CM walks into fresh dispute
Missed rendezvous for Pakistan twain in US
North wind sweeps away rallies
Dubai line prescribed for list of 20
Ansari gang car seized in Patna
Lotus blooms in temple town
Brands land in Bollywood
Strike off, staff missing
Mittal strikes back at Blair-linked slur
Calcutta Weather

Calcutta, Feb. 11: 
For the Bengal chief minister, it was a barely-audible adaab, accompanied by a more visible raising of the half-open palm to a corner of the forehead when presented with the bouquet. For the state’s ruling Left Front chairman, it was a salaam at the beginning and an adaab at the end of a speech that read more like an ode to Saddam Hussein.

Everything seemingly went according to the script this morning as chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Front head Biman Bose embarked on an effort to tidy some ruffled feathers within the minority community at the open session of the West Bengal Madarsa Shikshak Samiti’s annual conference. But, within a few hours of the event, a part that was in the original script but was overlooked by everyone threatened to spoil the mood at the CPM headquarters.

The news that the gathering addressed by Bhattacharjee, Bose and three of the four CPM ministers from the community (Md Salim, Md Amin and Anisur Rahman) began with a reading from the Quran stirred up a controversy within the CPM with a section of the party saying that senior leaders should not have spoken at a meet that started with readings from a religious text.

The fact that state primary and secondary education minister Kanti Biswas stayed away after he was heckled at a similar function last year, for protesting against the Quran-reading part, highlighted the fractious mood within the party. The prevailing sentiment was that the party, which protested against renditions of the Saraswati Vandana at functions, should have been more careful when it came to Quran readings.

Despite the bitterness caused by the fresh controversy, nothing was left to chance in the damage-control exercise aimed at soothing the frayed nerves of the community. There were promises of more financial grant to madarsas, there were promises to give government affiliation to more madarsas, there were promises to instal computers in religion-teaching schools, and vows to protect the community “at the cost of everything” and some America-bashing for its “atrocities” in Afghanistan. But the audience response indicated that tempers would take some more time — and, probably, some more sops — to cool down.

The chief minister had created a controversy with his statements that some unauthorised madarsas had become a refuge for anti-national elements.

Although leaders of the largely pro-CPM association repeatedly sought to remind the audience of the Left’s contribution to madarsa education, the beneficiaries remained unimpressed. “We came to hear Buddhababu apologise for linking a section of madarsas with terrorism or clarify he did not say what was reported in the media,” a senior functionary said.

Instead, interspersed between the promises, they heard Bhattacharjee reminding them of the need to change their “mental make-up” to help the government modernise madarsas. They even heard state animal resources development minister Rahman concede that a section of madarsas did get “money from elsewhere”.

The shadow of the “controversial statements” loomed large on everyone, right from the master-of-ceremony — who told the audience that the day to prove their “patriotism and discipline” had arrived — to those who addressed them. And, in a repeat of last week’s Front meet where he was pushed into a corner and forced to blame the media for “creating a controversy where there was none”, Bhattacharjee was again left to fend for himself.

Rahman said he would leave it to his boss to clarify matters. Bose, despite accusing some journalists of not knowing the “meaning of madarsa” when they “created the controversy”, also left the stage to Bhattacharjee. Salim chose not to say anything at all.


Washington, Feb. 11: 
Five years of stable government in Pakistan with General Pervez Musharraf as President and Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister!

On the eve of Musharraf’s arrival in Washington on a three-day visit, this is a prospect that seemed so near and yet so far.

Benazir was in Washington last week and was given access to the Bush administration at levels where the bureaucracy and the political overlapped.

But when she extended her stay in the US, despite a public statement that she would leave before Musharraf landed in Boston to meet his son during the weekend, there was speculation that a secret meeting between the former Prime Minister and the military ruler might be held away from prying eyes and ears in Washington.

The meeting between Pakistan’s most popular leader and its most powerful leader may yet have taken place, but loose cannons within the Pakistani military saw to it that it did not happen.

Despite being a Musharraf confidant, his army spokesman Rashid Quereshi is now at the receiving end for having overstepped his brief and severely criticised Benazir.

The criticism vitiated the atmosphere to such an extent that no meeting between Musharraf and the former Prime Minister was viable.

Benazir has since left the US for Dubai and it is unlikely that the prospect of inducting her into Pakistan’s government would be discussed anywhere at the top of the Bush administration during Musharraf’s stay here.

But clearly, the ball has been set rolling and the Americans are very keen to see a civilian component in Musharraf’s team very soon for their own reasons.

