Scindia dies in air crash
Madhav, my friend & people’s prince
Taliban throw caution to winds
Blair derides ‘URL’ as UK goes to war
‘India factor’ muted on Bangla poll canvas
Calcutta Weather

Lucknow, Sept. 30: 

Black Sunday revisits to pluck out leader in his prime

Tragedy struck the Congress on another Black Sunday as one of its most charismatic and popular leaders Madhavrao Scindia died in an air crash near Kanpur this afternoon.

Scindia, 56, was to be the star attraction at the Congress’ parivartan rally in Kanpur. He never reached the site. Around 1.30 pm, the Cessna C-90 — supposed to be one of the safest “all-weather” small planes — carrying eight people, lost contact with the Lucknow air traffic control.

Bad weather dogging the plane, pilot R. Gautam asked the ATC for “direction”. That was the last that was heard of the Cessna. The aircraft crashed soon after in a waterlogged field in Motta village in Mainpuri, 160 km from Kanpur. The 10-seater Cessna, belonging to Jindal Strips, was to land at Kanpur at 1.50 pm.

Apart from pilot Gautam, six others were accompanying Scindia: his personal secretary Rupinder Singh, co-pilot Ritu Mallik, The Indian Express journalist Sanjiv Sinha, Aaj Tak correspondent Ranjan Jha, cameraman Gopal Singh Bisht and Anju Sharma of The Hindustan Times.

Scindia, the scion of the Gwalior royal family, is the second Congress leader to die in a mishap in the recent past. Rajesh Pilot was killed in a road accident near Jaipur on June 11 last year, which was also a Sunday. Scindia’s death, like Pilot’s, is a severe blow to the party which has few articulate leaders with popular appeal.

Reports from Mainpuri police said all eight persons on board had died as “looking at the condition of the plane and the charred debris scattered around it, it could not be possible for anyone to survive”. The police added that seven bodies that have been recovered till now could not be identified as they were charred beyond recognition. The eighth body was found after a frantic search amid the debris and the pools of water.

Though the Kanpur and Lucknow ATCs have not as yet been able to give the exact time of the crash or the reason for it, the Mainpuri police, quoting eyewitnesses at Motta, said that even before the plane crashlanded in the fields, it had erupted into a “ball of fire”.

Deputy director, air safety, P. Shaw, has arrived to begin investigations into the crash.

There was confusion at the site with everyone, from senior Congressmen to police and administrative officials, giving “strict instructions” to the police to “wait” for them. With rain lashing the area, the rescue and relief operations have also been hindered. The bodies lay for hours as police sources said it was impossible to reach the place by car since all approach roads were waterlogged.

The bodies were taken to Agra by road and would later be flown to New Delhi by a special air force plane. Union minister Arun Jaitley is accompanying the bodies.

Some members of the Scindia family were expected to reach Kanpur before heading for the Mainpuri village where the plane crashed. The funeral will be held in Gwalior on Wednesday.

The Congress, which had recently stepped up its election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, said all programmes stood cancelled “as of now”. Barely able to speak, spokesman Akhilesh Pratap Singh said Scindia had earlier in the day confirmed his participation in the parivartan rally. “He was to land around 2 pm and meet UPCC chief Sriprakash Jaiswal,” Singh said. “He was looking forward to addressing the rally in the evening. We had left no stone unturned to tout him as our star attraction, which he always used to be,” he added.

Scindia, himself a trained pilot like Pilot, was elected to Parliament nine times since 1971 and had served as minister for civil aviation, human resources development and railways in a political career spanning three decades. He was also a sports enthusiast and had served as the president of the Indian cricket board.

Scindia began his career when he won the Guna Lok Sabha seat as an Independent backed by the Jan Sangh but switched to the Congress soon after. He is survived by wife Madhavi Raje, son Jyotiraditya and a daughter. He lost his mother Vijayaraje, a BJP leader, in January this year.

Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit and Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar had a providential escape after a last-minute change in travel plans. While Dikshit had fever, Aiyar was requested by Scindia to stay back to accommodate a journalist.


’Tis all a Chequer Board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays
Hither and thither Moves and Mates and Slays
Then, One by One, back in the Closet lays.

