Flood fear grips Malda
Ethics-stung BJP treads cautiously
Advantage Mamata after govt buzz
Sister eyes MP Phoolan’s shoes
Police probe ‘plot’ theory as more land in net
Somnath sees foes in House friends
MPs on a high at Bombay High
CMs queer Sangma talks pitch
Business bitter pill for US
Discovery for all ages & hours

 
 
FLOOD FEAR GRIPS MALDA 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
Calcutta, Aug. 3: 
The first signs of floods in the state were evident today when swelling waters of the Ganga broke a spur in Malda today, affecting some 2,300 villagers.

The BDO of Kaliachak II has asked the villagers of Aladitola, Jahirtola, Nasbatolla and Umedhajitola to move to safer places.

The authorities as well as the local people fear the situation will get worse if the river, fed by rainwater, rises further.

The Ganga’s flow will increase so much, fear authorities, that it will not be possible to repair the spurs.

Spur No. 20 between English Bazar and Kaliachak, which caved in today, was the eighth to break down since 1995.

As in previous years, the inhabitants of Bhootni char (island) in Manikchak block have been marooned by the swollen river, which was flowing just below the danger level, the flood control cell at Malda said.

About 10,000 people on the island have been affected. The block’s administrative officer, Abhijit Mukherjee, said 60 families have been shifted out till now.

District magistrate Ajit Bardhan will visit the block tomorrow to inspect the damage and order necessary measures to prevent further losses.

Thousands of people have also been hit by the rising Fulohar and Mahananda rivers in Ratua Block I, BDO Bikash Das said. Civil defence personnel were ready with speed boats, while irrigation personnel had been alerted. About 40 km south, the Ganga is also threatening villages in Farakka of Murshidabad district.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who is scheduled to visit the district tomorrow, may go to the affected areas to assess the situation. He will also hold a meeting with district officials.

   

 
 
ETHICS-STUNG BJP TREADS CAUTIOUSLY 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Aug. 3: 
Touched to the quick by the response of most of its allies to the proposed code of conduct for the NDA constituents, the BJP said the four-member committee constituted to work out the code will “consider all viewpoints”.

Most of the allies had said the attempt to force a code of conduct on them — which would effectively prevent them from articulating views on the government and NDA policies — was an infringement on their freedom of expression. Some of them had also demanded that such a code first be evolved for the BJP and the Sangh parivar as Sangh constituents had attacked Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his office.

BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra said: “The committee’s recommendations will be considered in an NDA meeting and each party will be free to place its views. Only then will a code be put into place and this will be binding on one and all, including the BJP.”

The code was not meant to stop NDA MPs from speaking up on the floor of the House, Malhotra said, in what was seen as a response to the Shiv Sena’s directive to its members to stay mum and not even ask supplementary questions. Sena MP Sanjay Nirupam’s reference to Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law during a discussion on UTI had allegedly prompted the Prime Minister to offer his resignation.

“But decisions taken unanimously in the Cabinet and the NDA should not be opposed outside,” Malhotra added.

With the UTI debate having ended rather tamely in the Lok Sabha and the matter being made the subject of a probe by a joint parliamentary committee constituted earlier to look into the stock scam, the BJP felt the Opposition would not rake up the issue again.

The party clarified that finance minister Yashwant Sinha will not resign. “The finance minister should not resign because there is absolutely no proof of his involvement. We will not send an innocent man to the gallows,” asserted Malhotra.

It was “unfair” to draw a parallel between the Opposition demand for Sinha’s head and former defence minister George Fernandes’ resignation after he was indirectly named in the Tehelka tapes, Malhotra said. “George Fernandes himself resigned. So what can we do?” he asked.

BJP sources said in private that even if things become “too hot” for Sinha, the leadership will have to think twice before sacrificing him. “It’s the TINA (there is no alternative) factor at work. Even if we want to get rid of him, where is the replacement?” they asked.

The sources dismissed the suggestion that the Telugu Desam was pitching for former RBI chief and Andhra Pradesh Governor C. Rangarajan to replace Sinha.

