3-times pay and perks for MPs
First arrest in Das murder
Subhas escapes with censure
Mamata return minus tieup
Vajpayee shows who’s boss
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Aug. 17: 
Picture this: a monthly purse of Rs 53,500 plus perks that include a hundred thousand free local calls every year and other benefits such as free air and train travel. These and much more make up the pay packet all 790 members of Parliament will take home once they clear the legislation revising their cost-to-people.

The Cabinet last night cleared an across-the-board three-fold increase in salary and a hefty raise in allowances and perks for MPs. Though government circles were unwilling to work out the actual sum the nation will have to fork out to look after its lawmakers, the hike is expected to place an added annual burden of over Rs 23.78 crore on the exchequer.

This means that the country will now have to spend an additional Rs 3 lakh on each MP every year.

Besides, the parliamentarians have been granted several hidden benefits such as air and train travel, cooking gas and telephone connections, which were not mentioned in the revised estimates recommended by the joint committee on salaries and allowances.

Not all MPs, particularly those from the Left parties, were happy with the whopping salary raise, though 90 per cent members justified it as a “matter of right”. Finance minister Yashwant Sinha had strong reservations about doling out crores at a time when the economy is in bad shape. But Sinha, who is under fire over the UTI mess, was forced to give in to placate his House colleagues.

The Bill revising the pay hike is likely to be passed on Monday.

Government sources shrugged off speculation that the raise would trigger public outrage. A Union minister said: “What will happen? There will be some editorials against parliamentarians and then everything will die down. Opinion-makers should realise one thing: MPs are a special category. They do not get any pension. Compared to western countries, our lawmakers are still lowly paid.”

However, salaries of MPs will henceforth be revised once every five years. There had been no restriction in the past. The last revision was made in August 1998. It will also be mandatory for all members to file tax returns.

Among the drastic measures cleared by the Cabinet is a proposal to provide mobile phones to MPs with adjustment against the one lakh free calls. In addition, members whose constituencies are 1,000 km or more away from New Delhi will be entitled to 20,000 free calls annually.

Each MP will be given a new mobile handset free of cost. At present, all lawmakers are entitled to 100,000 free calls but the complaint was that these calls were not adjusted against their cellphones. The Cabinet has now allowed adjustment of these free calls against mobile phone bills.

Daily allowances for MPs when Parliament is in session will go up by 25 per cent from the present Rs 400. With the House sitting in session 180 days every year, the increase will lead to an annual additional expenditure of Rs 1.42 crore. To keep the members happy, the Cabinet has disregarded the recommendation of the joint committee and increased monthly constituency allowance by Rs 2,000. The committee had suggested that the allowance be frozen at Rs 8,000 per month.

Each MP will be entitled to free air travel 48 times every year. Members can travel by AC first class with their spouses. The word “spouse” was replaced by “companion” to enable unmarried or widowed members to take their partners along.

Lawmakers had often cited their “inadequate” office expense allowance to explain why they did not appoint researchers. The Cabinet has now raised the allowance from Rs 9,500 to Rs 14,000. Only around two dozen MPs have hired professionals to assist them in drafting speeches.


Calcutta, Aug. 17: 
Police made the first breakthrough in the daylight killing of Sailen Das today, swooping down on key crime “facilitator” Sheikh Ibrahim.

Ibrahim was asleep in a “safe mudhouse” in Sandeskhali in Basirhat police station area when a raid team netted him in the morning, deputy inspector-general (Presidency range) Gautam Chakraborty said.

The police hope to track down the three assailants of the Dum Dum municipality chairman with help from Ibrahim, who is believed to have a hand in plotting the murder. Sleuths said he kept in touch with the killers till two days after the incident.

Ibrahim was, however, not present near Das’ P.K. Guha Lane residence at the time of the killing, police said. Neighbour Sandip Biswas — on whose motorcycle the criminals made off — and Das’s driver Montu — who witnessed the killing — could not identify him as one of the assassins this evening. The killers’ sketches drawn up by the police artist also do not tally with Ibrahim’s looks.