In private conversations, Bush administration officials are paranoid that Benazir could upset America’s applecart in Pakistan simply by landing up in the country and challenging Musharraf. Indeed, her trusted political secretary, Naheed Khan, is now in Pakistan preparing for a meeting of Pakistan People’s Party leaders to be held in Dubai in a week or two. One of the items to be discussed in Dubai is Benazir’s return to Pakistan.

Washington’s assessment is that Benazir is the most popular politician in Pakistan and the only one capable of challenging Musharraf. It is a prospect they do not relish.

Privately, US officials are also quite pleased with Musharraf’s electoral reforms announced last month. They concede that the removal of separate seats for minorities, reservation of 60 seats for women and 25 seats for technocrats in the National Assembly are “progressive” steps which no politician would have dared to take.

For this reason, any criticism by the US of lack of democracy in Pakistan during Musharraf’s visit is bound to be low-key and only for the record to please the politically correct in Washington. In those circumstances, the induction of Benazir as interim Prime Minister would actually enable the Americans to have their cake and eat it too.

They would have Musharraf, in whom they trust, as the man controlling the levers of power in Islamabad and at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Benazir would provide a fig leaf of legitimacy to the government and at least a degree of unquestioned political support.

But most of all, as the Americans see it, she would provide continuity of government and longevity for US policies in Pakistan, should something happen to Musharraf as was the case with another US protege in Islamabad, General Zia-ul Haq.


Moradabad, Feb. 11: 
An agency report said “in the rarest of rare occurrences” it had snowed in Kanpur. Snow? In Kanpur? Well, not quite.

It was but only a hailstorm. Enough though to blast away a series of rallies across northern India, where three states are going to polls day after tomorrow, by an array of heavyweights. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and home minister L.K. Advani had to call off their campaign programmes in the wake of rain, hailstorm and chilly winds since early this morning.

Sadly, for the BJP, the weather god wasn’t too kind in Uttar Pradesh, where it is now left with a day of campaigning in the first phase and where it could do with some heavenly intervention come voting day.

For poor visibility, the special aircraft and helicopters hired by the leaders could not take off.

Ironically, the one leader who has no direct stakes in the Uttar Pradesh poll withstood the weather fury. Communists, Jyoti Basu might say, have no truck with God.

Vajpayee was forced to cancel his election meetings at Agra and Bareilly, Sonia could not make it to Almora, Rudrapur and Haldwani, all in Uttaranchal, and spoke at an Urdu conference in Delhi instead. Advani called off meetings at Mathura, Etah, Etawah and Aligarh.

Till 12 noon it looked as though the first and the only People’s Front – the new conglomeration of anti-BJP, anti-Congress parties -- rally here for Samajwadi Party candidates to be addressed by Basu, H.S. Surjeet, Mulayam Singh, Amar Singh, Raj Babbar and RSP chief Abani Roy would also be cancelled.

The ground was slushy with mud as it had been pouring since last night and not a single person was in sight at 11.10 am. But by 1.30 pm, the weather changed a bit. The rain stopped, though ominous clouds still hovered above. By 2 pm, a decent crowd had assembled, much to the relief of the leaders.

Eighty-eight-year-old Basu, agile and stern, landed at the venue two hours late and made a brief but forceful speech. All the leaders had to pack their speech into 40 minutes before the weather played nasty again.

After the speeches were over, Basu told The Telegraph: “I thought the meeting will be abandoned. The weather was too bad. I am surprised that such a big crowd turned up.”

Basu said the party was insulting Ram by raking up the temple issue on the eve of each election. “They want to make the mandir by force. It is an insult to Ram. We will never allow them to construct the temple by force. We will lay down our lives to prevent forcible construction,” the Marxist veteran thundered as black clouds swirled in the sky.


New Delhi, Feb. 11: 
India today formally asked Pakistan to follow the example set by the United Arab Emirates in deporting Aftab Ansari, making it clear that it wanted Islamabad to pursue the same line on its list of 20.

Hints were dropped that the US might also urge General Pervez Musharraf to do so to break the impasse between India and Pakistan following the December 13 attack on Parliament.

This afternoon, the Pakistani deputy high commissioner, Jaleel Abbas Jilani, was summoned to South Block where the joint secretary (India-Pakistan-Iran), Arun Singh, issued a demarche expressing India’s regret that Islamabad had not acted on the list of 20 criminals and terrorists submitted to it by Delhi.

Arguing that Interpol red-corner notices had been served against most of those whose names figured on the list, Singh told Jilani India expected Pakistan to act like the UAE, which deported Ansari, the prime accused in last month’s attack outside the American Center in Calcutta.

