Stung Speaker rings curtain down on toughest session
Stock scam JPC with wide reach
Panja pitches for seat in Atal camp
Ship held to ransom by poll pirates
Mighty machine minus mass energy
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, April 26: 
Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi is unhappy with the turn of events that cut Parliament short by nearly two weeks just when a semblance of normality was restored to the House.

“This, I think, has been the toughest and most disturbed session in parliamentary history,” Balayogi told reporters today. “I am pained.”

Observers believe the statement reflects his anxiety on not just the repeated stalling of the House but the unprecedented passage of the rail budget without a discussion.

Sources said Balayogi is unhappy for several reasons. He had convened an all-party meeting yesterday to decide whether the House should opt for an adjournment or a recess in view of the Assembly elections. The consensus was that there should be a break after which the House should reconvene for five days.

However, parliamentary affairs ministry sources virtually checkmated the decision by announcing last night that the House would be adjourned sine die on April 27 as Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee will be away in Malaysia those five days. Therefore, it would be “improper” for Parliament to meet in his absence.

The government’s assertion apparently came after parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan met Congress leaders Manmohan Singh and Madhavrao Scindia separately. They, in turn, briefed party president Sonia Gandhi, after which the Congress “reluctantly” agreed to the proposal. The Speaker’s secretariat, however, refused to endorse the move to push through a sine die adjournment and said they would await a “consensus”.

Today, Rajya Sabha chairperson Krishan Kant announced that the business advisory committee had decided that Parliament would be adjourned sine die on April 27. The declaration came before the Speaker spoke on the matter and seems to have virtually forced his hand.

The Speaker’s announcement, read out from a written statement, went through substantial amendments. Copies of the original version were released to the press.

“I have to inform the House that at the leaders’ meeting held yesterday, the leaders of all parties and groups expressed a desire, in view of the forthcoming Assembly elections in five states, the Lok Sabha may adjourn sine die on 27th April, 2001,” it said.

“It was also the unanimous view of the leaders that the time lost due to the early adjournment of the House may be made up by having a compensatingly longer monsoon session. In view of the unanimity on the above proposals, if the House agrees, Lok Sabha may adjourn sine die on 27th April, 2001.”

The version eventually read out in the Lok Sabha dropped the word “all” from the phrase “leaders of all parties” and substituted the words “unanimous” and “unanimity” with “consensus”. A dead giveaway of the perception that the Congress and the RJD were not happy with abrupt termination of the session.


New Delhi, April 26: 
More than a decade after a Big Bull forced Parliament to peep into the furtive world of high finance, the House today named a team to scan another stock market scam involving another Big Bull.

The joint parliamentary committee (JPC) formed today will probe the recent stock scam which swallowed the fortunes of hundreds of investors, stubbed out the budget euphoria and sullied the reputation of some of the biggest players in the field.

The sweeping inquiry will cover the role of banks, brokers, promoters, stock exchanges, financial institutions, corporate entities and regulators. The JPC will fix responsibility of individuals, institutions or authorities in the stock market transactions.

The last time a JPC was set up — in 1992 — was also for probing a stocks scam. If ‘Big Bull’ Harshad Mehta was the central figure then, big-ticket broker Ketan Parekh, who has been arrested, is on the hot seat now. Some banks, investment powerhouses and high-profile companies are also under a cloud for ramping up prices of select shares.

The finance ministry had initially resisted the proposal to float the JPC but had to relent today after key ministers made it clear that the government had little choice. A section of the government also felt that the JPC probe would help deflect attention from the Tehelka scandal.

However, the Congress’ Jaipal Reddy, a member of the committee, said the terms of reference were so broad that the JPC might spell more trouble for the BJP government than it had bargained for. “Everybody thought Jaipal was being nice and was setting soft terms. But I have seen to it that all corporate financial institutions registered in India can be probed,” Reddy said.

This means that public and private financial institutions, banks, stock brokers, merchant bankers and even foreign institutional investors could be investigated.

Reddy said he insisted that the JPC probe any mode of transaction of securities, not just the sale of shares through the stock market. The JPC could thus end up looking into allegations of manipulations in VSNL share prices or how Balco was sold to a company that is being probed for share-price rigging.