The police are, however, certain that Ibrahim helped plan the killing. “We have evidence to suggest that he is one of the key men and had a major role in plotting the murder,’’ an officer said.

Preliminary inquiries revealed that Ibrahim handed over the motorcycle, which broke down and was abandoned, to the assailants. He is also believed to have changed its number plate to cover up the killer’s tracks.

The vehicle was seized by the police from the vicinity of Das’ house after the killing. “We have learnt that the bike was with one Dilip Singh a day before the murder,’’ a senior police officer said.

Police sources said the assailants’ escape route was chalked out by Ibrahim and his associates. Ibrahim and Singh are believed to be close and have been partners in crime in the past. “Singh and Ibrahim have been arrested earlier on charges of extortion and rioting in Dum Dum and Titagarh,’’ police said.

Dum Dum police said Ibrahim and another associate, Biswanath, met in the Azadnagar house of one Pintu three days before Das was killed. It was in this house that the blueprint for the Dum Dum municipality chairman’s murder was drawn up. Sleuths raided Pintu’s house but he could not be found.

Ibrahim told the police the killers had been taken by surprise when the bike refused to start after the killing. “It was sheer coincidence that they managed to steal Sandeep’s bike or the plan would have backfired,’’ he said.

Police have got clues to the whereabouts of the assailants by interrogating Ibrahim. “We have raided places as mentioned by Ibrahim. The assailants are not there but we are working on definite clues,’’ a police officer said.


Calcutta, Aug. 17: 
In recognition of Subhas Chakraborty’s “past contribution” to the party, the CPM leadership today stopped short of taking any tough action against the transport minister, deciding only to censure him.

At its weekly meeting that lasted about an hour, the CPM secretariat, the highest policy-making body at the state level, expressed strong feelings against Chakraborty for showering encomiums on Gobinda Dey and Pinaki Mitra, arrested in connection with the Salt Lake stadium incident, and Mohammed Taslim, alias Chunnu, now in jail in connection with the Khadim’s abduction case.

Chakraborty had described these people as social workers.

Party officials said the meeting, presided over by state secretary Anil Biswas, decided to censure Chakraborty, at the state committee meeting scheduled to begin on Monday, for damaging the CPM’s image.

“He is going to be censured on the stated grounds that he ignored a party injunction and made personal comments to the media on issues that concern departments run by other ministers. The stadium incident is a matter being handled by police, which is the charge of the chief minister,” an official said.

The decision did not cheer Chakraborty’s detractors because the secretariat chose to censure him only after putting on record its belief that he was not connected with the stadium incident.

If the experience of censuring Chakraborty was anything to go by, they argued, the latest decision would not achieve much as the leadership had blocked the main charge of his involvement in the stadium incident.

Friday’s meeting reaffirms Chakraborty’s mentor, Jyoti Basu’s continuing influence on decision-making.

Two hardliners, Left Front chairman Biman Bose and Benoy Konar, pressed the secretariat to adopt a tough line — a showcause to begin with — against Chakraborty. But Biswas, a middle-roader, chose the censure option.

What made it easy for Biswas to walk the middle path was the small but important shift in the power balance in the secretariat. The Bose-Konar combine, because of the vacuum created by the recent deaths of Sailen Dasgupta and Niren Ghosh — both known for their dislike of Chakraborty — could not carry the rest of the secretariat with them today.

With Basu setting the tone, other members like chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, industries minister Nirupam Sen and Surya Kanta Mishra, kept quiet, making it difficult for the duo to push through its line of argument. Biswas merged himself into the general mood.

However, the combine can be said to have scored a minor point when it persuaded the secretariat to pass the issue of censuring Chakraborty to a wider forum like the state committee where the visibility would be greater.


Calcutta, Aug. 17: 
The BJP high command today granted Mamata Banerjee the right to “go it alone in Bengal”, removing one obstacle in the way of her re-entry into the National Democratic Alliance.

