Cabinet reward for new winners
Juniors demand bigger slice
Prisoner of change & old charges
George keeps door open
Mission to gauge Kashmir mood
BJP sits up after bypoll blow
Elections done, Cong turns Left
Feud set to hold up coronation
Out-of-sight stars leave BJP speechless
Masked stalker fear grips Ghaziabad

Calcutta, May 14: 
Newly-elected CPM MLAs Mohammad Selim, Debesh Das, Kanti Ganguly and Sudhansu Sil are likely to be inducted in the new Cabinet which will take oath on May 18 under the chief ministership of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

The CPM state secretariat, which met today at the Alimuddin Street party headquarters, discussed formation of the new Cabinet.

Senior CPM leaders, including Bhattacharjee, former chief minister Jyoti Basu and CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet, were present at the meeting this evening.

CPM sources indicated that Debesh Das, MLA from Taltola, might be given the portfolio of information technology — the department which will be introduced in the Cabinet for the first time. Das teaches at Jadavpur University.

Mohammad Selim, who won from Entally, might be inducted in the new Cabinet, too. It is learnt that either Kanti Ganguly, MLA from Mathurapur Assembly, or Sudhansu Sil, who won from Jorabagan, might get a berth in the Cabinet this time.

Some former ministers such as Kanti Biswas and Satyasadhan Chakraborty might be dropped from the Cabinet, party sources indicated. Subhas Chakraborty, who was transport minister, might get a new portfolio this time.

Sushanta Ghosh, minister of state for transport in the outgoing ministry, might be given a Cabinet rank this time. Nandarani Dal, a long-time CPM MLA from Keshpur, who has been elected with the highest margin, is likely to get a Cabinet berth.

Sambhu Mandi, newly-elected MLA from Binpur Assembly, is likely to get a portfolio in the Cabinet. Mandi was the tribal minister in the Left Front Cabinet earlier.

It is likely that Nirupam Sen, CPM central committee member, will get an important portfolio in the new Cabinet.

It is learnt that the CPM will meet its partners — RSP, CPI and Forward Bloc — separately tomorrow to finalise the names of the ministers from the three political parties.

After bilateral talks with the three major Front constituents, the Left alliance will meet on May 17 to approve the names of ministers.

RSP is considering the name of Amar Chowdhury, party MLA from Baranagar, for a ministerial portfolio, sources in RSP said.

As Kshiti Goswami, PWD minister in the outgoing Cabinet, lost this time, the party would have to nominate someone for the portfolio. It is not known whether Chowdhury will be given the post, but the RSP leadership is considering his name for a ministerial berth.


Calcutta, May 14: 
Buoyed by an improved performance, the Forward Bloc has demanded a larger share of the Cabinet cake and asked for the post of deputy chief minister.

The party, the second largest in the Left Front alliance, increased its tally by four seats to 25, notwithstanding the defeat of two of its ministers, Biren Moitra from Harishchandrapur and Satyaranjan Mahato from Jhalda.

Big brother CPM, on the other hand, while leading the front to its sixth victory, has for the first time lost its majority. The party has got 143 seats, five short of the majority mark of 148.

The CPI, too, joined in the clamour and has asked for one more Cabinet berth. In the outgoing government, the CPI has one Cabinet minister and a minister of state.

Faced with the demand from its partners, the CPM has called a meeting tomorrow to thrash out the issue.

Not just the Forward Bloc and the CPI, even minor partners will be in a better position now to wield their clout on policy decisions with the CPM losing its absolute majority. “We will not allow the CPM to boss over us all the time with its big brotherly attitude,” said a front leader.

The Forward Bloc asked the CPM leadership to give it the deputy chief ministership and says it will also raise the demand for more Cabinet berths — it had five in the outgoing government — at its meeting.

“We have fared better this time than in the previous elections. So our demand for more ministerial berths is genuine,” Forward Bloc state unit secretary Ashok Ghosh said hours after the results were announced yesterday.

The party has also insisted on a common minimum programme on the basis of which “we can have better co-ordination among front partners”. “We have to be more cautious this time in maintaining unity,” a senior leader said.

The CPI,which won seven seats and the Midnapore bypoll, too, asked for a bigger chunk of the ministerial pie.

The RSP, which won 17 seats, down by one since 1996, received a blow with two ministers — Kshiti Goswami and Monohar Tirkey — losing the polls. The party said it would stake its claim on the public works department, which was looked after by Goswami and Tirkey.