The committee will also identify loopholes in the market supervisory mechanism and suggest safeguards.

BJP MP Kirit Somaiyya, another member of the JPC, has been insisting that foreign institutional investors were involved in hammering down key PSU stock prices to ensure that their stake was sold cheap.

The JPC will draw 20 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 from the Rajya Sabha. The members from the Lok Sabha include, apart from Reddy and Somaiyya, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Margaret Alva, Harin Pathak, and Yerran Naidu, who is expected to be the chairman of the committee.

Those from the Rajya Sabha include include S.S. Ahluwalia, Nilotpal Basu, Kapil Sibal and Amar Singh.


Calcutta, April 26: 
Rebel Trinamul MP Ajit Panja today moved a step closer to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee while distancing himself farther from Mamata Banerjee.

In a letter to Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi, Panja made a request to allot him a seat in the House “within the NDA in accordance with my seniority and experience”.

If, with this move, Panja left no doubt that he considers himself a part of the National Democratic Alliance, the Trinamul Congress fuelled speculation about its intentions by declaring that party MPs might sit in a “neutral area” in the Lok Sabha.

Trinamul also appeared to be backtracking from yesterday’s position about sending a letter to the Speaker informing him of the party’s decision to pull out of the NDA, as sought by alliance partner Congress.

Panja, meanwhile, proceeded to put the seal on his break with Trinamul by deciding to attend Vajpayee’s election rally in Calcutta on May 5 as an NDA leader, if invited. The state BJP said it had already sent an invitation.

Panja challenged Trinamul spokesman Sudip Bandopadhyay’s claim that a resolution severing all links with the NDA was adopted at a meeting of the party’s policy-making body on March 15. Bandopadhyay had also claimed that the meeting was presided over by Panja.

“Mark my words. There is no such resolution. The so-called meeting on that day at Sudip’s house had no agenda and nor was it presided over by me. Only our attendance was recorded by way of signature in an exercise book. I challenge the Trinamul spokesman to produce documentary evidence at a press conference by 4 pm tomorrow,” Panja said.

He reaffirmed in his letter to Balayogi that the Trinamul parliamentary party had unanimously decided at a meeting on March 15 in Delhi to support the NDA from outside and abstain from discussions on the Tehelka revelations.

“Thereafter, no meeting of the parliamentary party has been held nor any resolution adopted,” he added.

Asked about the March 15 resolution adopted by Trinamul MPs in Delhi, Panja said it talked about leaving the NDA but at the same time spoke of strengthening the hands of the Prime Minister.

“So, the document supports my contention. It is unfortunate that Sudip is not consistent in his statements. It is perhaps the heat. If the spokesman for a party is so inconsistent, how can it run a government?” Panja asked.

Bandopadhyay himself shepherded the party into uncertain territory when he said Trinamul would not send a letter to the Speaker now. The Congress high command had asked Mamata yesterday to formalise the severing of ties with the NDA.

“We have already sent it to the Prime Minister as he is the leader of the House and he should inform the Speaker,” Bandopadhyay said.

“We will send it to the Prime Minister again and, if required, we will send it to the Speaker after the Bengal elections,” he added.


Calcutta, April 26: 
Led by an Independent candidate, 300 local labourers of Calcutta Port today seized a Panamanian cargo vessel near Raichak, South 24-Parganas, and gheraoed its captain and a Calcutta Port Trust pilot.

Police said the labourers, who claimed to belong to an organisation called ‘Bandar Sramik Karmi’, came in two launches and intercepted the vessel, MV Jubilee. They were led by Independent candidate Bhabesh Das.

The vessel was coming from Yangon and carrying a cargo of 2,290 tonnes of logs. After boarding the vessel, they took the captain and the pilot captive and forced the ship to drop anchor.

According to port officials, cargo vessels passing through the area usually take advantage of the high tide.

However, when the water level is low, the vessels are forced to pay local labourers to help unload a part of the cargo so that it can pass the shallow patch unhindered.

Today, as the level of water was high, the captain and his crew decided not to unload cargo. This enraged the labourers who felt that they were being deliberately denied additional income.

The labourers decided to gherao the captain in order to force him to hire them to unload the cargo.

Inspector-general of police (law and order) Prasun Mukherjee said that on being informed of the incident, the sub-divisional police officer, Diamond Harbour, rushed to the spot with reinforcements.

