I am not a telephone operator: Sinha
Twin targets, single fireball
Partners chafe at ‘muzzle’ bid
Mumbai mission minus Atal nod
Fardeen flies high after drug bust
Libya beep on Delhi radar
More Phoolan ‘killers’ surface
Sangma cloud
Sack-sword on MP Cong chief
After Blair, Forster’s the new sitting duck

 
 
I AM NOT A TELEPHONE OPERATOR: SINHA 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Aug. 2: 
Finance minister Yashwant Sinha weathered two noisy debates in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha and blamed former UTI chairman P.S. Subramanyam, the Congress and the stock market meltdown for the Unit Trust fiasco, while absolving himself and his ministry.

But the Opposition kept up its attack, charging the government with mismanaging the country’s financial sector and “sleeping” while the UTI crisis unfolded. They demanded a joint parliamentary committee probe into the fiasco.

To assuage investors, the finance minister, however, told the Rajya Sabha that he would consider raising the ceiling of units that an individual can redeem in the next two years from 3,000 at present.

In a move to salvage the mutual fund’s finances, Sinha said he would ask UTI to sell unprofitable shares and invest the money in safe — but low-return — debt instruments.

Besides the Opposition, Sinha was attacked by the Telugu Desam, but none of the other NDA partners spoke up against the government’s handling of UTI’s affairs.

The Shiv Sena — whose member Sanjay Nirupam dragged the PMO into the UTI scandal and triggered a political crisis — remained silent. Mamata Banerjee made a last-minute entry into the Lok Sabha to join her partymen in voting in favour of the government and against the Opposition-sponsored motion censuring the government.

The motion was defeated by voice vote that was drowned in pandemonium. While the government’s victory was a foregone conclusion, given the ruling coalition’s numerical strength in the Lower House, the pandemonium seemed orchestrated to help Sinha avoid the Opposition’s barbs.

In the Rajya Sabha, Sinha made it clear that he would not resign. “I am not shirking responsibility but the question of accountability has to be discussed in greater detail,” he said. “The issue is not going to be resolved only because Yashwant Sinha resigns.”

When members insisted on a reply to Nirupam’s allegations about telephone calls to UTI chief P.S. Subramayam by PMO officials, Sinha shot back: “I am not a telephone operator. I do not run a telephone enquiry.”

He dismissed the Opposition charge that the finance ministry was sleeping when UTI was slipping. “We were not sleeping in the finance ministry. We were wide awake.”

Sinha claimed that it was Subramanyam who had kept him in the dark. “If only he had come with the problems (that led to the freeze of sale and repurchase of US-64 units on July 2), we would have given some advice. But every time we were assured that everything was hunky-dory,” the minister said.

Responding to Sinha’s charges that the Congress allowed UTI to buy Reliance shares at high prices in 1994, former finance minister Manmohan Singh said though these allegations had been enquired into and he had been absolved of all charges, he was still willing to face a fresh probe.

Reliance was again dragged into today’s debate with speakers, cutting across party lines, blaming the company for the UTI imbroglio.

Samata Party leader and former defence minister George Fernandes took the floor in the Lower House. He claimed that UTI was being attacked in a bid to undermine the positive impact of the budget.

At this stage, RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Yadav rushed to the well of the House and demanded a JPC probe into the UTI fiasco. He was joined by Congress members. But Sinha turned down the demand.

   

 
 
TWIN TARGETS, SINGLE FIREBALL 
 
 
FROM MONOBINA GUPTA
 
New Delhi, Aug. 2: 
The ball of fire is swinging between the Prime Minister and the finance minister.

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his office are not under attack from the Opposition and NDA ranks, it is Yashwant Sinha who is facing flak — either for the UTI mess or the economic downslide.

Today, the Congress leadership in the Rajya Sabha, led by former finance minister Manmohan Singh and Ambika Soni, urged Vajpayee, whose turn it was to sit through Question Hour, to get rid of his finance minister.

“You should take a bold and dynamic step by changing your finance minister,” Soni said.

