Six in a row or once in 25 years
Predictable Buddha vs unknown Mamata
Polls pitchfork PM into Tehelka taint test
Reforms break defence barrier
Calcutta Weather

Calcutta, May 9: 
Subhas Maity leaves the tea stall at a village in Beliatore, Bankura, in a hurry just because he is asked how the elections are shaping up. “What’s it to us? We leave it to the party.”

Kasem Ali, 70, in Icchaipur near Keshpur, Midnapore, says: “Just hear me out quickly: if we can vote, we will know where to...” he cuts himself off mid-sentence as a man, the local party organiser, comes on a bicycle, then resumes: “All is at peace here now. Just don’t bother us.”

It is raining in torrents as the night Burdwan local taking the chord line to Howrah repeatedly stops and starts because of frequent power cuts. “I am from Jamalpur, Hooghly,” says Nibaran Ghose, a passenger. “The CPM will have a walkover there. It’s always been like that but this time we need a change.”

Heartland Bengal is wrapped in the Red Flag but cannot do away with a whiff of the grassflowers. Across the six districts — Midnapore, Hooghly, Burdwan, Birbhum, Bankura and Purulia — the Red Flag is ubiquitous — on buildings in Bankura, trees in Midnapore, on tractors in Burdwan, at Kalna and in Nanoor, in Barjora and in Bolpur.

Yet, when people talk of the party behind the flag, it is usually in hushed undertones. Assured of confidentiality, six out of 10 people will say that the elections this time are “hadda-haddi” — that they will be fought tooth-and-nail.

It takes the villager in Bankura a lot of effort to say that. Even when he does, it is no indication of his political preference. Simply, that for the first time in a quarter century, the perception is gaining ground that this time there is a credible fight against the Left Front.

This is the real impact of the Mamata campaign — the perception that someone can put up a credible fight. Adding to it is the perception that she is a lone woman fighting all odds. There is no way to determine whether it will get her enough votes to transform resentment against the Left into seats.

A Congress-Trinamul insider says the alliance expects 39 seats from the region i.e., roughly one in every three — or 18 seats more than what the Congress (and the Jharkhand Party) won in 1996. Should that happen, it will be an unmistakable sign of the Red citadel cracking.

Heartland Bengal accounts for 118 seats in the Assembly. Election after election, it returns a large contingent of MLAs.

In 1996, the Left won 96 seats, the non-Left just 21. Any challenge to the Left must break new ground here.

At Nandagram in Birbhum, a group of youths walking across the fields says the party knows everything.

They are told: “You put your finger on any button (of the electronic voting machine) and we will know which: don’t you people give thumb impressions in lieu of signatures?”

It is difficult to believe that a whole people can be so intimidated over such a vast expanse of territory.

This is not a rigging of the poll in the conventional sense. The youths, for instance, are not being threatened with their lives. They are just being reminded — usually by someone they know — that the party is omnipresent.

It is this omnipresence of the party that can go against it. At Icchaipur, one villager narrates how the party committee settled a dispute between husband and wife over the children while the parents of both sides were asked to stay away. There must come a time when comrades get too close for comfort. Is it now?

Conditioned by decades of one-party rule, some feeble signs emanating from here are undoubtedly those of anger.

What is not clear is whether the angry are getting angrier or are more and more people getting angry.

The answer — to be punched in today — will decide Mamata’s political fate.


Calcutta, May 9: 
Bengal’s businessmen will be tickled if given this option: the Left loses but Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee becomes chief minister in a Trinamul-Congress government.

Sad that one can’t have one’s Buddha and eat up the Left too, they might ruefully say the next moment. If they could, they would have added a rider: Can we have Citu, too, along with Buddhadeb as CM?

There lies the great irony of this election. Owners of capital are throwing their lot behind the leader of a party founded with the vow to make them an extinct species.

They like what they have seen of Bhattacharjee as CM in the past six months after having seen one Mr Basu for 288 months. The fresh-faced CM, they say, is a “performer who should be given some more time to implement the industrial policies the Left Front has adopted”.

They don’t like what they have seen of Mamata Banerjee as railway minister in Delhi. And, they’re afraid of what they might see if she did become CM. Sadly for Mamata, all that she thought she did for Bengal — those new lines and projects — and for India — freeze on fares — hasn’t won her any friends in business. To businessmen, “populism” is not quite the principle good economics is based on.

They like what they hear from Bhattacharjee. He’s talking about the right things: infotech, talent-based growth, etc, etc. He also says the same things everywhere. Businessmen like predictability.

They don’t like what they have heard of Mamata. She raised hell in the Vajpayee Cabinet over privatisation proposals and has generally been opposed to reforms. And no one will say Mamata is predictable.

Hardly qualities a good CM is made of in the business baron’s book. Will they then say she’ll make a worse CM than Bhattacharjee? Perish the thought.

“Whoever comes to power we, in industry, want a stable and strong leadership that is needed for rapid industrialisation,” said R.C. Maheswari, senior president of Texmaco.

That is the common response. Most that any would say is that they have seen Bhattacharjee perform, but Mamata is an unknown quantity.

“Nobody can question her honesty and sincerity, but what about her maturity as administrator?” asked an industrialist with interests in tea.

On the contrary, Bhattacharjee “has proved himself to be proactive to industry in a very short time,” said C.P. Dhanuka, president of the Indian Chamber of Commerce.

Businessmen feel comfortable with continuity. They have already developed a working relationship with Bhattacharjee, each side has cashed in on the other, any disruption is wholly undesirable.

“Industry is very convenient with the present chief minister who knows how to get things done,” said Nazib Arif, secretary-general of Indian Chamber.

Bhattacharjee — having started well — should be given more time. That is the common refrain.