“The vessel was surrounded by police officers from all sides who stormed aboard,” said inspector-general of police, south Bengal, Ranjit Mohanty.

“The captain and his vessel have been released and over 80 people who were involved have been arrested,” he added.

According to senior officials of Calcutta port, the labourers led by Das were essentially involved in the loading and unloading of cargo. Over the past couple of days, they had become restless over their continuing unemployment.

“We did not realise that they would take matters into their own hands,” said a port official.

“I have informed the home secretary, the CPT chairman and senior police officials of the situation,” said district magistrate Alapon Bandyopadhyay.


Midnapore, April 26: 
At 1.30 this afternoon, Nandarani Dal boards a bus that will drop her near a village north of here after an hour’s drive. There, she will get into a waiting jeep and take the country roads to villages in Keshpur.

“Our party does not have enough money to give me a car full-time. So I take the bus to Keshpur and then go around in the jeep,” she says.

Just turned grandmother, Nandarani is Keshpur’s sitting CPM MLA who has been given the ticket again. She lives with her husband, Dahar Sen, district secretariat member of the party, in Midnapore town. They built this house nine years ago. Till then, the family — as Nandarani herself puts it — “has always been care of party.”

As the bus leaves with her, the youths who have come to meet her and pass on messages rush back to the party office, a three-storeyed house. They had taken a break from the monotonous, clerical work they have been at since morning. On the corner of a long table, stacks of booklets are piled.

The youths have been going through them, rubber-stamping each leaf “election fund”. They are receipts that will be given to donors.

In Midnapore, the CPM has so charged up its machinery for these elections that the party is fit for chapters in the text books on organisation management.

In contrast, the Congress office here is deserted — the party has just two candidates in the district — Manas Bhuniya in Sabong and Gyan Singh Sohanpal in Kharagpur town.

The activists in Trinamul office betray their lack of knowledge of the district’s geography. They depend on natural forces. “There is a hawa, a wind, blowing our way,” they are convinced.

Across North Midnapore though, there is little evidence of Trinamul hoisting its sails to catch the wind.

“There is this campaign for change,” Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee says in his speeches. “There is a campaign that for 24 years you have seen the Left. Now try something else. For 24 years you have eaten rice and dal; now try poison.”

The evidence on hand suggests the chief minister and his party have sensed the wind better — and quicker — than those who need to harness it. The CPM has therefore begun its campaign earlier than usual.

A week after the Left Front announced its list of candidates —on February 25 — it began putting its tried and tested machinery in place.

In Jhargram for instance, where district secretariat member Tarun Ray is in charge, it set up the Assembly constituency committee in three days and the gram panchayat committees in a week. The booth committees — the lowest rung in the CPM election hierarchy — in 10 days. Each booth committee will cover four or five villages. Jhargram constituency will have 220 booths.

There are about 20 volunteers in each booth committee — not all of them party members. As the election draws closer, the aim is to expand the size of the booth committees to include upto 60 members each. This, then, is the formidable CPM election machinery, greased, no doubt with help from the administration but that is only an adjunct — “sophisticated”, say observers; “preparations for scientific rigging,” say its opponents.

The booth committees plan the candidates campaign. In Keshpur, where the CPM is determined to undo Mamata’s “Panskura Line” — a euphemism for Trinamul tactic of meeting force with force in the Lok Sabha byelection last year — Nandarani Dal has already addressed more than a 100 meetings spread over her constituency’s 15 gram panchayats. She began, she says, on March 15.

“The most significant characteristic of the present structure of the CPM’s election organisation is its effectiveness as a machinery for conducting the political campaign in rural areas,” writes political scientist Partha Chatterjee in The Present History of West Bengal. “It is the CPM’s success in evolving this structure which enables it to translate its support in rural constituencies into votes in election after election.”

It is ironical now, that the sophistication that is the hallmark of this machinery is also a symptom of its deficiencies. The reliance on method over men, machinery over mass energy in this campaign is apparent.

“This is because a big section are not realising what a difference we have made — how we have changed the face of the countryside,” laments Tarun Ray.

Since the CPM is beginning to see its future in the past, what is going wrong for it in the present?




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