Manmohan Singh, who during an earlier UTI discussion had stopped short of seeking Sinha’s resignation, went full steam, accusing the finance minister of pulling the wool over the nation’s eye.

“The finance minister had given inflated figures of tax estimates to Parliament. And the responsibility of misleading the house lies directly with him,” he said.

Vajpayee, however, did not respond to the Opposition diatribe and left it to Union minister Arun Shourie to answer the charges. Ever since the UTI scandal erupted and Parliament got under way, the Opposition has zeroed in on two figures in the NDA government: Vajpayee and Sinha.

First, they tightened the screws on Sinha and accused him of colluding with highly placed vested interest groups in the US-64 scam. The Prime Minister’s Office was then in the shadow of the accusations. But once an NDA constituent, the Shiv Sena, accused the PMO of tampering with the UTI investments, the Opposition homed in on the PMO.

“The Prime Minister must give Parliament an explanation of what happened,” said CPM MP Somnath Chatterjee.

The NDA may have reposed faith in the Prime Minister but the Opposition has a two-pronged strategy — to beat both the Prime Minister and the finance minister with one stick. “This government has one scam after another lined up against it,” said a Left leader.

The Congress is now claiming that despite having opened India’s market it had never rammed through policies that triggered such an economic slump. “There is no growth and no jobs,” said party MPs.

In the House, Cabinet ministers are holding out hope for the economy but in private they admit that the worse is yet to come.

Senior ministers feel India is now squarely on an economic path that cannot be switched and the going is only going to get tougher before things start improving.

   

 
 
PARTNERS CHAFE AT ‘MUZZLE’ BID 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, Aug. 2: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bid to impose censorship on the National Democratic Alliance has not gone down well with most allies, who are threatening to defy the proposed code of conduct.

Protesting against the move, a senior Janata Dal (United) leader said: “On the other hand, there should be a code of conduct for the Sangh parivar.” A Samata Party leader echoed him: “All the statements against the son-in-law and the PMO emanated from the BJP. The Sangh parivar is notorious for character assassination.”

Barring the DMK, almost all allies were peeved with the attempt to force a code of conduct. The DMK, whose leader and Union minister of commerce and industry Murasoli Maran is in the committee drafting the code, said it would comment only after seeing the “wordings” of the draft.

Disapproving of the idea of a code, Dal(U) parliamentary party leader Devinder Prasad said: “Nobody can curtail our freedom of expression inside and outside Parliament. We are MPs and have to answer to the people of our constituencies.We are not bound by such rules.”

Biju Janata Dal member Bhartuhari Mehatab said MPs have to take up issues concerning people of their states even if this means criticising the Centre.

“Last week, the Prime Minister made an aerial survey of the floods in Orissa and announced that the Centre would grant Rs 435 crore to the state towards one lakh houses and three lakh tonnes of rice. But according to our estimate, the cost of these two items would be Rs 170 crore and Rs 160 crore — a total of Rs 330 crore.What arithmetic is this? Where is the remaining Rs 105 crore? Why should we allow the Congress to accrue the benefit of criticising?” he said. “We cannot keep our mouths shut over such discrepancies.”

Telugu Desam’s Yerran Naidu said the code is not applicable to his party as it is not part of the NDA. “In any case, we never created any problem either for the Prime Minister or the government.We are a responsible party,” he said.

Rubbishing the bid to silence the government’s critics, a Shiv Sena leader said the day Parliament ratified President’s rule in Manipur and the Centre spoke of dissolution of the House, George Fernandes said in Pune that the Samata Party was against it.

   

 
 
MUMBAI MISSION MINUS ATAL NOD 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, Aug. 2: 
The BJP today sought to distance Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee from George Fernandes’ Mumbai mission to mollify Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray.

A senior BJP Cabinet minister said the NDA convener had undertaken the Mumbai trip entirely on his own without consulting or informing Vajpayee.

Party sources said Fernandes decided to rush to Thackeray after a telephone conversation with him yesterday morning before the NDA meeting, which was called to repose faith in Vajpayee’s leadership after the resignation drama.