Musharraf, who is visiting the US, is scheduled to meet President George W. Bush on Wednesday. The current military and diplomatic standoff between India and Pakistan is likely to be in focus during the discussions. The Indian government feels that Bush may ask the Pakistani dictator to follow UAE’s example in deporting some of the important “non-Pakistanis” on the list of 20 either to India or to some third country.

The decision to formally ask Pakistan to follow the UAE example has been timed to coincide with Musharraf’s US visit.

South Block has already served two demarches to Pakistan since the attack on Parliament, urging Islamabad to take action against those suspected to be involved in the strike.

The fact that India wanted Pakistan to pursue the same line as the Emirates was indicated on Saturday evening when the announcement of Ansari’s deportation from Dubai was officially made. But the decision to ask Islamabad to do so formally became clear this afternoon when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told reporters he wanted the military rulers in Pakistan to act on the list of 20 in the way the UAE did.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Nirupama Rao said the Pakistani deputy high commissioner’s attention was drawn to the action taken by the UAE. She pointed out that the UAE had acted on the basis of information provided by India on Ansari and deported him as “an undesirable element”. She added that the Emirates chose not to go through the time-consuming process of extradition.


Feb. 11: 
Dubai-based don Aftab Ansari’s network came under scrutiny today as a car used by suspects in the American Center attack was seized in Patna and investigators in New Delhi tried to trace his alleged links with Mohammad Atta, a hijacker involved in the September 11 strikes.

A Maruti believed to have been used by Ansari’s associates was seized from Patna City Chowk, where it had been abandoned after an accident some days ago. The “missing Maruti” (WB02-9240) strengthened the don’s Bihar connection. Ansari, alias Farhan Malik, holds a passport he obtained from Nalanda.

The car was often seen at the Hazaribagh house where two of Ansari’s men were killed in a shootout with police on January 28. It is suspected that Jamaluddin Nasir, the chief facilitator of the Calcutta attack, was using it to travel to Patna and Nalanda.

Central sleuths examined the car, and an interrogation of the accused arrested from Hazaribagh, Gaya and Nalanda confirmed that they had used it.

In New Delhi, investigators questioned Ansari about his alleged links with Atta. Acting on a tip-off from Khadim’s kidnap suspect Asif Reza Khan, who was killed in an encounter, police are trying to find out if any part of the Rs 3.75-crore ransom allegedly paid for the release of Parthapratim Roy Burman found its way to Atta. Ansari is a suspect in the Khadim’s case.

Police claim that Reza had said that $100,000 of the Khadim’s ransom was given to Jaish-e-Mohammad leader Omar Sheikh, who sent it to Atta. Ansari has admitted to knowing Sheikh, one of the three prisoners swapped for the passengers of the hijacked Indian Airlines plane. But he denied knowledge of any money being sent to Atta.

CBI chief P.C. Sharma described Ansari as an “emerging terrorist-criminal leader” and said there was reason to believe he had links with the ISI. But Pakistan rubbished the claim that Ansari has ISI links and charged India with making such allegations to mar Pervez Musharraf’s US visit, adds PTI.


Ayodhya, Feb. 11: 
The BJP may have abandoned the “mandir mudda” for now, but the temple town is not yet ready to part with the party.

In Ayodhya, the BJP looks safe. Perhaps, the only place in Uttar Pradesh where the lotus shows no sign of wilting. Flags with the party’s symbol flutter everywhere. Some have even planted flags in the four corners of their houses.

The smile on chief minister Rajnath Singh’s face tells the story as his hi-tech Jan Samvad Rath enters the crowded bylanes of Ayodhya. He knows he is on home ground.

Pony-tailed sadhus, shivering in the winter cold in their langotis, gather around him shouting “Jai Shri Ram”. For once, the deliberately and painfully created divisions within the Sangh parivar get blurred. The BJP is the VHP here. It is also the Bajrang Dal and the RSS.

The BJP knows this. Rajnath’s meeting at the Ram Katha Park is prefixed by sadhus spewing venom on those opposed to a Ram temple at the disputed site. Barring the local BJP candidate, Laloo Singh, there are no party leaders on the dais, cramped with sadhus of various hues jostling for space. They all want two minutes to say something about the Ram mandir.

And they get it. Rajnath is late by four hours — he has made a detour to the Hanumangarhi Math and the ashram of Ram Chandra Paramhans to get the blessings of Ayodhya’s powerful sadhus. The long wait is filled in by volunteers singing bhajans and sadhus repeating the Hindutva rhetoric.

“Is there a national debate in Pakistan on whether a mandir should be made in those places of Hindu worship which have been desecrated? People who oppose the Ram temple construction here are traitors, mandir to wahi banega,” an acharya belonging to the Hanumangarhi Math says.