“Manmohan Singh was an exception. If every RBI Governor thinks he will be a successful finance minister, it is an unrealistic expectation,” sources said.

The BJP cited the TINA factor in support of Vajpayee as well. The series of events, beginning with the Agra summit, the UTI scam and finally the resignation episode, have not dented his image, they said.

“We don’t think it has affected his credibility and standing even 10 per cent. There is still no other leader comparable to Atalji. His image can suffer only when another leader rises on the horizon and there is someone to compare him with,” the sources said.

   

 
 
ADVANTAGE MAMATA AFTER GOVT BUZZ 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, Aug. 3: 
Despite BJP president Jana Krishnamurthi’s strong stand against admitting prodigal allies back into the NDA, the party was forced to climb down and cosy up to the Trinamul Congress on the eve of voting on the Congress-sponsored adjournment motion on the UTI scam.

Anxious to ensure that the motion is defeated, senior BJP leader V.K. Malhotra made a telephone call to Mamata Banerjee, requesting her to be present in the Lok Sabha when the motion demanding the resignation of finance minister Yashwant Sinha was put to vote and support the government in voting the motion out.

Mamata, who of late has not missed any opportunity to please the Vajpayee establishment, readily obliged. She was present in the Lok Sabha at the time of voting despite having fever and her party voted en bloc with the government against the motion, which was defeated. A happy Malhotra later phoned the Trinamul leader and thanked her for her party’s co-operation.

BJP sources said Mamata’s coming to the aid of the government in a time of crisis had earned her considerable goodwill among senior BJP leaders and that Krishnamurthi’s suggestion of a “cooling off” period for allies who deviated from the path may be waived for her party.

In any case, the other ally, Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), which also had ditched the NDA on the eve of Assembly elections, has been readmitted.

Sources said Mamata did not have any other option but to vote against the Congress-sponsored adjournment motion. Had she opposed the government, her party would have split as the BJP had reached an understanding with a “few MPs”.

The Trinamul leader is likely to meet Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani in a couple of days, after she recovers from her ailment, according to sources. Even as the decks are being cleared for her re-entry into the NDA, the Congress is likely to make a last-ditch attempt to retain its alliance with her.

Congress leader Kamal Nath, who is in charge of West Bengal, may call on her in a day or two to discuss the situation, sources said. Congress president Sonia Gandhi, according to sources, is still keen that Mamata remains in the secular camp.

However, though the high command is still not averse to having Trinamul in its fold, the Bengal Congress has strong reservations against Mamata. Congress sources said the Trinamul leader has to make up her mind fast and cannot ride on two horses.

   

 
 
SISTER EYES MP PHOOLAN’S SHOES 
 
 
FROM AMBEREEN ALI SHAH
 
New Delhi, Aug. 3: 
Less than a fortnight after Phoolan Devi was gunned down, her sister Munni appears to be getting ready to don her political mantle.

Munni has dropped enough hints that she would like to contest the Lok Sabha byelection from her sister’s Mirzapur constituency if offered a ticket by the Samajwadi Party. Phoolan’s political mentor and Samajwadi chief Mulayam Singh Yadav is also believed to be keen on fielding her.

Munni, who until the other day was accusing Mulayam of making political capital by insisting on cremating Phoolan in Mirzapur, has suddenly discovered a “pitaji” (father) in him.

Since Phoolan’s release from Gwalior Jail, Munni had lived with her. She moved with her to Chittaranjan Park, Gulmohar Park and then to the 44 Ashoka Road residence, outside which the MP was slain.

Living with Phoolan has been a learning experience for Munni, whose mannerisms and belligerence announce her presence on the political scene. A few days after Phoolan’s death, Munni had spewed venom at the Bandit Queen’s husband Umedh unlike the other sisters and brother of the MP, who spoke with less confidence.

Munni said Mulayam “is like the head of our family, and my sister Phoolan would call him pitaji”. “Bhai aur pita ke nate, Mulayam Singh Yadavji aur Amar Singhji ne shav ko kandha diya. (Mulayam played the role of father and Amar Singh played the role of brother and carried Phoolan’s body for cremation).”

