Atal exposes Advani’s anxiety
Framework of talks laid at Agra
25 blown up in TN detonator disaster
Shield for one, hands off for others
Marriage-bitten Mahanta steps down
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Aug. 16: 
In the Lok Sabha, while narrating the substance of the Agra summit, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had burst out of his sickly mien, speaking extempore and cracking jokes. At Red Fort yesterday, he clenched his fist with a jai hind. Today, from that fist streaked out a guided missile.

Speaking in the Rajya Sabha on the meeting with President Pervez Musharraf, the Prime Minister spilled a secret about his deputy and home minister L.K. Advani.

He said: “Hamaare baat ke beech unko chinta ho gayi ki andar ho kya raha hain (The home minister was getting anxious while I was closeted with Pervez Musharraf). He thought I was chatting so he sent someone inside to find out what was going on.”

Advani sat with an inscrutable expression amid the rumble of laughter that swept the House. As Vajpayee’s disclosure set off a flurry of speculation, the home minister’s camp held its silence.

The Opposition was still weighing the implications of the Prime Minister’s statement that believers in the Vajpayee-Advani rivalry immediately saw as evidence of their view.

The display of Advani’s anxiety, as revealed by the Prime Minister, rekindled memories of the Colombo meeting between Vajpayee and the then Pakistan Premier, Nawaz Sharif. As the one-to-one went on beyond the scheduled 15 to 50 minutes, Sharif’s foreign minister, Gohar Ayub, paced up and down in nervous energy. Ayub had lost his job soon after.

Vajpayee’s speech was meant not so much to provoke Musharraf as to silence his detractors within the BJP and the Sangh parivar. In the process, he may have added fuel to the Pakistani charge that hardliners led by Advani had scuttled the summit.

Why did Vajpayee bring up the role played by his obvious successor? A whisper campaign in the party had started immediately after the summit, according to sources close to him. The majority of the BJP’s office-bearers are still Advani loyalists and the party line on important policies and events is largely shaped by the home minister. Post-Agra, the BJP’s refrain was that had it not been for Advani’s presence, Musharraf would have “armtwisted” India into signing an agreement.

Such an agreement, sources presupposed, would have entailed a “drastic compromise” of India’s own interests. The hint was: Vajpayee cannot be “trusted” with Kashmir. “Advaniji saved the honour and dignity of the BJP and the nation by being more alert than all the others who were present with him,” BJP sources had claimed.

Sources close to Vajpayee said the Prime Minister was hurt and angered by what was seen as an “orchestrated campaign” against him by his BJP detractors.

“When he said in the BJP parliamentary party meeting that ‘people say I am old and ill, and, therefore, I should retire,’ it was said with his tongue in cheek because this was what his critics had been saying. A TV channel has been holding panel discussions on the PM’s health and its verdict has been he should go.”

An opinion poll recently threw up the conclusion that Vajpayee’s popularity rating had dropped.

A section of the BJP has been saying: “He appears to have lost interest in everything.”

Vajpayee set all such speculation at rest when he spoke in the Lok Sabha and revealed for the first time the kind of plainspeaking that took place between him and Musharraf. Next came the Independence Day address from the ramparts of Red Fort. There, he sounded spirited and animated throughout.

Today, he showed he can hit as hard as his opponents. It was rumoured that Advani, with parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan, called on Vajpayee at his residence shortly after the Rajya Sabha session. But sources close to the Prime Minister denied this and said they were part of a larger gathering of ministers who met at 7 Race Course Road for an informal Cabinet session.


New Delhi, Aug. 16: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee revealed in the Rajya Sabha today that the Agra summit had put in place a “framework of India’s future talks” with Pakistan.

This was not the first time the Prime Minister was separating strand by strand the skein of events that led to the collapse of the Agra talks. But today he was aggressive in defending the decision to call Pervez Musharraf.

Vajpayee said Pakistan had also agreed not to raise the Kashmir issue at international fora and cited as proof of that commitment the recent Saarc gathering in Colombo where the foreign secretaries of the two countries met.

“During my talks with Musharraf in those hours I was pouring out the pent-up emotions that I have harboured within me for 40 years on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.” His colleagues, including Advani — who had been at the receiving end today — thumped the table, so did members of the Opposition.