“Various task forces have been set up and the government has started to give their recommendations proper shape. But time is needed for that,” said Bhaskar Banerjee, former president of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce.

“Although Mamata is making waves as the alternative, it appears industry is far from convinced about her ability to deliver,” said a veteran industrialist with interests in jute and the stock market.

At the end of the day, though, what tilts the scales in favour of Bhattacharjee most noticeably is the weight of Citu, the CPM’s labour arm.

Few would identify themselves with the statement, but one industrialist, speaking on condition of anonymity, feared that Citu would re-enact the seventies if anyone other than the Left Front ruled the state.

So, don’t be surprised if you catch a businessman with his hand in the till, sorry, on the hammer-sickle button.


New Delhi, May 9: 
Around 13 crore voters in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry will exercise their franchise tomorrow in a “mini general election”, considered a test of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s popularity following the Tehelka exposé.

Though the BJP says it has no stakes in the polls, Vajpayee betrayed his nervousness with announcements bordering on violation of the model code set by the Election Commission.

The Prime Minister came close to crossing the line when he said while campaigning in Assam that the Centre was thinking of issuing work permits to Bangladeshi migrants. Addressing a rally in Calcutta, with Ajit Panja by his side, Vajpayee said he would soon induct the Trinamul Congress rebel in his council of ministers.

Smelling blood, the Congress has already gone on the offensive. “The Congress is looking forward to the exit of the government,” party spokesman S. Jaipal Reddy said today. “If it is not a mandate, what is a mandate?”

Congress sources say that apart from the nine states where the party is in power, it is certain to form governments in Kerala, Assam and Pondicherry. While it will be a tough fight in Bengal, in Tamil Nadu, they said, the party is confident its alliance would win. According to Congress leaders, the NDA cannot ignore the fallout of the “anti-people policies pursued by the Vajpayee government”.

To offset the impact of adverse poll results, BJP strategists are planning what they call “political realignments” by splitting the Trinamul and wooing one or two splinter groups into the NDA fold immediately after the polls.

Talks are on with the breakaway Rashtriya Janata Dal (Democratic), led by three rebel Lok Sabha MPs, and Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, besides some Independent MPs.

The BJP had launched a high-profile campaign to stop the Congress from wresting more than one state. Besides a dozen Central ministers, the Prime Minister himself campaigned in four states. Much before campaigning began, Vajpayee had said at a public meeting in Bangalore that the elections would be a referendum on his government. But the very next day, both the party and Vajpayee denied having said so.

In 823 Assembly constituencies, where over 5,000 candidates, including the chief ministers of Assam, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are in the fray, the BJP has only eight sitting MLAs. But the party is hoping to get at least 50 seats and expand its vote percentage outside the cow belt.

To prevent the Congress from stealing a march in Assam, the BJP hurriedly sealed a pact with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), much against the ground realities. A section of state leaders revolted against the tie-up. The Samata Party, an ally of the BJP, was also vehemently opposed to any truck with the AGP.

That the alliance has become more a liability than an asset was proved on Sunday when the BJP promptly blamed the AGP for the poor turn-out at Vajpayee’s public meeting.

Of the five states, the BJP has the maximum stake in Tamil Nadu, where its ally, the DMK, is fighting a do-or-die battle with the ADMK. Though initially the ADMK had a clear edge, the DMK managed to retrieve some lost ground.


New Delhi, May 9: 
In its boldest reform initiative since it came to power three years ago, the BJP-led government today threw open the tightly-controlled area of defence production to private entrepreneurs and removed all limits on foreign direct investment (FDI) in key sectors like pharmaceuticals, airports, real estate development, and hotels and tourism.

It also raised the limit on foreign equity investment in the telecommunications sector to 74 per cent from 49 per cent, and in banks to 49 per cent from 20 per cent.

While throwing open defence production to the private sector, the government retained the right to license producers. In another far-reaching move, it permitted foreign direct investment up to 26 per cent in this sensitive sector which has been a state-run monopoly.

The raft of decisions taken at a full meeting of the Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is designed to attract a greater flow of funds from abroad. Since 1991, when the first phase of reforms began under Manmohan Singh, cumulative FDI inflows into the country up to December 2000 totalled $23.7 billion. The government has been keen to ratchet up FDI inflows to over $10 billion a year.

“The Union Cabinet has decided to remove the defence industry sector from the list of industries reserved for the public sector,’’ parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan told reporters after the two-hour-long meeting.

“The modalities for producing defence items under licence would be worked out between the defence ministry and the private sector companies,’’ he said.

Mahajan said 90 per cent of defence imports came from the foreign private sector. “‘We are buying everything from ships to Bofors guns from foreign private sector companies. But we have not so far allowed our own private sector companies to produce defence equipment,’’ he added.

Mahajan said multinational companies would be permitted to pick up a 100 per cent stake in domestic pharmaceutical units without having to seek formal permission.

In pharmaceuticals, the earlier FDI limit was 74 per cent and there was a stipulation that required these companies to divest 26 per cent at a later date. However, the new rules will not apply to bulk or licensed drugs.

Foreign investment up to 49 per cent will be permitted in banks. Earlier, non resident Indians (NRIs) were allowed to invest up to 40 per cent of the investment in the banking sector and there was a cap on the FDI up to 20 per cent. Now, FDI from all sources, either as a combination of FDI and investment from NRIs or only FDI, will be allowed up to 49 per cent, Mahajan said.

The government also decided that all investment made by NRIs in foreign exchange component would be fully repatriable in hard currencies. Foreign investment up to 74 per cent has been permitted in certain specified areas of the telecommunications sector; the earlier limit was 49 per cent. However, this will not be through the automatic route and will be subject to government vetting.




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