Sonia’s anguish explodes on Atal
Owner, worker in suicide bond
NK shift signals bigger shake-up
Left high & dry by soaring aspirations
Naxalites clash with police
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, April 27: 
Sonia Gandhi does not speak much in Parliament. Today she did, in a torrent. For two minutes, words poured out of her mouth in a volcanic eruption, scalding a stunned Lal Krishna Advani and Pramod Mahajan.

Less the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha than a mother and a woman who had lost her husband and mother-in-law in assassinations, Sonia’s emotional explosion took place just after Parliament adjourned for the current session.

“My own husband was crucified in this House by the Opposition. Even my children are being subjected to all sorts of sacrilegious campaigns...” Sonia screamed. Never before has such a thing happened in the Lok Sabha.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee escaped simply because Vande Mataram separated him from Sonia’s outburst. Vajpayee had walked out after his speech wrapping up the session, microphones had been switched off and members were preparing to shuffle out.

Advani and Mahajan walked across to the Congress bench to the right. Folding his hands in a namaskar, Advani, with Mahajan in tow, went towards Sonia for a “courtesy greeting” as the House had adjourned.

Sonia and other Congress members were getting up to leave when she saw Advani approaching. “Was not the House stalled by you in the past when you were in the Opposition? Will you recall?” she burst out, throwing Advani off balance.

The immediate provocation was Vajpayee’s speech attacking the Congress for stalling the House.

As Advani tried to gather his wits about to say something, he was hit by another blast: “Do you recall the number of objectionable slogans raised against my husband and my mother-in-law when they were Prime Ministers.” (A reference to the BJP slogans: Gali gali mein shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi chor hai).”

The Prime Minister in his speech had objected to the Opposition slogan in the wake of the Tehelka revelations that Vajpayee “is a chor”.

“Why one standard for Vajpayee, why another standard for former Prime Ministers?” asked Sonia as Advani stood fumbling for words. Taking a few rapid strides towards the exit, the Congress president ran back gesticulating at the home minister. As if possessed, she said: “Why does the Prime Minister continue to adopt double standards? Why this display of self-righteousness on the part of the Prime Minister?”

“For the sake of democracy, I did not speak up,” she told a numbed home minister.

As she spoke, senior Congress leaders Madhavrao Scindia, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Renuka Chowdhury stood beside her. “After doing all this, you have the cheek to say that you never did anything. Is that right?”

Asked why she did not express her feelings before the House was adjourned, Congress spokesperson Jaipal Reddy said that soon after Vajpayee finished his speech, Vande Mataram was being sung and any interruption would have amounted to dishonouring the anthem.

Unexpected though the onslaught was, Sonia has been biding her time for an opportunity. The place and the timing were surprising, but the leader of the Opposition said what she has been wanting to say for a long time.

Her outburst was aimed at Vajpayee, challenging his image as the benign elderly statesman. Sonia saw as hitting below the belt Vajpayee’s sanction for a CBI probe into Subramanian Swamy’s allegations where Rahul Gandhi, too, was not spared. It was an act that betrayed, according to Congressmen, “vindictive, mean and vengeful traits”.

When some party leaders sought to paralyse Parliament over the issue, Sonia had told them not to bother. “It is my battle and let me handle it,” she had said. Privately, she has been saying that BJP ministers were, perhaps, not aware of “the stuff I am made of”.

With Assembly polls in five states due soon, Sonia wanted to make a forceful point: the NDA government headed by Vajpayee has unleashed a smear campaign against her to counter the Tehelka impact. She wishes voters to ponder over the Centre’s intentions before they give their verdict.

When Vajpayee today spoke of erosion of values, Sonia tried to get even, pointing at the Opposition’s tirade against Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.


Mumbai, April 27: 
Arun Mane and Mohanlal Piramal lived on either side of a dismal economic boundary that does not discriminate any more between a worker and an owner of a textile mill in the financial capital.

They shared the same economic hardship and the same despair, which drove them to try and end their lives.

Mane, 38, a worker at the closed Svadeshi Mills, succeeded. A speeding local train split his body lying on the tracks into two.

Piramal, 70, who belongs to one of the leading business families and owns a shut spinning and weaving mill here, shot himself in the head at his home last evening.

