked him to exempt the garment industry from the tax net, BJP sources said.

They said some other proposals were:

Exempt those earning up Rs 10,000 a month from income-tax. At present, only those with monthly incomes of up to Rs 5,000 are spared taxes

Increase standard deductions from Rs 20,000-30,000 to Rs 35,000

Exempt garment manufacturers with a turnover of up to Rs 1 crore from the new compound tax structure

Remove tax imposed on private arms manufacturers. (This suggestion was reportedly made by Himachal Pradesh MP Maheshwar Singh.)

Provide relief to industries in the quake-hit areas of Gujarat. There was a feeling that while the Gujarat government had done its bit, the Centre had not done anything

Reduce postal tariff on registered parcels. The MPs felt no postal fee should be imposed on books and stationery sent to rural places.


Mumbai, April 18: 
It was chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh at his political best.

With a flourish of his hand, Deshmukh cut short the ongoing Assembly session today to spare his deputy Chhagan Bhujbal from the Opposition blitzkrieg. This earned him brownie points from his blow-hot-blow-cold ally, Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party that Bhujbal belongs to.

But this was not before Deshmukh put the Shiv Sena, which disrupted the last days of the budget session with allegations of corruption against Bhujbal and him, on the spot, ordering an inquiry against Opposition leader Narayan Rane, the Sena chief minister in the previous government.

Deshmukh, in a dark safari suit, smiled quietly as revenue minister Ashok Chavan declared in the Assembly that the government would probe “thoroughly” Rane’s decision as revenue minister to hand over a plot of 688 acre free to Esselworld.

Declaring that the decision cost the state Rs 124 crore, Chavan said the government could also ask the CBI to investigate the case.

Highly-placed government sources said Deshmukh had taken the decision to cut short the current session in consultation with coalition leaders to end the continued Opposition attack on Bhujbal.

“This was thought to be the best way out of the mess Bhujbal found himself in,” sources said.

For the past two days, the BJP and the Shiv Sena virtually stalled proceedings, calling for a CBI investigation on a Rs 25 lakh bribe which they alleged Bhujbal had asked from a senior police officer to stall his transfer. They also accused the deputy chief minister, who also holds the home portfolio, of releasing two Cofeposa detenus.

In a display of his characteristic bravado, Bhujbal had initially declared he would not mind facing a CBI inquiry, but later changed his mind and called the demand a “conspiracy” to malign him.

Deshmukh turned down the demand today, saying the allegations did not merit a CBI inquiry. Instead, he said, the charges would be investigated by police commissioner M.N. Singh. Singh, incidentally, is under Bhujbal.

Referring to Rane’s allegations against him in connection with the sale of a spinning mill in his home district of Latur, Deshmukh said Speaker Arun Gujarathi would conduct a probe. “We will all cooperate with the Speaker and his report will be binding.”

When Rane made the allegations in the House a couple of weeks earlier, Deshmukh said he was ready to face an inquiry by the Sena leader himself. “But how can the Opposition leader head an inquiry committee after the Bombay High Court recently passed a stricture against him?” the chief minister said of the reason he asked the Speaker to conduct the probe.

Under the Commission of Inquiry Act, Deshmukh said only a sitting or a retired judge could conduct a serious inquiry. “No MLA can do this,” he added.

Shielding his deputy, Deshmukh said the additional chief secretary had made the decision to release the two Cofeposa detenus and not Bhujbal, as alleged by the Opposition. He said the officer, attached to the home department, had the quasi-judicial power to release the detained people.

Bhujbal, his voice almost drowned in slogans Sena-BJP members were shouting against him, accused BJP leader and former home minister Gopinath Munde of releasing 177 Cofeposa detenus.


Gandhinagar, April 18: 
A Unicef report has disputed the Gujarat government’s claim that the Narmada project alone will solve the problem of cyclical droughts in the region.

The report says that if the present pattern of growth based on water intensive agriculture continues, the state will be hit by severe water shortage by the first quarter of the 21st century.

In its report, White paper on water in Gujarat, the UN body has projected the state’s estimated water-requirement in 2025 at twice the current level.

While the requirement for agriculture alone would increase by 68 per cent, use by industry is expected to jump by leaps and bounds.

“Compared to requirements, the projected availability of water presents a bleak picture. Even with the Narmada project completed, total utilisation water supply by 2025 is likely to grow to only 41.25 km, leaving a demand and supply gap of 11.83 km,” says the report.

It was submitted to chief minister Keshubhai Patel who said his government would “very soon” come out with an action plan based on its recommendations.

The report, prepared by experts from the Anand-based Institute of Rural Management, points out several holes in water resource management.

It says there is no legal framework defining property rights over water and virtually no control over use. Revenue recovery, according to the report, is poor and does not cover operation and maintenance costs of supply.

Some other problems identified in the 31-page document are water prices, which are not based on the quantum of water used, and lack of incentives for efficient and judicious use for irrigation purposes. Even electricity is charged at a flat rate.

Taking note of some NGOs that have set examples of good water management, the report laid stress on possible greater involvement of the corporate sector and non-government organisations in water management in the state.

It emphasised the need for a water policy to attain sustainable “water security for all and for ever” by restoring, developing, conserving and managing surface and ground water.

The report points to an urgent need for the state government to enact a water law to enforce the policy.

The law, it said, could help formulate strategies for resource development and fixing of water prices after taking into account the real resource cost and paying capacity of users.

It could also regulate extraction of water in near-depleted areas and prohibit extracting ground water from below certain depths for agriculture and industrial use.

The report recommended an institutional arrangement with powers to resolve conflicts at various levels.

Unicef, which has suggested 18 points for follow-up action, has also recommended rationalisation of power tariff.


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