At a press conference, Munni also denied that Phoolan’s family was against her antim sanskar (last rites) in Mirzapur. “It was according to our wishes that the last rites were performed at Choubae Ghat in Mirzapur.”

According to the family, the antim sanskar was held in Mirzapur because of the demands made by the people of the constituency and because of the innumerable fax and phone calls that poured in from there after Phoolan’s death.

Munni, who spoke for Phoolan’s mother Mula Devi, sisters Rukmini and Ramkali and brother Shivnarayan, said: “The Samajwadi Party is like our family. It was my sister’s last wish that till we are alive we should live in the chhatra chhaya of the Samajwadi Party.”

The caste combinations of Mirzapur bring Munni, who belongs to the Mallah (fisherfolk) caste, into the picture. Mallahs are the most dominant backward community in Mirzapur. In the last 10 years, they did not have the courage to vote because they feared the upper caste Thakurs. But Samajwadi’s arrival changed that. With Phoolan joining Samajwadi, the Yadavs have taken the Mallahs to vote.

   

 
 
POLICE PROBE ‘PLOT’ THEORY AS MORE LAND IN NET 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, Aug. 3: 
With the arrest of three more people here in connection with murder of Phoolan Devi, the number of conspirators has increased to seven.

Sher Singh Rana, Ravinder alias Rajinder, Shekhar and Rajbir are already in police custody. Today Keshav Chauhan, Praveen Mittal and Amit Rathi were produced before the Patiala court and remanded in custody to facilitate interrogation. The crime branch is also on the lookout for Dhanprakash, alias Vicky, a close associate of Rana.

Keshav Chauhan, a Samajwadi Party worker from Mirzapur was brought to the capital yesterday for questioning and was formally arrested today. He has been booked under section 201 for causing disappearance of evidence of offence. Chauhan had hidden two country made firearms in Phoolan’s garage after picking them up from the gate. The weapons were discovered on July 30.

Interestingly, before Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Phoolan’s residence they entire area was combed by police, but they did not find the weapon.

Police have also arrested Praveen Mittal, an advocate and Amit Rathi, who allegedly provided arms to prime accused Sher Singh Rana. Rathi and Mittal have been held for providing the accused with the arms.

Police sources said Mittal had sold a revolver to Rana a month-and-a-half ago. Rana also purchased a weapon from Rathi, owner of Subhash Gun House in Roorkee. The police are also on the lookout for another person who provided two more weapons to the killers.

Despite the arrests, the police have failed to ascertain the motive behind the murder and are probing the political-conspiracy angle.

Rana, who confessed to have killed Phoolan, named Ravinder alias Rajinder as an accomplice and claimed that he had fired at the MP’s security guard, Balwinder Singh. However, the police have learnt that Ravinder was in Hardwar jail between July 3 and 26.

It has also been established that Rana was not in Roshanabad jail when the Samajwadi legislator was killed and someone was impersonating him. Investigations have also revealed that Rana and Ravinder were in touch with each other when the conspiracy to kill Phoolan was hatched.

Phoolan’s sister, Munni, who ran out of the house after hearing gunshots said she had seen four persons running away. She identified two — who were not masked — as Pankaj and Rajbir, who had started visiting Phoolan one-and-a-half months ago. Phoolan’s family members also said that Pankaj and Rajbir, who is dark and stocky, visited Phoolan on the fateful morning with Uma and her husband Vijay. Phoolan made a sweet-dish for them that morning.

Phoolan’s family members pointed that her dog Jackie was tied to a chain in their backyard. They claimed that this had never happened before and hinted at the involvement of Ramchander Kashyap, a distant relative of Uma Kashyap.

   

 
 
SOMNATH SEES FOES IN HOUSE FRIENDS 
 
 
FROM MONOBINA GUPTA
 
New Delhi, Aug. 3: 
CPM MP Somnath Chatterjee today admitted that the “Opposition is as divided as the ruling alliance at the Centre” and this was coming in the way of a coordinated floor strategy.