Calcutta, May 14: 
The change went unnoticed but was nevertheless significant: south of Mamata Banerjee’s 30B Harish Chatterjee Street residence was a poster that proclaimed hoy ebar, noy never till yesterday. Today, the other poster that lurked behind it reappeared; pilgrims to Kalighat were once again greeted with the promise of a new dawn in a new century that’s already a few months old as someone tore down the “hoy ebar, noy never” poster.

Mamata, defeated and humiliated “ebar”, came out just before 4 pm; her last appearance was around 8 am yesterday when she was yet to know that it definitely wouldn’t be “this time” for her.

She met reporters after two days — family members couldn’t remember the last time she had to hide from the media — wanting to make up for the lost time. But the questions and the asides in the news conference clearly showed that her apology for an apology — she was busy collecting information about how the CPM had rigged the elections, she explained, and therefore couldn’t meet anyone — hadn’t cut much ice.

Mamata reappeared, but those who were expecting to see a new, improved Mamata were in for a shock. There was the same lack of any attempt at analysing the reasons for the humiliating defeat. There was the same lack of any attempt at admitting that she might have gone wrong somewhere. There was the same Didi, admonishing her never-disciplined supporters and telling them to become disciplined “ebar”. Even her lingo was curiously similar to the “hoy ebar, noy never” poster; there was the same forced, and disastrous, marriage between English and Bengali which, nevertheless, gave newspapers their quotes of the day.

The apology to the media about yesterday’s absence was followed by an apology for the small shamiana that couldn’t accommodate every reporter who had to jostle with Didi’s supporters for a toehold. And then came the threats and the allegations that the chief-minister-in-waiting had kept under wraps on May 11 and 12 as she waited to be crowned: there was the threat of a “democratic dawai” in the Vidhan Sabha to the “rigging sarkar” and there was the allegation that chief election commissioner M.S. Gill had been purchased by the Centre by some favours just before he was to retire in June; there was the threat of a “tit-for-tat” to the CPM and the allegation that the Centre (to spite her for leaving the NDA), the Election Commission (for favours bestowed) and the state government (for reasons more obvious) had connived to keep her out of power; there was also a demand that the poll panel resign for its “scandalous history (sic)”.

What followed the threats and the demand could have occurred only in a Trinamul-organised media meet; both threats and allegations were greeted as much by the rush of the pen as much as by claps and slogans by party supporters who crowded around the shamiana erected yesterday.

There was one man, however, who stayed away from the crowd. He sat in a corner with his wife and kids, praying for an audience with his elder sister. The man was Abdul Rehman Mondal, the person whose house at Chhoto Angaria was burnt down allegedly by CPM cadre the same night they allegedly killed 11 — or was it eight? — Trinamul (or was it People’s War?) men.

There was one unnoticed, but nevertheless significant, change; Mamata didn’t bother to introduce Mondal’s family to the flashing bulbs and moving tapes. She was “busy” till the evening in a meeting with some limbs of her party’s “policy-making body”.


Patna, May 14: 
George Fernandes, whose initial reluctance to resign as defence minister provided Mamata Banerjee an excuse to walk out of the BJP-led coalition, said here today that he might consider her return to the alliance if she was willing.

“I am not making any categorical statement on this. I am only saying that if she shows any interest, we would consider it,” Fernandes, convener of the NDA, said here.

The conciliatory tone of Fernandes, who came under the attack of Trinamul after the Tehelka scandal, was in contrast with BJP leader Tapan Sikdar’s statement yesterday that all except Mamata were welcome back.

The former defence minister said it was Mamata’s poll pact with the Congress that was responsible for her party’s defeat.

“She only helped the Congress to ride piggyback on her organisation. Voters in Bengal did not like this. She should have stayed in the NDA,” he said.

Fernandes conceded that if the NDA wanted a base in Bengal, it could only be in partnership with Mamata. “We had hardly any independent base in states like Bengal,” he said.

Welcoming the voters’ verdict, the former defence minister said the NDA would maintain an attitude of cooperation with chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

Fernandes said he refused to believe the results of the state polls were a referendum against the BJP-led ruling alliance at the Centre.

Besides, he felt, it was the Congress and not the BJP that needed to do some soul-searching about the state poll results. “The Congress should do some introspection on its results, not the NDA. We had no stake in the polls. We had hardly any expectations except in Tamil Nadu,” he said.

The Congress, he felt, did not do well on its own, but was bailed out by its partners.

“It (the Congress) is playing its old record and some partners like Laloo Yadav have asked for resignation of the Prime Minister. This is irresponsible and does not carry any conviction,” Fernandes said.


New Delhi, May 14: 
L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh will jointly chair a crucial meeting at the Unified Command Headquarters in Srinagar on May 19 to assess the ground situation before the May-end deadline for the extended period of the ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir.