The sadhus whip up an anti-Pakistan frenzy, making it easy for Rajnath to carry on. A seasoned politician, he senses the mood quickly and takes the cue. “These elections are the most important in the country,” Rajnath says even before cries of “Jai Shri Ram” die down. Then with a flourish he adds: “If there is anyone who will shed tears on the BJP’s victory, it is Pakistan. They want to finish India. They have targeted the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly and our Parliament, not knowing that the BJP is there to give them a bloody nose.’’

The anti-terrorism Ordinance will be passed in Uttar Pradesh and organisations like the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (Simi) will be dealt with strictly, Rajnath says. “Those living here and shouting Pakistan zindabad will be left with neither home, nor hearth. They will all be bundled up in jails.’’

He mentions neither the Congress nor the Bahujan Samaj Party. All his attention is focused on Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Samajawadi Party, his chief challenger in these elections.

Implying that the Samajwadi Party’s campaign is being funded by Pakistan, Rajnath says in mock disbelief: “It’s amazing how much money they are spending on hoardings and advertisements. Even after being in the ruling party, we don’t have so much money to spare. Where is all his money coming from? We can’t be sure that the money is not coming from a foreign country. This has to be investigated.’’

But it is internal security Rajnath veers to. “More than anything else, it is the question of the nation’s security that is haunting us. I assure you that the country is safe in no other hands but those of the BJP and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.’’

As Rajnath steps down from stage, sadhus jostle around to bid him good luck. Chaitanya, a young monk, runs after the chief minister’s rath, letting go only after the vehicle races out of reach. Asked why he is so pleased with him, Chaitanya smiles: “It is only the BJP that can see to it that a Ram temple is built here.’’


Mumbai, Feb. 11: 
Sholay, Bollywood’s original ‘curry’ western, is arguably the biggest grosser till date and it brought fame and fortune to its budding director Ramesh Sippy back in 1975.

But the film that gained immortality as fans continue to parrot dialogues of their famous stars Amjad Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra, missed out on a few revenue streams.

Reason: concepts like brand promotion and in-brand placements had yet to germinate.

If they were around then, Ramesh Sippy would have raked in a couple of more crores by opening a window of opportunity for denim makers through in-brand movie advertising, especially since the two lead characters Veeru and Jai wore jeans right through the length and breadth of the 70mm film.

It would have given denim makers of that time the opportunity to leave an indelible mark on a generation of moviegoers who kept returning to Sholay.

Bollywood filmmakers have now realised that they can deliver their brands through other channels, and others’ brands through their own.

“The cross-promotion of brands and films has arrived in Bollywood,” says Sanjay Bhutiani, head honcho of Leo Entertainment, a subsidiary of advertising agency Leo Burnett.

Sippy and his ilk are not the type to brood over missed opportunities. Sholay was Ramesh Sippy’s launchpad, produced by his father G.P. Sippy. But now, Ramesh is trying to ensure that his son Rohan Sippy’s maiden directorial venture Kuchch Na Kaho starring Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai will mulct such revenue streams.

Leo Entertainment has been involved in the making of the film right from the start. The Sippys brought them in when the script was being crafted.

Sippy’s movies are likely to see in-brand advertising done with panache, unlike the ‘in-your-face advertising and the raw commercialisation’ in some movies of the recent past (remember the Stroh’s beer ad in Shah Rukh Khan’s Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge where the sequence in the forest was a commercial non sequitur?)

Sippy’s Kuchch Na Kaho has Coke as an in-brand product whose image will be blended with the soft romantic theme of the movie.

Helping Sippy add value to his creation is Leo Entertainment. This is one of the first occasions that an advertising agency of repute is dabbling in the entertainment business.

Bhutiani said: “Films are brands rather than a commodity or product that perishes after a while.”

Ramesh Sippy has also hired Leo Entertainment for his impending second movie starring Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya.

Among other ventures, the firm is supporting Sanjay Gupta’s stylised heist film Kaante, a multi-star cast with Sanjay Dutt, Sunil Shetty, Kumar Gaurav, Lucky Ali and Mahesh Manjrekar, which will feature Thums Up.

Sanjay Gupta, producer of Kaante, says: “The entire approach to making of films has changed. We are getting more organised... we are insuring our movies, arranging finance through legitimate routes and, likewise, we need legitimate advertising agencies for branding the film.”


Ahmedabad, Feb. 11: 
There are no signs of the labourers yet. When weavers went on a strike last month, nearly 75 per cent of the labourers left textile city Surat and went home — to Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. That’s where these migrant labourers had mostly come from.