“There is nothing to hide. The Opposition lacks a coordinated strategy,” Chatterjee said at a press conference. Though he refused to say that its main ally, the Samajwadi Party, was interested in keeping the NDA government in place, at least for now, he made it clear that the tension between the Congress and the Samajwadi was derailing Opposition unity.

Left to itself, the CPM would not be averse to working out a cohesive floor strategy with the main Opposition party, the Congress. But Samajwadi chief Mulayam Singh, a pivot of the People’s Front, has put his foot down. “We have to work with many parties in the Opposition and some of them do not get along with each other,” said Chatterjee.

The Opposition disunity is becoming a shield of defence for a querulous NDA — its partners publicly taking swipes at the Prime Minister and his office.

The CPM claims the alliance is a fractured conglomerate with some partners striking out on their own — a handicap the Opposition is unable to use for its own good because of the fissures within itself.

Last night, the Opposition did not press for a division of votes in the Lok Sabha on the US-64 issue. By all indications, it was apprehensive that if the government was voted out they would not have an alternative acceptable to all.

Mulayam would much rather have an NDA at the Centre than a dispensation led by Sonia Gandhi.

The CPM, on the contrary, would like to bring down the Vajpayee government at the earliest even if it meant backing a Congress government.

   

 
 
MPS ON A HIGH AT BOMBAY HIGH 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, Aug. 3: 
Bombay High is emerging as the favourite destination of MPs if the number of parliamentary delegations that have visited the offshore drilling centre over the last six months is an indication.

The business-cum-pleasure trips have drained the exchequer to such an extent that petroleum minister Ram Naik was forced to bring it to the notice of the Rajya Sabha Chairman and the Lok Sabha Speaker. Naik wrote a letter of protest to both with details of the various trips.

Bombay High can be accessed only by a chopper and the 175 km journey from Mumbai to the offshore drilling site takes roughly two hours and costs the treasury Rs 2 lakh. Besides, each chopper can accommodate a maximum of four, provided the weather is normal and the sea calm.

But rarely have the parliamentary delegations been limited to four persons. The smallest delegation comprised 10 members and the largest 34. Between May 2000 and January 2001 — the period referred to by Naik in his letters —168 MPs went to Bombay High, necessitating 42 chopper rides. That itself has left the treasury poorer by about Rs 84 lakh. The amount doesn’t cover the cost of air-travel from Delhi to Mumbai and back, accommodation in five-star hotels, a daily allowance, and other expenses.

These trips have had little to do with the dynamics of oil exploration and drilling. Committees of all shades and hues have registered their presence in Bombay High — from the first sub-committee of the committee of Parliament on Official Language to the committee on petitions of Rajya Sabha and the committee on welfare of SC\STs.

The panel on official language comprising nine delegates went on an “inspection of the central government office/undertaking”, a petroleum ministry release said. The committee on government assurances of Lok Sabha, headed by S. Venugopal, went all the way to get information for “parliamentary unstarred question no. 3439” of April 17, 2000.

The standing committee on labour and welfare, led by Sushil Kumar Indora, who had 27 MPs in tow, dropped by for an “on-the-spot study in connection with the issues relating to safety, health and welfare measures for workers engaged in exploration, drilling and production of crude oil”. The 10-member Suresh Pachouri-led committee on assurances of Rajya Sabha went on a mission to recruit physically-challenged persons. The panel on subordinate legislation, Rajya Sabha, went to check if the Building and other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions) Rules, 1998, were being followed or not.

The stated intent of the S.R. Bommai-led committee of petitions of Rajya Sabha was on “payment of enhanced gratuity”. The committee on the welfare of scheduled castes and tribes, led by Karia Munda and S.P. Gautam of the BJP went to Bombay High to “examine the representation of SC\STs in services of ONGC”.

A senior Cabinet minister observed that the real purpose was “to get a high by crossing the turbulent Arabian Sea on a chopper and the rougher the weather the more thrilling the rise” and “later experiencing the excitement of oil drilling”.