Doctors at Breach Candy Hospital are battling to save the life of Piramal, arguably the first industrialist victim of the economic depression smothering the once-thriving textile industry.

A police officer, investigating Piramal’s attempted suicide, said the industrialist had been suffering from depression since his mill closed down more than a year ago.

An unbearably high cost of production had left Piramal Spinning and Weaving Mill sick. A doctorate in cotton technology, Piramal, who had once helped save several units as chairman of the Mumbai Mill Owners’ Association, tried hard to turn his ailing unit around, but failed.

In a desperate attempt to breathe life back into his mill, Piramal offered voluntary retirement to some workers. He was bewildered when the entire workforce opted for the scheme, said B.Y. Tamhane, the Mill Owners’ Association secretary.

At the end of the day, Piramal had no workers left to turn his mill around.

Although he belonged to the Piramal family, he had no one to turn to because the family business and property had split and he was left with textile mills in Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Surat that had all but closed.

The success stories of the Piramal family — VIP Industries, Blow Plast and the shopping mall Crossroads — have been scripted by his nephews, Ajay and Dilip.

They also lived separately — Mohanlal Piramal leading a lonely life with his wife Vijaya in a run-down, one-storey bungalow on Pochkhanaw Road in Worli.

Vijaya was not at Piramal Bhavan when the industrialist returned home unusually early last evening. A short while later, his servant heard a gunshot. He rushed into Piramal’s room to find him lying in a pool of blood.

Coming within days of a strike in Mumbai, the incident was interpreted by Citu state president Vivek Montero as indication of how government policies were ruining not just workers, but even some industrialists.

“I would not be surprised if we see more such unfortunate incidents,” he said.


New Delhi, April 27: 
N.K. Singh’s transfer to the Planning Commission, where he was appointed a member today, has marked the beginning of a bigger bureaucratic and ministerial reshuffle, according to government sources.

Singh had retired on January 31 as secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), but was retained as officer on special duty.

But the veteran bureaucrat, never a favourite of the Sangh parivar, was targeted more furiously by the RSS in the wake of the Tehelka exposé. Sangh sources claimed it was “untenable” for A.B. Vajpayee to continue with Singh once he was linked to the scandal. “By shifting him to the Planning Commission, Vajpayee has for the time being managed to silence his critics in the Sangh,” BJP sources said.

Sources in the parivar are now speculating when the axe would fall on the Sangh’s second bete noire in the PMO, Brajesh Mishra.

They say it’s “a matter of time” before Mishra — who wears two hats as Vajpayee’s principal secretary and national security adviser — is formally relieved of the second post, now that Planning Commission deputy chairman K.C. Pant has been named the Centre’s principal negotiator with Kashmiri militant groups.

Government sources said a secretary-level shuffle is expected after Vajpayee’s Malaysia trip in mid-May. The much-awaited Cabinet reshuffle — forced by the exit of the Trinamul Congress and the PMK — would also take place around the same time, they said.

If Singh’s exit from the PMO is seen as a “please Sangh” gesture, the Cabinet reshuffle will be aimed at strengthening Vajpayee’s hands. The Prime Minister has been under attack not just from the Opposition but the RSS as well after Tehelka.

“This is a time-tested strategy. His predecessors like P.V. Nara- simha Rao would routinely reshuffle or expand their council of ministers when they felt their position was a bit shaky,” sources said.

BJP sources concede that the NDA’s prospects in the five states going to polls are not “too good”. The Congress, they said, is on a “stronger wicket” and a victory, even in Assam and Kerala, would give Sonia Gandhi a boost while rendering Vajpayee “vulnerable” in direct proportion. “He will have to resort to a Cabinet reshuffle at this juncture.”

The other post-election consideration is that Trinamul could return to the NDA fold if Mamata Banerjee is trounced in Bengal. Officially, BJP president K. Jana Krishnamurthi has said: “We do not consider Mamata our ally and we are her opponents.” But insiders believe “Mamata must be kept politically alive and not allowed to fade away in the Congress’ company”.

“Even if she loses this election, the fact remains she is the only force fighting the Left. So it is the BJP’s duty to keep her alive politically,” said a senior office-bearer. The hint was Mamata might be “lured” back into the Cabinet with the railway ministry if power eluded her in Calcutta.