This enables Mamata to bypass the Bengal BJP — about which she has reservations — and directly interact with the central leadership as an NDA partner. A similar arrangement is in place with the MDMK in Tamil Nadu.

“The NDA is a central arrangement and our party’s state unit may have its own agenda. Similarly, Trinamul Congress is free to follow its own policy in the state even after re-joining the Central coalition,” BJP national president Jana Krishnamurthi said at Calcutta Press Club today.

Explaining the arrangement with the MDMK, he continued: “The party did not join the DMK-led coalition in Tamil Nadu, but has always been an NDA partner at the national level. Trinamul need not feel hesitant to join the NDA even if it has reservations about the state BJP leadership.”

Krishnamurthi also toned down his earlier stand that Mamata would have to sign an undertaking to gain re-entry into the NDA. She was only required to follow the proposed code of conduct like other allies, he said.

“We are not opposed to Trinamul re-joining the NDA and want it to be strengthened,” he said, explaining that a code of conduct was necessary for greater cohesion among NDA partners.


New Delhi, Aug. 17: 
Every time his critics write him off, Atal Bihari Vajpayee uses his gilded words to assert his dominance over the ruling coalition.

The returns from such a strategy may diminish over time, but it still has a lot going for it. If nothing else, they set at rest theories on who is the number two in the government.

During his Rajya Sabha speech on Thursday, the Prime Minister recounted how home minister L.K. Advani, among others, was eager to find out what was afoot in the one-to-one talks with Pervez Musharraf at the Agra summit. There was no small talk, only serious dialogue.

This is as close as anyone at the top has come to countering the campaign in sections close to the Sangh parivar that India was pushed near the edge at the talks. Vajpayee did more than show who is the boss in the government. He subtly reminded the House and his partners that he speaks for India. Its interests are safe in his hands.

The observation comes at a time when the Prime Minister seemed to have lost his customary touch. His Independence Day speech, the fourth in a row, was a let-down. The anti-poverty schemes did not set the Yamuna on fire. Nor did his evocation of the now familiar rhetoric of how the country will not yield to a proxy war. Even the exhortation that jihad was incompatible with Islam had a Congress-like ring to it.

Earlier in the week, Jaswant Singh, widely seen as the man closest to Vajpayee during the decade when he was not at the helm of the party, made an appearance at an RSS function.

Singh, who has never been a member of the parent body, went out of his way to emphasise his appreciation of its significance.

More tellingly, Advani’s speech at a meeting in Jhandewalan, perhaps the first by a Union home minister, found him breathing fire and brimstone at Pakistan. In a speech that won warm applause, he predicted the failure of Pakistan’s proxy war against India.

Yet, the home minister is a weaker man than he looks at first sight. Contrary to expectations that he would be a second Sardar Patel, he has often lacked a sense of judgement and timing. The handling of the ceasefire in Manipur has aroused deep doubts about his choice of advisers.

Even on Kashmir, Advani stands contradicted in public by a minister as junior as Omar Abdullah. The home minister ruled out any further autonomy for the troubled state in Parliament. But Farooq Abdullah, chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, and now his son, who is minister of state for external affairs, have openly espoused the cause of autonomy.

From another front, senior VHP leaders have bitterly complained of the failure of the authorities to prevent massacres of Amarnath pilgrims. At the end of the day, Sardar Patel and his iron-man image do not exactly come to mind when looking at Advani’s record. Jaswant Singh, though well known overseas, is not a leader with a strong political base. He is not even a Lok Sabha member, having entered the Upper House after his defeat in 1998.

Both within and outside the premier party, there is a dearth of serious substitutes, let alone challengers. Joshi’s popularity in the saffron camp is sky-high because of his battles to push its education agenda. This very factor makes him anathema to several allies.

Fernandes continues to await the results of the enquiry into the Tehelka revelations, and looks an increasingly beleaguered figure.

Vajpayee is still in control. He remains its sole captain, with no first mate in sight. His ship seems to have lost its way but that’s another story.




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