   

 
 
CMS QUEER SANGMA TALKS PITCH 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU
 
New Delhi, Aug. 3: 
The proposed inclusion of Northeast leader Purno A. Sangma in New Delhi’s team to the Naga peace talks seems to be as uncertain — plagued by misunderstanding among concerned sides — as the fate of the negotiations since 1997.

Padmanabhaiah’s mission to Amsterdam — he left today — is self-admittedly to clear the air of confusion and misunderstanding between Delhi and the Naga leaders over reversal of a “limitless” ceasefire territory.

In case of Sangma’s appointment, there seems to be a replay of the inconsistency in the Centre’s policy on the Nagaland imbroglio. After bowing to the demand of the Naga militant outfit for a truce “without territorial limits”, announced through the “Bangkok declaration”, it once again revoked the cornerstone of the agreement and confined the ceasefire between the NSCN(I-M) rebels and security forces to Nagaland “only”.

The Centre, which has been pursuing a please-all policy without success on the issue of giving peace a chance in Nagaland, this week decided to pay heed to the demand by a section that a politician should replace a retired bureaucrat — Padmanabhaiah — as its interlocutor. Sangma, a former Lok Sabha Speaker and Congressman-turned-NCP leader, emerged as the “obvious choice” for the PMO “because of his vast knowledge of Northeast affairs”.

Sangma, who just the other day was forthcoming in saying that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had offered him the job and he had “agreed” today, seemed dejected. When contacted by The Telegraph at his residence in Delhi this evening, he shot back: “Until and unless there is something official about it, I shall not speak a word more to the press...if there is something, you will know from the (Union) home ministry.”

The other side also seems to be playing its cards close to its chest. “No formal decision was ever taken on Sangma,” was the curt reply from a home ministry spokesman in response to a query about Sangma’s “new assignment”.

Another official ridiculed that the proposal to appoint Sangma “could not even cross the road to reach South Block”, the seat of the Prime Minister, “from its opposite North Block”, housing the home ministry.

That the proposal “could not cross the road” is bound to generate lot of bad blood and misunderstanding — akin to the mistrust between the Centre and the NSCN (I-M) in the “post-Bangkok declaration” phase — which Padmanabhaiah hopes to clear with the “collective” Naga leadership in Amsterdam during the talks scheduled to begin tomorrow.

The Centre proposes to change the nomenclature of the interlocution with the proscribed Naga outfit by appointing Sangma as the “chief negotiator on behalf of the people of Northeast”. Padmanabhaiah was slated to be the “emissary of the Prime Minister”. It was proposed that he would “only look after the bureaucratic side”.

The major factor which may finally scuttle Sangma’s appointment appears to be the opposition of three Congress chief ministers — Tarun Gogoi of Assam, Mukut Mithi of Arunachal Pradesh and S.C. Jamir of Nagaland — that seems to have “put spokes on the proposal”.

According to sources, the three chief ministers combined to oppose the move as they feared Sangma, an “ambitious politician nurturing the dream of becoming Prime Minister”, would create further problems in the peace process.

   

 
 
BUSINESS BITTER PILL FOR US 
 
 
FROM K.P. NAYAR
 
Washington, Aug. 3: 
India’s political leadership may be humouring America, but the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) is by no means taking the cue from South Block.

A powerful delegation of steel producers, put together by the CII, yesterday did some plain-speaking with the six-month-old Republican administration, virtually accusing it of double standards and discrimination.

Close on the heels of contortions by the Bush administration on Kashmir and the trouble over Enron, the potential of a trade conflict between New Delhi and Washington is sending signals that beneath the bonhomie in the Oval Office and South Block, there are areas of serious discord between India and the US.

At the heart of the complaint by Indian steel producers are initiatives by the administration under section 201 of US trade legislation and anti-dumping investigations against India’s steel sector. These have brought the export of cut-to-length steel plates from India to the US to a complete halt. India was forced to take the dispute to the World Trade Organisation. Then followed another US initiative, which halted the export of HR coils, too.