Midnapore, April 27: 
The cards blow away in a gust of wind and the quintet by the roadside at Bathandanga near Jhargram lets out a collective “Oh no!” Anil Mandi, Salku Soren, Jadunath Hembrom, Pulin Kisku and Bhola Soren have been playing cards — a game they call China Bridge.

In the field, some cattle graze. Of the five, Jadunath alone earns his keep. He has started a sub-agency of a small-time finance company near Jhargram.

Who will they vote?

“This time the ‘M’ party will find it difficult,” says Jadunath. “You see,” he points to a hamlet. “That is my village. And there” — he points the other way — “that village gets electricity but we don’t. What does it take to lay these few kilometres of power lines?”

They do not attend Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s election meeting in the late afternoon. The chief minister tells his audience how power deficient the state was in 1977, when the Left first won the elections. “Now we produce surplus power and other states are coming to us, offering to buy our electricity,” he tells the audience.

The past was dark; the future is bright. It’s the damn present that has the CPM guessing what is what.

In the zonal committee office in Jhargram where district secretariat member Tarun Ray is supervising the poll campaign, the worry is over the present.

Ray brings his right hand to eye-level. “This is what the young want,” he says. “And this is as much as we can do” — the left hand is at waist-level. “The challenge before us is: how do we fill this gap.”

Sitting by him, Meena Sanatani, the party’s candidate for Jhargram — a first-timer in the polls — nods furiously. During a visit to a village last week she was surrounded by people demanding one more tube-well and power supply. “The young are restless,” she adds.

Two months ago, Ray conducted a survey in his native Keshpur block. He found that in the five villages that he covered, 30 to 35 per cent of the electorate was in the age group of 18 to 25 — that is, born in or just before 1977.

“They do not realise what a difference we have made. So we are asking their parents to convince them. But today’s youth is impatient. All the advertisements they see on television and in the media have made them demanding,” Ray says, ruefully.

The youth draw their conclusion from the experiences of the present and less and less from the fables of the past.

Back in 1977, Ray himself was 24 years younger. His father, a doctor, built the family home in Midnapore town, he says.

Ray taught life science in a school in Mahishda village, Keshpur. In 1982, he gave up the job to be a party wholetimer because it was difficult to find time for both, the demands of his political commitment and the demands of his job.

“When I first took up a job, it was for a paltry Rs 245 a month. Now the Left Front has increased teachers’ salaries to over Rs 10,000.”

Ray’s wife is a primary school teacher. A son works in a private company in Haldia. Three of the four CPM candidates in Jhargram subdivision’s constituencies are school teachers.

In these parts, the salaries they earn are handsome amounts. If the party has got its workers of one generation such benefits, why should their offspring be denied the same? Why cannot the benefits be evened out?

This is the question the CPM answers by pointing to a man they think should be the role model.

He is Pulin Baske. Ray talks about him. The chief minister waxes eloquent on him at his rally.

Baske, a tribal, studied medicine in Calcutta – “not because of any quota but on sheer merit,” says Ray. He is now comrade and chairman of the Zilla Parishad.

That is only one half of the story. The other half goes like this: the son of a senior district functionary of the party studied medicine through the chief minister’s quota and is now a medical officer with a state government undertaking.

The moral that the young and restless draw by putting the two stories together is this: if you are a poor, hapless lad, you have to come good on merit; if you are a comrade, there is an easier way out.

For reasons that the Marxist machinery cannot probe, the story of the good doctor is less inspiring.

The young remain restless. Meena Sanatani gets surrounded by demanding youth during her campaign. And a certain Ms Banerjee expects the discontent of the youth to add the fat to her fire.


Masaurhi (Patna district), April 27: 
Naxalites engaged security forces in a long gunbattle at a polling booth during the fifth phase of panchayat elections in Bihar.

Police said four MCC activists were shot, but limped away to safety after the exchange of fire, which continued till noon in Naxalitedominated Nanauri village, 20 km from here.

The Nanaurhi gunbattle led to firing in at least 12 other places in Punpun, Dhanauria and Masaurhi. Voter turnout in these areas remained low.

Seven people, including a mukhiya candidate, were killed and several injured in poll-related violence.




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