In a throwback to the Pakistan policy enunciated by P.V. Narasimha Rao when he was the Prime Minister, Vajpayee said if Pakistan insisted that Kashmir was the core issue, one had to look into the “core of the core”, which he described as the part of Kashmir occupied by Pakistan.

Rao used to maintain that the only dispute over Kashmir concerned the portion in the possession of Pakistan. Vajpayee said India had wanted to know why the people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir were not allowed to decide if they wanted to stay with Pakistan or India.

As if to lay at rest speculation about his ill health and inability to light a spark any more, the Prime Minister laced his reply with witticisms, many of them directed at his guest from Pakistan. “India is known for honouring its guests — atithi jaisa bhi ho — hame hamaare karma ke anusaar milte hain (We deserve our guests according to our karma — however they be, they are after all our guests),” he said.


Vellore, Aug. 16: 
Tragedy continued to stalk Tamil Nadu when at least 25 people were blown up in a blast at a state-owned explosives factory this morning.

Police said the explosion ripped through the detonators’ unit of Tamilnadu Explosives Ltd (TEL) near Katpadi, about 140 km west of Chennai. Katpadi is the gateway to Vellore, frequented by residents of Bengal for advanced medicare.

This is the second major human disaster to strike the state in less than a fortnight. On August 6, 28 inmates of a mental asylum in Erwadi were charred in their sleep.

The mishap site at Christianpet, perched atop a hill range bordering Andhra Pradesh, was littered with concrete rubble, splintered columns and twisted pieces of iron as rescue teams worked with massive bulldozers and cranes to extricate the bodies.

Eleven bodies had been recovered till 6 this evening, while six people with severe burn injuries have been sent to the CMC hospital in Vellore, TEL chairman and managing-director L.K. Tripathi said. Efforts by fire-fighters to remove the bodies were slowed by fears that live explosives could be lying around the building.

Chief minister Jayalalitha said the explosives could have been ignited accidentally.

There were at least 24 workers in the unit when the explosion occurred around 9.25 am. Residents of villages nestled in the foothills said the noise was like a roll of thunder and could be heard up to a radius of 7 km. The roof of the unit caved in under the impact of the blast. Glass windows of a neighbouring building were shattered and the splinters hit three women workers. Two of them had their legs severed, while the head of the third woman exploded, a rescue worker said.

Less than 16 kg of primary and secondary explosives — lead azyde, lead stignite and PET, used in the manufacture of detonators for mining and quarrying — was believed to have been stored in the unit when the explosion occurred, V. Marudapandiayn, director of the State Training Centre for Fire and Rescue Operations, said. Officials here ruled out a sabotage.


Calcutta, Aug. 16: 
The Bengal CPM leadership today moved to insulate its scandal-prone North 24-Parganas unit against the aftershocks of the murder of Sailen Das apparently over a soured land deal.

As the unit’s main rival factions went for each other’s jugular, the high command embarked on a damage-control exercise to delink party leaders from a realtor-criminal nexus.

Alarmed at the public outcry over the Dum Dum municipality chairman’s murder, CPM state secretary Anil Biswas and Left Front chairman Biman Bose shut out the media. But, earlier in the day, they asked district bosses to ensure that tainted leaders did not influence or impede police investigations.

“They have been asked not to protect any rogue realtors who may be wanted by the police. No matter how high a functionary is placed, we will not shy away from punishing him if he is found guilty of shielding a criminal,” district secretariat member Amitava Nandi said.

Senior CPM officials said the leadership was worried over reports saying that the “unholy and profit-making” alliance between a district secretariat member and some Dum Dum-based realtors and materials suppliers needed to be probed.

“I have no views to offer today,” Biswas said. But it is believed he and other top guns got the district leadership to rein in the member.

By having the member “quarantined”, the leadership hopes to provide sleuths the room to go for tainted leaders, small-time rogue realtors and criminals operating from R.N. Guha Road.

Soon after Das’ murder, the leaders and realtors vanished, forcing the police to mount a vigil in Dum Dum. Detectives are keeping touch with the local unit as important CPM leaders have been seen visiting the R.N. Guha Road offices in the past few years.

An official said these visits had turned the realtors’ establishments into local CPM offices.

“These promoters and suppliers used to force people to purchase materials. Some of our important leaders looked very close to them as they spent a lot of time in their establishments,” said another.