During the conversation, the Sena chief is learnt to have conveyed his decision to pull out his ministers from the NDA and rethink his support to the government.

“I overheard Fernandes tell him that he would be in Mumbai by the evening to meet him. I even asked him what was the need to meet Thackeray,” the Cabinet minister said.

While Fernandes was not available for comment, Samata sources said “whenever George saab has undertaken trouble-shooting missions in the past, he has always taken the Prime Minister’s permission and never done it unilaterally. If he was an unauthorised person, why would Thackeray have met him and agreed to call off the press conference he was supposed to hold today?”

Sources close to the Prime Minister sounded ambivalent. While the suggestion to meet Thackeray had come from Fernandes, Vajpayee did not stop him when he sought his permission, they said.

“Fernandes informed the Prime Minister that he would meet Thackeray and Vajpayee did not stop him. But there was no brief from the Prime Minister for Thackeray,” they maintained.

These sources also clarified that the BJP version, conveyed by one of its ministers, did not have Vajpayee’s sanction. “Whoever has talked is a senior leader in his own right and is saying things in his own wisdom,” they said.

The BJP was irked by the Fernandes-Thackeray meeting because the Sena chief has lately cold-shouldered Maharashtra leaders, including parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan who was instrumental in cementing the alliance with the Sena.

But the BJP-Sena alliance started souring after it lost the last Assembly elections and had to suffer the added ignominy of seeing the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party form the Democratic Front government despite Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar not being on speaking terms.

Thackeray was particularly incensed with Mahajan’s reported dalliances with Pawar, who is believed to be uncomfortable with the Congress alliance. His pleas to Maharashtra BJP leaders to topple the government and prop another by splitting the NCP were never taken seriously by Mahajan.

   

 
 
FARDEEN FLIES HIGH AFTER DRUG BUST 
 
 
FROM DEBASHIS BHATTACHARYYA
 
Mumbai, Aug. 2: 
On magazine covers and film posters, in glossies and dailies — wherever you look, you see Fardeen Khan in his designer stubble.

Khan, charged by the Narcotics Control Bureau today for keeping a cache of cocaine stashed in his car, has been on the up, up and up since he was busted on May 5.

In flighty Bollywood, Khan, with his “cool” looks, appears to be riding high on a squall of publicity his arrest generated, bringing him under the spotlight. Filmmakers are scrambling to sign him up.

That’s not it. Provogue, a clothing brand, has signed him up as its brand ambassador for two years, calling him an actor of class and charisma. “Any kind of publicity, positive or negative, helps because it brings the person to the public notice. But there is more to it than simple publicity when it comes to Fardeen,” filmmaker Govind Nihalani said.

Nihalani said people appreciated the way Khan handled the crisis after the arrest. The actor did not hide anything and admitted doing drugs. “Fardeen admitted it was a mistake. After all, we all make mistakes. So, people think here is a guy who is honest enough to confess and admit his mistake,” Nihalani said.

Khan, who is on bail, has been booked under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act for “attempting to buy narcotics for personal consumption”. Nine grams of cocaine was found concealed in his Opel Astra car in Juhu on May 5.

The court allowed him to go abroad for shoots and exempt him from appearance till August 11, but ordered Nasir Abdul Karim Sheikh, the drug peddler the actor was caught buying the cocaine from, to be held in judicial custody.

Actor-director Anupam Kher, who has roped in Khan for his film Om Jai Jagdish, said it was not publicity but the way he handled his arrest that increased his popularity. “He was honest enough to admit his mistake and did it in a dignified way. Everyone appreciated his confession,” Kher said.

Kher said filmmakers were signing the actor up because “he is good at his job. He is sincere and hardworking”. He said he was in the news since his arrest “because people want to know about him. Fardeen sells.”

Khan’s schedule is tight these days, shooting for a host of films including Kher’s Om Jai Jagdish and Boney Kapoor’s Khushi. He is now in Australia, shooting for Mehul Kumar’s Kitne Door Kitne Paas.

