Putin helps Atal fend off Bush pressure
Fly and get a free ride too
Maneka wins libel on Indira biography
Silverlined surprise for gilt-edged clients
Merchant takes ‘tamarind test’ to win Naipaul
Panja challenge to Mamata

Washington, Nov. 8: 
As Atal Bihari Vajpayee embarked on his three-nation trip, the Americans put together a plan to bring him under severe pressure and extract a commitment that India will not act against Pakistan or do anything Washington may view as destabilising the US-led coalition against terrorism.

Before Vajpayee landed in Moscow, the Bush administration had urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to impress upon the Indian Prime Minister the need for restraint in dealing with Pakistan.

Had Putin fallen in line, President George W. Bush would have added his weight to the pressure on India at his meeting with Vajpayee here tomorrow.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair would then have followed suit at his talks with Vajpayee at 10 Downing Street on Monday.

Vajpayee would have stood up to the pressure just as he has rejected suggestions that talks with President Pervez Musharraf should be held in New York for the sake of talks.

Had he given in, the tour would have become Pakistan-centric. It would have been robbed of any bilateral successes or its global and anti-terrorist dimensions.

Putin nipped the American plan even before Vajpayee began the first leg of his travel. The Russian President told Washington he would definitely propose restraint, but no more.

He told the Americans that if there was another terrorist attack on India, similar to the one on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly last month, India would have to respond.

Vajpayee began a full day of discussions on Capitol Hill today, carrying that message. He told American leaders India would not tamely accept terrorist acts against it from across the border.

“We are conscious of the need not to threaten in any way the prospects of our coalition in Afghanistan, but at the same time we need to be assured that our own security will not be affected.”

The Kremlin had reasoned with the White House that any failure by India to respond would be viewed by terrorists as a sign of weakness. Pakistan and its agents of hate would then assume they can do anything they please.

It is not clear if Putin told Washington it should use its influence on Islamabad to avoid further terrorist actions against India.

Even if he did not, the message has gone to the White House that if Bush wants stability in South Asia as the US takes on Osama bin Laden, Musharraf has to be reined in.

Vajpayee today said: “We have no desire to overload the agenda of the international coalition against terrorism. But we need to ensure that we do not tamely accept terrorist acts against us from across the borders.”

As Vajpayee arrived in Washington, his aides were confident that the warmth and substance of the old Indo-Soviet ties had been revived. The knowledge that India has a firm ally in Russia will embolden Vajpayee to do some plain-speaking here and in London.

Vajpayee will take up the question of India’s association with the UN-sponsored six-plus-two process of the US, Russia and Afghanistan’s neighbours seeking a solution to the crisis there.

Washington has already conveyed to South Block its determination to pursue a long-term relationship with India, encompassing ideas thrashed out in meetings this year with the White House, as well as those in the “Vision statement” signed between Vajpayee and President Bill Clinton last year.


New Delhi, Nov. 8: 
Air-terror clouds have begun to depress fares in Indian skies. Worried by dropping passenger load since the September 11 attacks, airlines here are announcing seasonal fare cuts across the board and “googly” or differential rates, besides the odd flight shutdown.

Delivering what it feels would be a “googly punch”, Air Sahara today unveiled “customised fares” which will allow passengers to fly at 20 per cent discount on weekends, at 12-13 per cent discount if they buy returns or if they buy a day in advance. Passengers will get a car for eight hours if they pay the full fare. Other airlines are waiting in the wings with retaliations.

The multi-fare options are currently being offered on the Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi sector. “We will be bringing in the same package to the Delhi-Calcutta-Delhi and other major trunk routes like Bangalore and Hyderabad in a few days,” said Uttam Kumar Bose, Air Sahara’s chief executive officer.

The three domestic airlines fought fare wars around this time in the last two years. But these were nose for a nose — rate cut for every rate cut. “What we are now trying to do is something different. This kind of a system exists in the US and in Europe,” said Bose.

“We have enough flexibility in our pricing system to take on any kind of fare cut,” Indian Airlines’ director Robin Pathak said. Sahara’s bigger rivals, Indian Airlines and Jet Air, have already announced seasonal fare cuts on certain routes. Both reduced economy-class fares from Mumbai to Calcutta, Chennai and Hyderabad yesterday. Fare cuts of Rs 200 will hold through the festive season till end-December on these routes.

Indian Airlines and Air-India also have special cheap fares on late-night flights.

Dwindling traffic has forced Indian Airlines to ground its Calcutta-Dhaka flight. Other deadwood sectors, too, might get the chop as the players start concentrating on their meal-lines and on rivals’ passenger lines.

Bose, however, says he is no longer interested in just concentrating on snitching passengers from rivals. “That’s passe, I am now experimenting with fares in such a way that the Lalaji from Mathura who always took a train to Calcutta will be tempted to fly with me,” he said.