Over two weeks ago, the weavers withdrew the strike they had called to protest against the high power tariff. But with a large section of the one million workers engaged in processing, spinning and weaving still away, nearly 50 per cent of the one lakh-odd powerlooms are either not operational or running only partially. And this at a time when the Gujarat government is going all out to highlight the “vast opportunities for investment” in the state.

This, though, is not the first time that there’s been such a mass exodus from Surat. It happened twice in the past decade: during the 1992 communal riots and then again during the plague of 1994. But on both occasions, the state and the employers made efforts to get in touch with the workers and bring them back.

In 1994, the state arranged for special trains to fetch workers from Orissa. The labour minister even visited the eastern state and exhorted the labourers to return.

But this time, no one’s made any effort to bring them back, said Naishad Desai, chairman of the South Gujarat Labour Institute and Textile Labour Association.

L. Mansingh, the principal secretary, industries and mines, confirmed that the state government would not try to bring back the migrant labourers. The workers, he claimed, would come back on their own as there won’t be enough work for them in their home states.

But trade union leaders Urmila Rana and Desai feel this time the situation is different from that in 1992 and 1994. Then, Surat had a monopoly in the textile sector.

But textile units are now coming up in Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka. So, workers from these states might not want to come back to Surat any more, said Desai. He added that even if they do, it would not be before Holi in end-March.

Desai was afraid some of the units in Surat might even shift to a state where skilled labour is readily available.

But the state, alleged trade union leaders, is “busy giving tax holidays” to “rebuild Kutch”, while turning a blind eye to Surat.

The state, however, feels the full potential of the sector can be tapped only when multinational companies step in.

According to the state government, excellent opportunities exist in the development of the apparel industry as many of the existing textile mills are in the process of expanding their activities into garments.

An apparel park will soon be set up in Surat, for which a site has also been identified, the industry secretary said.


London, Feb. 11: 
After Keith Vaz and the Hindujas, it is now the turn of Lakshmi Mittal, Britain’s richest Indian, to come under fire from opposition politicians for allegedly using cash — a £125,000 donation to the Labour party — to secure a helping hand from Tony Blair for his business activities.

But this morning, speaking from Delhi to The Telegraph, Mittal, 51, chairman and chief executive of the Ispat International steel group, denied any wrong-doing and dismissed the criticism that his activities did not help Britain.

In London, his son, Aditya, 26, a finance director in the group, and his press officer, Annanya Sarin, also hit back by arguing that Mittal’s presence in London had benefited Britain by providing work for British accountants, financial services and lawyers.

At the weekend, The Sunday Telegraph disclosed that Blair had written to the Romanian Prime Minister, Adrian Nastase, on July 23 last year supporting the bid by Mittal to buy the nationalised steel company, Sidex.

On May 24, 2001, shortly before the general election, Mittal, whose Ispat International is the world’s fourth largest steel producer, gave £125,000 to Labour’s headquarters. His wife, Usha, gave £5,000 towards the election expenses of Vaz, the former Europe minister, facing a one-month suspension from the Commons for breaches of the MPs’ code of conduct.

In his letter to his Romanian counterpart backing the £300 million privatisation of Sidex, Blair wrote: “I am delighted by the news that you are to sign the contract for the privatisation of your biggest steel plant, Sidex, with the LNM Group. I am particularly pleased that it is a British company which is your partner.”

He added: “And it will, I hope, set Romania even more firmly on the road to membership of the European Union, an objective of which the British government remains a staunch supporter.”

The main criticism against Mittal, who remains an Indian citizen, is that his company is in competition with the British steel industry, where jobs were being lost.

The Sunday Telegraph said LNM Holdings, the Mittal company which bought Sidex, is registered in the Dutch Antilles, a Caribbean tax haven. It operates almost entirely overseas and competes against British steelmakers. Its sister company, Ispat International, is registered in Rotterdam.

Mittal said there was “no competition” between Ispat and Corus, the company formed by merging British Steel and Hoogovens of the Netherlands.

“Corus produces 14 million tonnes a year — against 20,000 tonnes from Romania,” he said. “That’s very little, 0.14 per cent of the British output.”

He added: “There is a private British company which has some involvement in purchase of Sidex.”

Mittal, who has been based in London since 1995, pointed out: “London has been the main office of the group. All our services come from Britain — lawyers, accountants, financial services. British companies work for us. And when we do business with other countries, it stimulates interest in Britain. The attitude towards Romania among British companies is now more positive.”

The contract with Romania had already been won before Blair’s letter, Mittal emphasised. “We qualified for the tender in 2000,” he said.




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