Provogue managing director Nikhil Chaturvedi said they chose Khan as their brand ambassador because he “suited Provogue’s image — young, charming and an actor of class”.

Chaturvedi said the actor proved his mettle by coming clean about his addiction. “He has owned up. You can’t hold it against him for the rest of his life.”

Not that everyone agrees.

“All this shows how drugs, associated with the film and fashion world, are being glamourised in the media. It’s a frightening phenomenon,” Shobha De said.

   

 
 
LIBYA BEEP ON DELHI RADAR 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, Aug. 2: 
As India was trying to pick up the threads of the Lahore peace process at Agra, South Block was preparing to rummage through the rubble of the Cold War to renew ties with one-time ally — Libya.

Delhi’s efforts to revive ties with Libya comes despite India’s endeavour over the last few years to bring the issue of terrorism on the international centrestage. Even a few years ago, Libya was widely suspected by the West, particularly the US, to be one of the main backers of global terrorism.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee recently sent Omar Abdullah — then junior commerce minister — as his special envoy with a letter to Libyan President Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Though Abdullah, who was there from July 10 to 12, could not meet Gaddafi as he was not in the country, the minister did get to meet several important functionaries of the Libyan government and hand over Vajpayee’s letter.

The trip is officially being described as a courtesy visit. But there is little to justify why Gaddafi has resurfaced on India’s radar screen after a decade-and-a-half’s absence. Indira Gandhi was the last Indian Prime Minister to visit Libya in 1984. For nearly 16 years after that there has been no high-level visit to the country, though former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral paid a visit in 1999.

The two sides have had diplomatic ties since 1969, but relations became stronger in the late seventies and eighties. Libya is not only an important oil-rich country, it is also a member of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Indira Gandhi’s main focus had been on strengthening economic ties. But within a few months of her visit, the economic component in the bilateral ties started weakening. There were a number of reasons, chief among them the high-handedness of Libyan authorities in dealing with foreign workers and investors, which included many from India.

In 1990, when Libya was dubbed as one of the main backers of terrorism by the US, it tried to mend fences with old allies like India to tide over the crisis it was going through because of the sanctions imposed by its detractors in the West. But Delhi, despite the presence of nearly 10,000 Indians in Libya, maintained a low profile in its relations with Gaddafi.

One of the main thrusts of the Vajpayee government, however, has been to review India’s foreign policy, particularly in areas where there has been little interaction in recent years. As part of this policy, foreign minister Jaswant Singh visited Algeria, Egypt and Syria, while the Prime Minister paid an official visit to Morocco. As no high-level delegation has visited Libya in nearly 16 years, there were urgent appeals from the Gaddafi regime that Delhi should not ignore its one-time ally completely, particularly when attempts were being made to revive old ties.

According to policy-makers here, the focus of the international terrorism issue is shifting from the Gaddafi regime with the emergence of new “villains” like Osama bin Laden and the Taliban as well as Gaddafi’s attempt to distance himself from them. There is a feeling that once the Libyan leadership owns up responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and agrees to pay full compensation to the families of the victims, much of the hard feeling the West has towards the military dictator will go away.

   

 
 
MORE PHOOLAN ‘KILLERS’ SURFACE 
 
 
FROM AMBEREEN ALI SHAH
 
New Delhi, Aug. 2: 
Names are surfacing thick and fast, deepening the mystery behind the murder of Samajwadi Party MP Phoolan Devi. Two possible suspects, Vicky, the relative of a Samajwadi Party MLA, and Shravan, an employee at self-confessed killer Sher Singh Rana’s liquor shop, are keeping the police guessing.

With new names cropping up, the police are also struggling to verify the number of assailants who rained bullets on Phoolan at the gate of her official residence, a stone’s throw from Parliament.