“I am asking him to calculate — if he went by Rajdhani second and spent money on a car in Mumbai, besides a hotel for a night, what would be his cost, and what it would cost him if he took a morning flight, used my car and returned by the evening flight.”


London, Nov. 8: 
Maneka Gandhi has won her libel case against HarperCollins, publishers of the bestselling biography of Indira Gandhi, her solicitor Sarosh Zaiwalla said in London today.

“The publishers have capitulated and in a statement which they read out in court yesterday agreed to pay substantial damages and costs,” Zaiwalla added.

The agreement was confirmed by Karen Duffy, a spokeswoman for HarperCollins, who told The Telegraph: “We can’t comment beyond what was said in court. We have apologised to the plaintiff and agreed to remove the offending passages from future editions.” She would not say what would happen to copies which were currently in the shops, although it is unlikely that a year after publication there will be too many around.

Maneka, accompanied by her son, came to London earlier this year and issued a writ. The result is certain to provide a major political boost to Maneka, who was sent to the airport to meet Tony Blair when the British Prime Minister recently visited India.

The book, Indira — The life of Indira Nehru Gandhi, has received critical acclaim from reviewers. It went into some detail when describing Indira Gandhi’s sex life. The author, Katherine Frank, an American-born biographer, tried to meet Maneka in Delhi while researching her book but says she was rebuffed.

Zaiwalla, who has often been at the centre of controversy, also emerges as a lawyer to be reckoned with. In the past, he notched up an important victory for Amitabh Bachchan in the Bofors case.

In the case between Maneka on the one hand, and Frank and HarperCollins on the other, it was said that the book had caused Maneka “grave offence”. Under British law, the dead cannot be libelled. But the book alleged that Maneka “was involved in the cover-up of her husband Sanjay’s responsibility for the murder in 1976 of someone called Sunderlal, described in the book as an Indian underworld figure”. According to the court statement, Maneka and Sanjay “had asked another man, Chawla, to accept responsibility for the killing, and that she was thereby both prepared to see an innocent man take the blame and guilty of obstructing the course of justice”.

Her lawyer emphasised that Maneka was a senior politician with an international reputation and also respected for her charitable work. It was pointed out: “The claimant, a frequent visitor to this country, is well known in government, political, environmental and animal welfare circles as well as generally through the Asian community here.”

It went on: “The defendants say that they published this most serious defamatory allegation on the basis of what they believed to be a reliable source.”

The statement added: “Fortunately the defendants now accept that these allegations are wholly false and totally without foundation and that they must have been misled by their source.”

Lawyers on behalf of Frank and HarperCollins apologised “for what was on any view a most serious libel”. It was accepted the allegations “were and are utterly false and should not have been included in the biography of Indira Gandhi”.

They continued: “The defendants believed the information they relied on was correct, but they accept that this will be of little comfort to the claimant who was, despite the defendants’ absence of malice towards her personally, grievously libeled and justifiably upset by the allegations against her and her late husband.”

They concluded: “They will be paying the claimant substantial damages to compensate her for the injury done to her reputation and feelings and to mark the sincerity of their apology. They will also be paying her costs in the matter.”


London, Nov. 8: 
This is a Diwali gift with a difference that separates the very rich from the, well, just rich. In the next few days, Citibank is couriering specially bound copies of a new book, Bollywood: Popular Indian Cinema, direct from the printers in Italy to 2,500 of its most favoured NRI account holders all over the world.

Those fortunate enough to qualify for this 3.5 kg free gift, which comes complete with edging “dipped in silver”, can leave it casually lying around on the coffee table for envious visitors to spot. The subliminal message the book conveys is: “I am so sorry you are not on the A-List.”

“We have identified customers who have $250,000 with us, and many have more than $500,000,” disclosed Shreepad Chinchankar, Citibank’s London-based marketing supremo.

The range of countries to which the Bollywood book is being sent provides an encouraging insight into how globally, Indians have become a financial force to be reckoned with.

According to Chinchankar, 800 copies are being sent to West Asia, where there are rich Indians living in Dubai, Sharjah, Oman and Abu Dhabi. In Britain, 400 copies are being distributed; 150 in Spain and Switzerland; another 380 in the US; 600 in the Singapore area; and 100 in Africa centred in and around Kenya.

Since Citibank deals mainly with NRIs, only a few copies will go to India.

This gives a good demographic distribution of the wealthy (but not always pretty) Indian.

Citibank, which is part of the American Citi Group and has 80,000 Indian account holders in 26 cities across the world, assumed that its customers spread their investments across, at least, five banks, said Chinchankar. “We work on a one to five ratio. If they have $250,000 with us, they have a total of five times that amount — $1.25 million — available for investment.”

It is not that these customers would have difficulty buying the Bollywood book, which is illustrated with 400 photographs, for £30 if they wanted to, although the special edition they are being sent costs £50.