The nexus between local CPM leaders and the realtors was allegedly brought to the notice of the district leadership by some zonal leaders, but they chose to shut their eyes to it.

But Nandi denied this. “It is not true that we had reports about the activities of certain comrades,” he said.

The group is believed to have forced Das to clear the construction of a plaza in Dum Dum bypassing objections from the building department.

They also tried to push him into clearing the licence for a plastic factory on Mall Road and attempted to grab the job for construction of a market complex with help from local CPM leaders.


Guwahati, Aug. 16: 
Former chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta got a certificate of being a “fantastic lover” (durdanta premik), but his political career appeared in jeopardy today after he was virtually forced to “temporarily relinquish” his post of AGP president in the wake of a bigamy scandal.

The resignation will be in force till October, signifying a two-and-a-half-month deadline set by the party to clear the bigamy charge.

Mahanta stepped down after a damning revelation by his alleged lady love, who “confirmed” her reported second marriage with the former chief minister. Mahanta came out with a denial, but the damage seemed to have already been done.

Sanghamitra Bharali — an Assembly secretariat employee and a mother of one — came out with details of how the “marriage” was solemnised on March 11 at a Mumbai temple from where Mahanta took her to his suite in a five-star hotel for their “honeymoon”.

Sanghamitra, who had declined to either deny or confirm earlier newspaper reports, gave an exhaustive interview to a weekly vernacular tabloid, which hit the stands on Wednesday.

Mahanta claimed that he had handed over charge to vice-president Biraj Sharma on Tuesday itself and “for just three months”. But a party source said it was a sequel to an emergency meeting convened last night “to chalk out a damage-control strategy in view of the surfeit of charges”, including sex scandals involving top leaders, that the erstwhile ruling party has been facing.

The “deadline” for Mahanta till October— which according to the AGP leader may be self-imposed— is significant as a party convention is slated to be held in end-October or early November for reorganisation of the party. “If Mahanta fails to shake off the bigamy charge by then, the AGP will have a new leadership,” the source added.

Mahanta is under tremendous pressure following the party’s debacle in the May Assembly polls. To make matters worse, three top party leaders — including Mahanta — are embroiled in scandals.

While Rajendra Mushahary was arrested last week on rape charges, another top leader Jatin Mali is being accused by his former domestic help of being “forced into a physical relationship” with him. She has also alleged that Mali later used his influence and made her undergo an abortion.

In his denial, Mahanta reiterated that the allegation was “baseless and highly concocted” but failed to give a convincing reply to the blow-by-blow “confession” of the affair.

“I sincerely believe that truth will surface one day and my innocence will be established,” Mahanta added. An AGP leader said Mahanta’s “vague response” was bound to create more confusion among partymen. “Why one day and not today?” the AGP leader asked.

Significantly, the party today left Mahanta to fend for himself unlike on earlier occasion — when the controversy first surfaced — when the AGP office-bearers adopted a resolution describing the allegation as a “conspiracy of the Congress”.

Mahanta’s wife and former Rajya Sabha member Jayashri Goswami Mahanta, however, stood by him. She defended Mahanta as “a responsible and faithful husband and a caring father of our three children. I have full faith in him and I am convinced of his innocence”.

Stung by the bigamy charge, Mahanta said he would move court. He hinted that a newly-elected Congress MLA was “directing” the drama from behind the scene.

Sanghamitra — who was seen with him in public on many occasions — claimed that she has been “devastated” by the denial by the former chief minister whom she described as a “fantastic lover”.

Claiming that she has “lost everything”, Sanghamitra — who is an assistant language officer in the Assembly secretariat — declined to seek legal help but added that she would be happy if Mahanta “speaks the truth and admits to his second marriage”.

Former minister and AGP leader Shahidul Alam Choudhury — who has also been dragged into the controversy as a “witness” to the marriage — claimed that Sanghamitra was known as “an assassin of many a character”.

He questioned how a “third-grade” employee could amass so much wealth within a short spell of time. “Her fabulous wealth is certainly not proportionate to what she earns from her job,” Choudhury said.

If proved guilty, Mahanta faces punishment for committing bigamy as well as enticing away another person’s wife. The charges entail seven years’ jail under sections 494, 497 and 498 of the Indian Penal Code.




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