The police are also confused with the new theory that Rana was in jail when Phoolan was killed. Preliminary investigations show that Rana, alias Pankaj alias Sheru, was in Hardwar jail the day Phoolan was killed. Records from the Roshanabad jail suggest that Pankaj was imprisoned between July 18 and 26 in connection with an illicit liquor case.

But a new twist has been added to the plot with the revelation that a person might have been impersonating Rana in jail. Uttaranchal police chief A.K. Sharan said: “All investigations till now by Delhi and Uttaranchal police teams suggest that someone else was kept in jail in place of Rana.” He added that “most probably” Shravan, an employee of Rana, was impersonating the accused.

Police officials have found several differences while matching the identification marks of Rana, recorded in December 1996, with that of the person lodged in jail when Phoolan was murdered.

The Uttaranchal police said Shravan, who is from Bihar, worked in Rana’s liquor shop in Roorkee. The shop has been closed since the day of Phoolan’s murder and all its workers are absconding.

In Delhi, Qamar Ahmed, deputy commissioner of police, said: “All four people, Sher Singh Rana alias Pankaj, Ravinder alias Rajinder, Rajbir and Shekhar, arrested by the police, are being interrogated separately by the crime branch and the facts revealed by them are being cross-checked.”

He added that Keshav Chauhan, a Samajwadi Party worker who fled to Mirzapur after the killing, is being questioned for hiding two country-made weapons from the site of the murder. The guns were discovered five days after the murder. “He will be questioned,” said Ahmed.

Police also threw light on the past criminal activities of Rana. In Dehra Dun, he was involved with two persons, Amit and Ashutosh, in stealing a new car.

Last year, he along with Shravan, Vicky, Rajinder and Raju looted Rs 10 lakh from a Punjab National Bank (PNB) branch in Dehra Dun. They also shot at the guard on duty at the bank.

This year, the gang repeated their act at the Roorkee branch of PNB and fled with Rs 15 lakh. Rana also stole a car from Aurangabad and abandoned it at Ghaziabad.

   

 
 
SANGMA CLOUD 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Guwahati, Aug. 2: 
The Centre is yet to clear the decks for former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma’s appointment as its representative in the “forthcoming political dialogue” with the proscribed NSCN(Isak-Muivah).

Sources attributed the delay in issuing a notification announcing Sangma’s appointment as the Centre’s emissary due to “certain reservations” expressed by the NSCN(I-M) leadership this afternoon.

The outfit wants a politician to be at the helm of the Central team, but fears that Sangma could have “vested interests” owing to his roots in the Northeast.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s emissary K. Padmanabhaiah is scheduled to leave for Amsterdam tomorrow to sort out “minor irritants” in the negotiations between the Centre and the NSCN(I-M).

“I am preparing to leave for Amsterdam tomorrow to clear the air of misunderstanding, if any,” Padmanabhaiah told The Telegraph over the phone from New Delhi tonight.

Sangma, on the other hand, said he was “yet to receive any official intimation to join the Naga peace talks”. He had earlier agreed to accept the job during a “one-to-one” discussion with Vajpayee.

The NSCN(I-M)’s “resistance” to Sangma’s proposed appointment as the Centre’s emissary prompted the Prime Minister to convene an in-camera meeting at his office this evening.

Apart from Padmanabhaiah, Union home minister L.K. Advani, home secretary Kamal Pande, the principal secretary to the Prime Minister, Brajesh Mishra, and Intelligence Bureau officials attended the meeting.

Sources said Swaraj Kaushal was discussed as a possible alternative to Sangma as the Supreme Court lawyer was also a politician, albeit “one without roots in the Northeast”.

   

 
 
SACK-SWORD ON MP CONG CHIEF 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Aug. 2: 
Madhya Pradesh Congress chief Radha Kishan Malviya seems set to get the sack following the shootout in Bhopal in which state party general secretary Manak Aggarwal was critically wounded by party colleague Inder Prajapat.

Senior leaders like Madhavrao Scindia, Arjun Singh and Kamal Nath have told Sonia Gandhi that Malviya’s continuation as state unit chief had become untenable in the wake of Manak’s charge that he was patronising Prajapat and the others involved in assaulting him.