“They have the money to buy whatever they want,” said Chinchankar. “Even a $100 gift won’t mean much to these people. But we wanted to give them something special, something Indian and most Indians love Bollywood.”

Citibank is spending £150,000 on buying a job lot of 2,500 special edition copies and on couriering costs. The bank was approached by Lucky Dissanayake, whose publishing house, Dakini, has printed the book. In the past, Diwali gifts have tended to be diaries, Indian music CDs and cricket videos of Indian Test match victories (unfortunately there have not been too many of these).

“We get lots of proposals and we sent this for approval to our head office in India and it was cleared,” said Chinchankar.

He declined to identify individuals who might qualify for the gift. “I am sorry but I can’t tell you whether Swraj Paul, the Hindujas and the Mittals will be getting a copy. But our customers are people who make money to make even more money. In the US, the people tend to be top professionals, intellectuals, and people in IT and corporate life. In Britain, many are business people, who came from Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. In the Far East and West Asia, they tend to be in trading.”

Chinchankar’s boss, Rahul Malhotra, who has the grand title of “global head of NRI business”, said: “Many of our customers have ‘investible’ funds worth $3 million.”


London, Nov. 8: 
Completing the filming of V.S. Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur has been the easy part for Ismail Merchant, who arrived in London on Wednesday from New York for the movie’s much anticipated premiere at the London Film Festival today.

Getting the author himself to see the film — and perhaps say a kind word about it so that the Nobel Prize winner’s endorsement can be used in worldwide publicity — is going to be much more difficult. For Naipaul, as those who have dealt with him know to their cost, can be notoriously unpredictable.

Still, Merchant, who does not give up easily, has unleashed his considerable charm to soothe the author and has applied the tamarind test.

Naipaul was invited to Merchant’s London home for dinner to see photographs of the author’s native Trinidad, where The Mystic Masseur was to be shot on location. Merchant, a noted chef, cooked dinner himself. He was aware that Naipaul has an aversion to meat.

“I cooked mackerel even though that is, perhaps, not his favourite fish. But I cooked it with ginger, garlic — and tamarind from Trinidad,” disclosed Merchant.

Naipaul was touched, and softened even more when Merchant showed him photographs taken in Trinidad, “including pictures of his ancestral home, which is being renovated”.

“Naipaul’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature has been a special bonus for us,” admitted Merchant, who said it had taken him six years to get the film rights.

“It was hard to get the rights,” he recalled.

He confirmed that finally Naipaul, who had never before allowed any of his books to be turned into films, had written to him to say: “Please don’t bother to come to see me. I am aware of your legendary powers of persuasion. You can have the rights. Please get in touch with my agent.”

Merchant arrived in London with his leading man, Asif Mandvi (“Bombay-born, Bradford-bred, New York-based”). Both director and actor are expected to answer questions after the press is shown the film.

The film has a distinguished cast that includes Ayesha Dharker, Om Puri, British comedy actor Sanjeev Bhasker, Zohra Sehgal and James Fox.

Equipment, costumes, props and crew had to be flown to Trinidad from India, the UK and the US for the £1.8 million film.

This might well be the year when the “mystic Merchant” is given a fresh lease of life.

“The Barbican Arts Centre in London is doing a retrospective of 40 years of Merchant Ivory Films,” Merchant said proudly. “There will be a gala screening of The Mystic Masseur on February 14 on St Valentine’s Day. I have invited Naipaul to that.”

The word from the Naipaul camp is that the author has pencilled that in his diary as another function to miss.


Nov. 8: 
Suspended Trinamul Congress MP Ajit Panja has thrown a spanner in Mamata Banerjee’s bid to hold organisational polls by initiating a parallel move to challenge her authority.

“Let her field herself as a candidate for the post of the party’s chairperson. I am also ready to contest the same post. Let genuine party workers take part in the election and see the outcome,” Panja told a party workers’ meeting at Suri in Birbhum today.

Mamata, however, is not attributing any importance to Panja’s attempts to hold parallel organisational polls, saying the suspended MP has no authority to hold such elections. A Mamata aide said there was no question of responding to Panja’s challenge as he is “no longer the party chairman”.

The Trinamul chief today held a meeting at Nizam Palace to elect seven Pradesh Trinamul Congress members from among the Calcutta corporation councillors.

As there was a large number of aspirants for the seven posts, mayor Subrata Mukherjee was given the responsibility of preparing a shortlist of candidates in consultation with party legislators and MPs from Calcutta. Mukherjee, however, was unanimously elected as a member of the All India Trinamul Congress Committee.

Panja has been touring the districts to mobilise party workers for the organisational election and to form parallel working and steering committees. “All the committees… will be formed through elections in which all the party members will take part,’’ Panja said.

Trinamul desertions

Perturbed over a lack of fruitful political activities, a large number of Trinamul supporters, including district-level leaders and panchayat members, have returned to the Congress in Murshidabad district.


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