State joins fight to stop Jessop selloff
Sleuths turn spotlight on Aftab drug deals
Panja plays Subrata card
Mrs G yesterday, Messrs Tainted today
After Kalyan, Apna Dal plays spoiler
Fuming yogi turns gun on party
Terror law on budget session list
Cong targets Atal
Jaya seat security surpasses Atal’s
Nail-biting suspense before green signal

Calcutta, Feb. 20: 
The state government today described the Centre’s decision to sell a majority stake in Jessop to private bidders as “an act of betrayal” and sought a review.

State commerce and industry minister Nirupam Sen, in a letter to Union industry minister Manohar Joshi, claimed that Jessop had shown “a positive operating gross margin with the placement of orders by the railways last year. So, there is no reason to offer a 70 per cent stake in the company to private bidders at a lower price.”

However, he refused to make any commitment to the workers who had demanded that the state government take over Jessop.

Around 500 workers representing all trade unions of Jessop and Hotel Airport Ashok blocked VIP Road for over two hours this afternoon in protest against the Centre’s move.

The employees of the two establishments assembled near the hotel around 3 pm and later marched with placards and festoons towards VIP Road. They squatted on the arterial road and started shouting slogans. This led to a massive traffic snarl on VIP Road. The police arrived and persuaded the picketers to disperse around 5 pm.

The CPI’s trade union wing, All India Trade Union Congress (Aituc), also joined the fight for Jessop, and announced a raft of protest programmes.

Aituc general secretary Gurudas Dasgupta today said: “Let the state government take over Jessop or at least enter into a joint venture with the Centre and the railways to save the industry.”

He said Aituc along with all Central trade unions, including Intuc and BMS, has called for massive country-wide demonstrations in all public sector undertakings on March 14. On March 4, the unions will hold a meeting to decide on a country-wide strike in PSUs. They will observe March 26 as a protest day for PSU employees.

Dasgupta also claimed that the Union finance ministry was pressuring banks to lend money to firms to help them take over PSUs.

The Confederation of Central Government Employees has decided to observe February 26 as anti-VRS day. Coal-miners have also decided to go for a prolonged strike against privatisation. Defence employees are likely to go on strike on April 24 and 25. Port and dock workers will stage a dharna in Delhi on February 28.


Calcutta, Feb. 20: 
The multi-agency probe into Aftab Ansari’s links with jihadis has zoomed in on his drug deals — in India, Bangladesh and Nepal — which helped him raise crores of rupees for militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Harkat-ul-Jihadi-e-Islami in the past five years.

During interrogations in the past 24 hours, Aftab Ansari confessed to the CBI and Delhi police that a large part of the money used to fund the militant outfits was raised by smuggling drugs.

“Under direct instructions from Ansari, his cadre had built a solid base of drug smuggling stretching from Pakistan to Uttar Pradesh and from eastern India to Nepal and Bangladesh. Various agencies are now working round the clock to learn more about Ansari’s drug-trafficking network,” a senior Delhi police official said.

Delhi police commissioner A.J. Sharma said: “He was involved in drug trafficking in a big way and we hope to learn more about his network and the men involved in this trade once we get him in our custody.”

Sharma said the trio arrested in Jaipur on Saturday comprised key members of the Aftab Ansari network and had “provided leads to his drugs and arms shipment network in the country”.

So far, the multi-agency probe has stumbled upon several routes taken by Ansari’s men in smuggling drugs and arms to the country.

“He is a very clever man. He has alternative routes ready for pumping in consignment of drugs and guns in case we sealed one particular route. For instance, once we found out that arms and drugs were regularly entering through the Pakistan border into Barmer in Rajasthan, he started focusing on routes through the Bengal-Bangladesh border and the Kakarvita region bordering Nepal with active support from insurgents,” a top Intelligence Bureau official said.

Sleuths have gathered evidence that suggest that the Siliguri corridor and even the Northeast were being effectively used by Ansari to smuggle drugs and arms into the country.

Hawala raids

Ansari has also told the CBI about some small-time hawala traders, adds our special correspondent from New Delhi. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. He is telling us just the unimportant links, not the ones that really matter and those involved in big-money transactions,” a CBI official said.

The CBI raided a couple of places late last evening — all of them in the Old Delhi area. Police recovered Rs 8 lakh from the raid on Sharda Bajrang Lal of Naya Bazar. The search in Puroshatam Dasgupta’s home in Chandi Chowk yielded around Rs 32 lakh. But the raid on Javed Khan’s Turkman Gate residence yielded nothing.