Although India is the tenth largest producer of steel in the world, it is a marginal exporter to the US. Its share is no more than three per cent of the total steel imports by America.

When the Americans had problems with steel imports from Russia and Brazil, “suspension” agreements were worked out: under this, both price and quota for imports from the two countries were agreed upon.

Steel secretary N.N. Khanna and B. Muthuraman, managing director of Tata Steel, leaders of the CII team, told US officials that a unilateral approach to India in this regard was discriminatory. In addition to officials at the White House, the state department, office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) and the commerce department, the delegation met Congressman Phil English, chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Steel, and the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India, Ed Royce and Jim McDermott.

US officials promised no redress. Instead, they explained in detail that President George W. Bush himself had initiated a three-pronged approach to the problem, the first step of which was the ongoing detailed review under section 201 to determine injury to US steel industry from imports. The dispute has set the stage for the India visit of Robert Zoellick, the new USTR, commencing early next week.

   

 
 
DISCOVERY FOR ALL AGES & HOURS 
 
 
FROM DEBASHIS BHATTACHARYYA AND SUJAN DUTTA
 
New Delhi and Mumbai, Aug. 3: 
When new Discovery boss Deepak Shourie set out to track the ills plaguing the channel, scores of viewers stumped him with the same response: “Discovery is a great channel, I love to watch it.”

The marketing ace, credited with the success of two news magazines, found asking himself: “If everybody loves to watch it, why is our TRP (television rating points) so low?”

He got the answer minutes later when viewers, being questioned as part of a Discovery survey, told him they loved the channel but did “not know what to watch, when”.

Shourie thought he found a cure for the channel’s cluttered, unfocussed programming that has got it nowhere. “Viewers are right. It’s so logical. They are not expected to remember the details of the programmes when so many channels are around,” the Discovery boss said, unveiling the channel’s new strategy.

Come October 1, the channel will reposition itself, based on Shourie’s strategy, to what it hopes will lead to viewer-friendliness and also make it easier for advertisers to reach target groups.

“My Time on Discovery,” as the channel is calling its new programming strategy, will divide Discovery’s 24-hour telecast into blocks aimed at viewers of different age groups so that “they have the relevant content at the right time”.

The morning fare, Sunrise, will run between 7 and 9. It is aimed at soothing the nerves as one prepares for the day. Crime or cliff-hangers are out. Nature and travel are in.

The afternoon programmes are targeted at the homemakers and, therefore, will be mostly health and travel-related. The children’s hour starts at 3 pm, when they come home from school. It will last for an hour. The “action zone” for youths will show pulsating stuff in the evening.

The prime time programmes will cater to all age groups. Thrillers and war movies will hit the screens from 10 pm.

There will be a special fare on the weekends.

“I am sure this strategy will meet the consumer needs and, at the same time, recognise the viewing convenience of each family member,” Shourie said. The channel will switch to digital transmission from August 15.

Discovery Channel India, a 24-hour pay channel, has been in the red since its launch in 1995. It provides infotainment when the demands in the country are more and more for family soaps, movies and, to some extent, game shows. Little wonder channels like STAR and Sony are doing well, industry experts said.

“We can’t surely compete with soaps and movies, but we can do a lot better,” Shourie told The Telegraph.

The discovery boss claimed the channel was fast approaching the break-even point. “But that is not the point. We are not thinking in financial terms now, but how to draw viewers and get into more homes,” Shourie said.

Currently reaching more than 21 million homes in the country, Discovery, however, has no plans for increased Indian programmes to lure viewers because of prohibitive production costs. “Ideally, we should have more Indian programmes along with the best of the world. But 3,000 hours of a Discovery programme costs some $3,00,000, so it is almost impossible to have them when revenue is not enough.”

Shourie refused to give figures but said he would like a 50:50 ratio in revenues from subscriptions and advertisements. Discovery also has time slots on DD Metro and Vijaya TV.

Can he turn the channel around? “Let’s see how my strategy works, the result will be known by December,” Shourie said.

   
 

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