Top government sources said the meeting was significant because the home minister and Singh, who is handling both defence and external affairs, could gauge popular mood following the peace dialogue that Planning Commission deputy chairman K.C. Pant has begun with different groups in the state.

The meeting will be followed up by Pant’s visit to the Valley a few days later, when he is expected to meet a cross-section of people for a feedback on the progress of the peace initiative.

Sources also did not rule out the possibility of Pant meeting certain Hurriyat Conference leaders who have refused to relent on the issue of involving Pakistan in any peace talks.

After meeting senior army commanders, heads of paramilitary forces, the state police chief and representatives of intelligence agencies, Advani and Singh will brief Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Indications are the Centre might extend the ceasefire, though a recent Border Security Force (BSF) report to the home minister has painted a dismal picture of the situation in the state.

According to the report, law and order has “deteriorated substantially”. The note says infiltration continued unabated during the winter when terrorists managed to consolidate their position in several parts of the state, especially in the higher reaches of Jammu.

But sources said Advani is happy with the way the security forces, while being restrained, have quietly stepped up counter-terrorism operations both in the Jammu region and in the Valley.

Singh’s presence at the May 19 meeting will serve two purposes: As defence minister he will review the functioning of the army and its role in counter-militancy operations.

As the external affairs minister, he will send out diplomatic signals on New Delhi’s “serious effort to usher in peace” in the embattled state.

On the dialogue front, the Vajpayee administration is understood to be satisfied with the progress the talks have made so far.

Pant has already met former chief minister Mir Qasim and representatives of the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party, led by Shabir Shah.

During his proposed visit to Srinagar, the Centre’s peace interlocutor is likely to meet not only Shah but also some of the newly-elected panchayat heads, heads of social and religious organisations and representatives of Kashmiri Pundits.

However, there are indications that he will, through “indirect channels”, send across subtle messages to moderate elements in the Hurriyat Conference.

“He will, of course, not meet them personally. But there are other channels which will be explored to persuade the Hurriyat to make a climbdown on their persistent demand,” a senior official said.


New Delhi, May 14: 
The BJP’s “consolation” of increasing its overall tally in the five states from eight to 13 has been offset by inputs that its vote percentage went down in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, for all its claims, it failed to open its account.

The party had to suffer the added ignominy of losing the Tiruchy Lok Sabha seat in Tamil Nadu — held by late power minister P.R. Kumaramangalam — to the ADMK and seeing its candidate finish a poor fourth in the Shahjahanpur Lok Sabha bypoll in Uttar Pradesh.

Though BJP bosses explained away the poor performance with the claim “we never had a stake in these states” and the Tiruchy loss to the “Jayalalitha wave”, they were tongue-tied on Shahjahanpur. More so, because chief minister Rajnath Singh had campaigned vigorously.

Singh, who replaced Ram Prakash Gupta, was supposed to have stemmed the BJP’s decline in Uttar Pradesh. Though the defeat has not been taken as an indicator of future trends, it has made party bosses wonder whether the change at the top had made a difference on the ground.

Shahjahanpur was wrested by the Samajwadi Party from the Congress — it was held by Jitendra Prasada whose widow was fielded by the party this time — on the strength of the backward caste and Muslim votes, plus those of the Thakurs. The Samajwadi polled 1,53,230 votes followed by the Congress which got 1,28,952 votes. The BSP came third.

Rajnath had claimed that the election results would be a “litmus test” for his government’s policies. After the results came in, BJP leaders chose to maintain a discreet silence. Had the Congress won, they could have attributed it to a sympathy factor at work, but the Samajwadi’s decisive win left them with no justification.

Some leaders blamed their “own partymen”. According to them, they worked against the party because Satyapal Singh had been given the ticket instead of the more popular, Ashok Yadav, adds our correspondent from Lucknow.

BJP sources admitted they had to “pay a price” for taking the support of former Congressman Surendranath Awasthi to ensure the chief minister’s victory in the Haidergarh seat. Though Awasthi later joined the BJP, he canvassed for Prasada’s widow as he is a protégé of the dead Congress leader.

Sources said Uttar Pradesh would be the focus of discussions at a meeting of Central office-bearers in Mussourie on May 20 and 21. The meeting would assess the pros and cons of holding the polls in October or March next year, when the legislature completes its five-year term.

Opinion is sharply divided in the state unit. One section feels an October poll is “advisable” before the BJP supporters become seriously disillusioned with Singh and, more important, before winter sets in and farmers are over and done with the second harvest.