— Edward Fitzgerald

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

I was to have been on that plane. I had called Madhav’s office to ask if I could take a lift with him as I had to be back from Kanpur in time to see off my daughter leaving early Monday morning for the London School of Economics. He called me Saturday to say the spare places on the flight were already pledged to some journalists and they would resent being bumped off it. Which is how I am here to tell the tale.

But why Madhav? He was deputy leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, and more than 90 per cent of the time the de facto leader of the party in its parliamentary battles. He had earned this distinction through 30 unbroken years as the elected representative of Gwalior. It is not much remembered now that he had worsted none less than Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the hustings in the elections of 1984. He went on to become the longest-serving and by far the most efficient railway minister the country has ever known. The inter-city Shatabdi was his enduring contribution to rail travel. His other link to railways was a predecessor, Lal Bahadur Shastri. I went to see Madhav when I learned he had tendered his resignation as civil aviation minister after an Uzbeg aircraft leased to Indian Airlines in the middle of an Indian Airlines pilots’ strike had crashlanded at Delhi airport. Although there had been no loss of life, Madhav had gone straight to the Prime Minister’s residence from the crash-site to put in his papers. I told him Uzbekistan Airways was his Ariyalur, and just as his predecessor in the railways went on to become Prime Minister, so would he. Little did either of us know that it was instead a wayside railway station near Farrukhabad which had been written into Madhav’s destiny.

The highest tribute to Madhav was paid by Rajiv Gandhi. In the aftermath of his electoral defeat in 1989, Rajiv Gandhi was obliged to re-organise his personal office to meet the requirements of his new role as leader of the Opposition. He asked me who I thought should head it. Without a moment’s hesitation I suggested Madhavrao Scindia’s name. Rajiv took no longer than I had to endorse the suggestion. Alas, Rajiv Gandhi himself had been singled out for early harvesting by the Great Reaper and so it was that Madhav under Narasimha Rao husbanded first tourism and civil aviation and later human resources development. He did so with competence, but his heart was in defence. I joked with him that I would never trust defence to a man whose ancestors had lost the Third Battle of Panipat. But the fact is he would have made an outstanding raksha mantri in a Sonia Gandhi government.

It was not easy for Madhav to make the transition from being to the manor born to becoming the democratically chosen representative of the people. But few blue-bloods have made the transition with the charm and grace Madhav displayed. He reminded me of the King in Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart who throws the political establishment into a tizzy by offering to stand for Prime Minister rather than be content with dynastic succession. Madhav was very much part of the political rough and tumble. He had many successes, and some setbacks. He was upset at not being included in the Congress party’s central election committee when the pack was reshuffled last February. I had been named to the margins of the CWC. He graciously called me in my constituency to convey his felicitations, but also his apprehensions at having been, as he saw it, elbowed out by his Madhya

Pradesh rivals. I told him, Madhav, do not defeat yourself. You are Number Two! And if you persist in voicing your disillusionment at being kept out of the CEC it is only you who will be undermining yourself.

I met Madhav in 1982 when he came to see me in the ministry of external affairs to pick my brains on Pakistan. He had seen me greeting Rajiv Gandhi outside the officials’ gallery in Parliament and enquired who I was. He told me at the end of the briefing that he disagreed with almost everything I had said but would I agree to vet his paper before he crossed the border to present it? That was the kind of open-mindedness, fair-play, generosity of heart and good humour that all of us associated with him. He was a leader. But he was also that much more difficult thing to be — a good man and a good friend.

His artless royalty melded effortlessly with a complete ease of manner in dealing with anyone and everyone who came to his door — and did they mill around that door! At ease with everybody, he was genuinely interested in their woes. And he sincerely did what he could to alleviate their suffering. Truly a People’s Prince. May a flight of angels lead him to his rest.


Islamabad, Sept. 30: 
Staring down the barrel of the American military machine, the Taliban today declared in public that they had hidden Osama bin Laden for his own protection and reminded President George W. Bush that he was not their “emir”.

“Osama is in Afghanistan, but he is at an unknown place for his safety and security,” Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef said.

US officials cast doubt on the claim and repeated that the Taliban must hand over bin Laden or face the wrath of the US, which has sent warplanes, ships and troops to within striking distance of Afghanistan.