Chief minister Digvijay Singh, who was earlier backing Malviya, has now left the decision to the high command. Digvijay’s brother, Laxman Singh, was among those who called on Sonia favouring dissolution of the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee.

A high-level Congress team of Oscar Fernandez and L.P. Shahi is in Bhopal to ascertain facts. The high command will formally take a position once they submit their report. Initial reports reaching the AICC functionaries suggest that Malviya failed to curb factionalism, leading to the ugly situation.

An image-conscious Sonia is keen to set her house in Madhya Pradesh in order as Digvijay’s government is being tom-tommed as a “model state”. At a recent meeting of Congress chief ministers, Sonia had lauded Digvijay and asked the others to emulate him. Earlier, Sonia had removed Orissa chief minister J.B. Patnaik when his government failed to arrest the killers of Christian missionary Graham Staines.

Several other factors could influence Sonia’s decision against Malviya. The state unit chief is a lightweight and lacks mass base. He was recently given a second term in office amid strong protest from several factions.

   

 
 
AFTER BLAIR, FORSTER’S THE NEW SITTING DUCK 
 
 
FROM SHRABANI BASU
 
London, Aug. 2: 
Ever-controversial writer V.S. Naipaul has described E.M. Forster as a sexual predator more interested in seducing garden boys than revealing the truth about India.

In an interview to Farrukh Dhondy published in the Literary Review today, Naipaul has labelled Forster’s Passage to India as “false, pretence and utter rubbish”. Naipaul’s latest novel Half a Life is due for publication soon.

Naipaul also derided economist John Meynard Keynes, a friend of Forster’s, as a homosexual who exploited the poor and those in their power for sexual gratification. He said the pair (Forster and Keynes) set their work against a background of “mystery and lies” and that Forster’s book was a “lying mystery”.

“I don’t think Forster knew what it means,” said Naipaul. “It (Passage to India) has only one real scene, and that’s the foolish little tea party at the beginning. Forster, of course, has his own purposes in India. He is a homosexual and he has his time in India, exploiting poor people, which his friend Keynes also did.”

“Keynes didn’t exploit poor people, he exploited people in the university; he sodomised them and they were too frightened to do anything about it. Forster belonged to that kind of nastiness really. I know it might be liberally wonderful now to say it’s OK but I think it’s awful. That’s the background to all the mystery and lies. It is a lying mystery,” said the writer who has in the past lambasted Tony Blair for “destroying the civilisation” of Britain.

Asked whether Forster had contributed anything to the understanding of India, Naipaul was withering. “He encouraged people to lie. He was somebody who didn’t know Indian people. He just knew the court and a few middle class Indians and the garden boys whom he wished to seduce.”

Asked by Dhondy about the three religions of India, Naipaul made his first attack on Forster. “People write such rubbish about the three religions of India,” he said. “People like E.M. Forster make a pretence of making poetry of the three religions. It’s false. It’s pretence. It’s utter rubbish”.

But Forster and Keynes were not the only ones at the receiving end of Naipaul’s literary criticism.

The other offenders were:

R.K. Narayan — “He thinks it’s eternal. In fact, his India is a ruin.”

Wole Soyinka — “A marvellously establishment figure actually.”

Joyce — “I can’t read it... He is not interested in the world.’’

Maugham’s stories — “Gone with the wind now.. part of the dust, part of the imperial dust.”

Dickens — “Died from the self-parody.”

Stendahl — “Flawed.”

And finally Andre Deutsch, the publisher, who made his name — “...the awfulness of the man Deutsch.”

Naipaul has a reputation for being a very difficult person to interview. Earlier this year, Naipaul had simply walked off from an interview with an Irish journalist, who had flown in from Dublin and then made the long journey to the novelist’s house in Wiltshire.

“Nadira, will you simply answer her questions ?” he had instructed his wife and walked off in a huff, saying the journalist did not know anything about him.

With Dhondy, he seems to have opened up and clearly let go.

   
 

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