“Farmers are free during the winter months before the spring harvest and the Samajwadi Party hopes to use this period to launch major agitations on agrarian issues like WTO. Before their agenda gains momentum, we should go in for elections,” sources said.

The other view is the BJP should “wait out” till March and give Singh time to rectify the “damage” done by his predecessors.


New Delhi, May 14: 
Over ice-cream and chom-chom from the Bengali Sweet House, the Congress today celebrated its victory in Assam, Kerala and Pondichery while shedding a tear for “soulmate” Mamata Banerjee.

Twenty-four hours after the crushing defeat of the Congress-Trinamul alliance in Bengal, the main Opposition party made it clear that it intends to do some tight-rope walking to renew “functional relations” with the Left and work towards unification with the Trinamul.

Congress managers defended the party’s strategy. “It is a huge country (and a) diverse nation,” they said. “In such a huge, diverse country, there can be no single, uniform strategy.”

Party spokesman Jaipal Reddy saw a silver lining in the poll outcome and predicted the return of “secular forces” to the “Red Fort” of Delhi.

In political lexicon, it means the Congress is game to join hands with the Left to topple the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime on an appropriate occasion. Reacting to the poll results, Reddy said: “The electoral trends mark the auspicious beginning of a process that will bring secular forces back to the Red Fort.”

At the same time, the Congress took pride in aligning with Mamata. “We have lost the polls in Bengal but succeeded in saving the soul of Bengal ... from the scourge of the BJP,” Reddy said, and added that the poll percentage and strength of the two parties had gone up. He defended the alliance with Mamata, pointing at Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s earlier statement that she did not consider the Trinamul leader non-secular even when the party was with the BJP.

The spokesman also took a dig at the Left, saying: “Let us face it. The elections were not entirely fair.” But apart from that rigging charge, there were no harsh words for the Marxists. He said his party was disappointed with the Bengal verdict but stressed it was happy to “reunite with soulmate Mamata and Trinamul”.

Senior leaders said Sonia was keen to reunite the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) in Tamil Nadu and the Trinamul with the parent organisation, but added that she would go according to the sentiments of the breakaway groups. Sonia’s close associate Ambika Soni today spoke to Mamata.

Reddy today claimed that voters were returning to the Congress because they were nostalgic about its past. He said the leadership’s farsightedness had paid rich dividends in Tamil Nadu, where the Congress joined hands with the ADMK along with the TMC. “We played a pivotal role in strengthening secular forces in Tamil Nadu, too,” he said.

Signature campaign

Buoyed by poll results, Sonia began targeting the BJP on the Ayodhya and Tehelka issues.

The Congress chief plans to march to Rashtrapati Bhavan later this month to submit “three crore” signatures demanding Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s resignation over the Tehelka exposé. All chief ministers and state party chiefs have been asked to mobilise support for the signature campaign.

Sonia has targeted the Rajnath Singh government in Uttar Pradesh alleging “conspiratorial inaction” on issuing a fresh notification in the Ayodhya case.


Thiruvananthapuram, May 14: 
Yesterday’s high among Kerala’s United Democratic Front (UDF) partners on their landslide victory over the Left Democratic Front (LDF) has given way to realistic concerns like forming the ministry.

While ADMK chief Jayalaitha has assumed office in neighbouring Tamil Nadu today itself, indications from the UDF suggest the exercise here would take as long as a week.

Central to this delay is the power struggle in the Congress between the factions led by senior leaders A.K. Antony and K. Karunakaran. The demands of other alliance partners also pose a problem.

The arrival of Ghulam Nabi Azad, CWC member in charge of Kerala, and senior Congress leader Motilal Vora here this afternoon is significant. However, they could not make much headway today as Antony had gone to Cherthala, his constituency, to thank voters.

Tomorrow, Karunakaran is headed for Guruvayoor for his monthly visit to the Vishnu temple there. Negotiations within the UDF and the Congress are expected to gather momentum from Tuesday onwards.

The Karunakaran faction has made it clear that it would fight to assert its supremacy right from its demand for the post of chief minister. Karunakaran’s statements have also pointed as much. He had maintained from time to time during the campaign that though he is not a candidate for chief ministership, he is not averse to accepting the post if MLAs and the Congress high command offer it.

He reiterated himself after the results were out on Sunday.

Though Antony had been projected as the chief ministerial candidate during the election campaign by a majority of the UDF constituents, Karunakaran does not agree. “Let the Congress MLAs who have won the election decide who will be the next chief minister. I am sure the Congress will select the right person,” Karunakaran said.

Off the record, his followers say the veteran leader’s game plan is not really to become chief minister but to ensure two other things. First, that his son K. Muralidharan is made the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president and two, to see that his supporters get a good representation in the ministry. They are certain their pressure tactics will succeed.