They also warned nervous Americans that fresh terror attacks were likely — and that the risk of such strikes could increase following any military reprisals. “We believe there is the likelihood of additional terrorist activity,” US attorney-general John Ashcroft said.

In Islamabad, President Pervez Musharraf ruled out the use of Pakistani troops in Afghanistan. He told CNN that the US had shared no evidence of bin Laden’s role in the terror strikes but he expected Washington to give access to unclassified information.

Musharraf said “hope is very dim” that the Taliban would hand over bin Laden and conceded that the Taliban regime faced “danger” from the growing international coalition.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued an ultimatum to the Taliban in comments that have been interpreted as an indication that retaliatory strikes are imminent.

The Taliban iterated its willingness to negotiate with the US, but America has not indicated any change in its refusal to talk. White House warned the Taliban that it would work to drive them out of power unless they accede to the demands.

Opposition Northern Alliance forces reported a rash of desertions by Taliban fighters, who they said were being beaten back in offences in the north of the embattled country.

The US signalled a willingness to support the alliance, saying Washington needed to recognise and support efforts from groups opposed to the Taliban. In a sign that dissent was spreading in areas under the Taliban’s control, authorities said they had arrested six people for distributing “pro-American” pamphlets that called for the return of ex-king Mohammad Zahir Shah.

In Rome, the former king received support from senior US politicians as he sought to begin forming a new government of national unity for a country already spiralling into what the UN has called a major humanitarian crisis.

The Taliban had said initially they could not locate bin Laden. But they said today bin Laden was being held in hiding as he pondered an edict from Taliban spiritual leaders asking him to quit the country voluntarily.

“Only security people know about his whereabouts. Osama bin Laden is under our control,” Zaeef said, adding that bin Laden had still not responded.

Zaeef said Bush had taken an uncompromising line against the Taliban, expecting them to accept whatever demands he made. “Bush has stepped away from negotiations and directly gone to a war situation... He expects us to follow as if he is our emir but he is not our emir,” he added.


London, Sept. 30: 
In what was staged to appear as an eve of war interview, Tony Blair said today that “we would have to disable or remove” the Taliban if the authorities in Afghanistan did not hand over Osama bin Laden and his associates.

He confirmed he had seen “incontrovertible” evidence of bin Laden’s guilt for the September 11 massacres. Speaking from a nearby Royal Air Force station, Blair spoke to Sir David Frost after overnight consultations with President Bush.

The western approach now seems to be to go for specific targets in Afghanistan but at the same time keep the global coalition against terrorism in place by making it clear that the war was not against Islam, speaking out against victimisation of British and American Muslims and, most important of all, stepping up humanitarian aid to millions of Afghan refugees.

Blair sought to dehumanise Osama (or Usama as Blair spells his name) bin Laden by referring to the man wanted “dead or alive” by Bush and the West’s “prime suspect” for the September 11 terrorist outrages as “UBL”.

Careful reading between the lines suggest that Bush and Blair are giving the Taliban perhaps another 48 hours to hand over bin Laden or face military action.

Asked what “our wars aims” were, Blair said in an interview: “There are two phases to this. The first phase is the immediate action against bin Laden and his associates and the terror camps in Afghanistan. The second phase is the medium and longer term perspective of how we shut down this evil of mass terrorism right round the world.”

He added: “In respect of the first phase, the objective is to secure the closure of all those terror camps in Afghanistan, the yielding up of UBL and his associates For the Taliban regime there is a choice — they either help us or become the enemy themselves.”

Pressed whether the intention was to replace the Taliban, Blair said: “If they are not prepared to give up bin Laden which they could do if they wanted to, then they become an obstacle which we have to disable or remove in order to get to bin Laden. So it is not as though we set out with the aim of changing the Taliban regime but if they remain in the way of achieveing our objective, namely that bin Laden and his associates are yielded up, the terror camps are closed, then the Taliban themselves become our enemy.

“They have helped and supported bin Laden throughout the years. For the last 10 years bin Laden has been exporting this terror right round the world.”

He added: “The Taliban regime is in a great deal of difficulty already.”

Would be prefer bin Laden “dead or alive”? Blair said: “The important thing is in the end we get him and stop him. And that is something we will pursue in whatever way we possibly can.”

Asked whether other countries — Iraq, Syria, Algeria and Sudan — might also be attacked, he emphasised that the “immediate phase of action is focused on Afghanistan because that is where bin Laden is”.

Questioned about whether he had seen evidence against bin Laden which would stand up in either a British or American court, Blair responded: “Yes, I have seen absolutely powerful and incontrovertible evidence of his link to the events of September 11. Much of this evidence comes to us from sensitive sources, from intelligence sources. (The problem) is how much we can present to people because we want to be able to say to people without any doubt at all that here is why we believe this man to be responsible.”

Blair also said: “I spoke to President Bush yesterday evening. We went through again through the various options we have and we agreed two things very, very clearly. The first is that we are not taking action just for effect. We are taking action to deal with this problem of terrorism and bin Laden and his guilt for what happened on September 11. What is more, we want to make the coalition on the humanitarian front as powerful and as strategically targeted as what we do on the humanitarian front.”

On joint US-British military action, Blair said: “We have agreed to work together to make sure that military action is proportionate, is targetted, is effective in what we do and we deal with the huge humanitarian problems already building up — 4.5 million people are on the move in and around Afghanistan.”


Dhaka, Sept. 30: 
Unlike in previous elections, the so-called “India factor” has been largely missing in Bangladesh’s election campaign this time. Both the Awami League, usually seen here as India’s favourite, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the habitual India-baiter, have steered clear of India-related rant and rhetoric.

On the eve of tomorrow’s polls, BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia, however, indicated today that her party would not like the India-Bangladesh Friendship Treaty to be renewed. At an informal meeting with journalists here, she said the two countries had “friendly relations” but that did not mean the treaty needed to be renewed.

The 25-year treaty which lapsed in 1999 had been an election issue in 1996 when the BNP accused the Awami League of succumbing to Indian pressures to renew it. But the League government of Sheikh Hasina did not revive it, thereby taking the steam out of the BNP campaign on this.

The other major “India factors” in the 1996 campaign were the agreement on the Tin Bigha corridor in Cooch Behar district of north Bengal in 1993 and more importantly, the agreement on the sharing of Ganga water at Farakka barrage, which came after the elections in December, 1996.

The BNP and its allies had used these issues in the last election to try and build up anti-India sentiment.

A couple of days before the elections, one Dhaka newspaper sympathetic to the Jamat-e-Islami came up with a wild story alleging that a “blueprint” for rigging the polls to help the Awami League had been prepared at the Fort William in Calcutta.

It is different this time. The right of passage given to India across the Tin Bigha corridor is no longer seen , as the BNP then alleged, as a “surrender of Bangladeshi sovereignty to India”.

The Sheikh Hasina government silenced its critics by signing a 30-year treaty with India on the Ganga waters issue. The BNP had threatened to “paralyse” the government if it agreed to a treaty of less than 10 years.

One reason why the BNP-led four-party alliance had left India out of its poll rhetoric is, according to analysts here, that it had realised the futility of India-baiting as an electoral ploy.

Also, both the League and the BNP have accepted that they had no choice but “to do business with India as a neighbour”, said an official of the Indian high commission.

But India would not like to see political instability across its eastern borders. The problem is that neither the League nor the BNP-led alliance is poised to get a clear majority in the 300-member parliament.

In the event of a hung parliament, the Jatiya Party faction led by former president H. M. Ershad may again be the deciding factor.

The Jatiya Party and its three minor allies are contesting 182 seats. The League is contesting all 300 seats while the BNP has put up 249 candidates of its own and has left 31 to Jamat-e-Islami and the rest to the Islami Aikya Jot and another faction of the Jatiya Party.

But piecing together a majority this time may be a little more difficult than last time. In 1996, the League,which won 146 seats as against the BNP’s 116, got the support of the undivided Jatiya Party. In addition, it took advantage of the constitutional provision for nominating 30 women members, thereby adding up a comfortable majority.

The provision for nominating 30 women members has since lapsed because it was allowed in the constitution for 10 years only. The new government has to amend the constitution to provide for these nominations again. But that, too, is unlikely because a constitutional amendment requires the support of the two-thirds of the parliament members.

In Bangladesh, it is difficult to hope for any understanding between the BNP and the League on any issue. Hence the greater uncertainty this time over the aftermath of a hung verdict.




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