Out of the 62 Congress MLAs, the Karunakaran group is estimated to have 26. The Antony group is marginally ahead with 28 MLAs. There are two other groups headed by Vayalar Ravi and Ramesh Chennithala having 5 and 3 MLAs.

Because of the abundance of factions within itself, the Congress is expected to have a minimum of 10 ministers in the Cabinet.

The Muslim League with 16 MLAs would have to be given at least four ministers and six smaller parties are also demanding fair representation. As a result, the size of the ministry might go up to 20.

During the LDF rule, the ministry had 14 members and the UDF had criticised it for spending too much on them.

That would be one of the first accusations the UDF leadership would be forced to eat as they start the business of running the new government.


New Delhi, May 14: 
The “stars” have vanished from the BJP firmament just when the party needed their light to see it through these dark days.

Sushma Swaraj, M. Venkaiah Naidu, Arun Jaitley, Pramod Mahajan and Narendra Modi were regarded as the BJP’s star spokespersons who could hold a brief for anything the party did — whether it was bypassing Parliament and allies in pushing through critical and often controversial policy decisions or explaining the BJP-RSS equation.

The sky was the limit for these articulate and aggressive public faces of the BJP.

But when the results of the Assembly elections started pouring in and TV channels were looking for them, they were nowhere on the scene.

The BJP was instead represented by its second rung of spokespersons — not quite the same by popular reckoning. Madan Lal Khurana, Sahib Singh Verma, J.P. Mathur, Rajiv Pratap Rudy and Sunil Shastri saw the party through in televised discussions on why their allies — the DMK and the AGP — got a sound drubbing in their fiefs. Their decibel levels were nowhere close to those of Naidu or Sushma.

But where did the BJP’s stars disappear? Information technology minister Pramod Mahajan was in Malaysia, accompanying Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

However, he did let loose witty one-liners from there: “Voters are like kids, they always want the toys which they don’t possess. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the better one.”

Sushma was away in Cannes to attend the international film festival while Jaitley was in the US.

Although Naidu and Modi were in India, they opted to stay away from Delhi.

Naidu was in Andhra Pradesh and Modi in Badrinath, not for a darshan of the deity, but to preside over a working committee meeting of the Uttaranchal BJP unit.

That left Khurana and company to “defend” the NDA’s poor showing even as a rejuvenated Congress swung in some of its most articulate leaders like Madhavrao Scindia, Kamal Nath, Ambika Soni and Kapil Sibal.

A BJP leader sympathised with the “plight” of minister of state Shahnawaz Hussain as he was pitted against Sibal in what he described as “truly a battle of unequals”.

BJP sources said on other occasions, these spokespersons would have put their best foot forward. “After all, Khurana and Verma have led so many campaigns,” they said.

But when asked why they appeared weary and at their wits’ end, the wry explanation was: “Possibly the heat and strain of defending the government endlessly.” The nerves were clearly showing.


Ghaziabad, May 14: 
Terror has gripped Ghaziabad with a four-and-a-half-foot tall mysterious figure stalking the streets and slashing at passers-by. Victims say the shadowy attacker, who has been targeting residents for about a week, resembles a large ape the size of a gorilla.

Terrified inhabitants of this industrial township on the borders of Delhi have been living indoors most of the time as the stalker has been sighted even during day. But none, not even police — can say for sure whether it is an ape or a disguised human. From a distance it appears black, but it could even be dressed in black. The fear has also spread to North-East Delhi, where a few complaints have been lodged.

The figure, according to those who have seen it, has a face like a monkey and moves fast. The last three days have seen a spurt in the number of strikes and most of them have come about in low-income group areas and jhuggis.

Fear has forced residents to retire early, with shops downing shutters by 7 pm. But not many are sleeping. While women snatch a quick nervous nap, the men keep vigil through the night, armed with sticks and rods.

Nightfall brings a fresh wave of terror, more so when frequent power cuts plunge vast areas in darkness. When there is no power failure, whole neighbourhoods are alight with electric bulbs, some of them hanging from television antennas. People stand on their terraces firing shots in the sky. “The ambience is like Diwali,” said Vandana, a resident of Gandhinagar. “Of course, sans its fun and frolic. It is a frightening Diwali.”

The police do not dispute the fact that a strange figure is causing havoc. But, they say the fear is also a result of the paranoia that has gripped people’s minds. “The entire situation is hyped. Because of the panic, out of every 10 complaints reported, eight are fake. When people see a shadow or hear a noise, they assume it is the mysterious figure,” superintendent of police R.K. Chaturvedi said.


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