Calcutta, Feb. 20: 
Playing on the reported rift between Mamata Banerjee and Subrata Mukherjee, suspended MP Ajit Panja flayed the Trinamul leader but heaped praise on the Calcutta mayor.

After meeting the mayor today, Panja told reporters at the Calcutta Municipal Corporation that the Trinamul was a “sinking ship” under Mamata’s leadership. “Trinamul can turn around only if Subrata takes over the reins of the party,” a smiling Panja said.

Political observers feel this is Panja’s clever ploy to win over Mukherjee and isolate Mamata.

Earlier, Panja also made several attempts to bring Mukherjee closer to him by praising his activities. But he failed to charm Mukherjee.

“Despite repeated hurdles created by Mamata, an unfazed Subrata is trying his best to improve the quality of life in the city,” Panja added.

Mukherjee, on several occasions, had crossed swords with Mamata over eviction of encroachers from the banks of Tolly’s Nullah and removing of hawkers from Esplanade.

Today, however, Mukherjee refused to be carried away by Panja’s praises. “Who is Ajit Panja in Trinamul Congress? He is nobody. So, whether he praises me or not is immaterial. He came to meet me as an individual,” the mayor said.

Interestingly, the leader of Opposition in the Assembly, Pankaj Banerjee, also met Mukherjee when the latter was having a discussion with Panja.

Banerjee said he had come to discuss the proposed beautification of eight parks in his Tollygunge Assembly constituency.


Rae Bareli, Feb. 20: 
Three times did this small, dusty town send Indira Gandhi to Parliament. Now fighting for the seat is a registered history-sheeter and a jailbird, who till not long ago had the reputation of being a contract killer and a sharpshooter.

Though Akhilesh Kumar Singh hopes to retain his Assembly seat taking advantage of the Congress wave that refuses to subside in this “Gandhi family’s pocket borough”, his smile has long deserted his face.

Last time, Singh had won by more than 60,000 votes and the one before that by an impressive margin of 38,000. But this time he faces someone who can match his criminal record, and his firepower bullet for bullet.

Giving him a run for his money is Arvind Singh, alias Narendra Pahadi, alias Sunil, alias Suraj — a shadowy figure just out of jail.

Fielded by the Lok Janshakti Party, a BJP ally, Arvind is believed to have earlier worked as a sharpshooter for Akhilesh. He later broke away from the Congress don to work as a Kanpur-based contract killer.

Police and the local administration are predictably silent on the issue of Arvind being in the fray. Akhilesh, too, prefers not to say much except to make the point that that he had “nothing to do” with him.

“I never had any links with him. Arvind is being backed by the ruling party and they are trying to bump me off,” is all he would say.

The trademark smirk Akhilesh is known for vanished the day nominations were being filed. His party was involved in a bloody shootout with Arvind’s gang and two Congress supporters had to be rushed to hospital with gunshot wounds.

Arvind denies being a criminal and quickly abandons his many aliases. “I don’t have multiple identities, nor am I a criminal. All the charges against me have been framed,” he says, promising to “rid Rae Bareli of Akhilesh’s terror”.

If the police seem more scared than helpless — they have provided a mobile van full of armed escorts to the candidates — the people have no real choice.

Even Rajiv Yadav, the Samajwadi Party candidate, is not free of taint.

Sureshchandra Sharma, a primary-school teacher, shakes his head in exasperation, when asked about the choice of candidates. “Who do we vote for?” he says.

“If we have to vote for criminals, we might as well vote for someone who will at least do a little something for us.”

Being a local candidate, Akhilesh has an edge over Arvind, who belongs to Unnao. In his campaign, the Congress candidate had cleverly termed the fight a tussle between a “local and an outsider”.

But few are convinced. “That doesn’t mean we are happy with the way things are happening here,” says businessman Vikram Shukla. “Privately, all of us bemoan the demise of honesty and a scarcity of good leaders with integrity.”

As Arvind’s armed-to-the-teeth supporters show up across the street, Shukla adds: “But, I guess, it’s like that everywhere.”

This sense of resignation pervades the constituency, where people, especially the old, cling on to memories of a time when they voted for real leaders — like Indira Gandhi.


Varanasi, Feb. 20: 
If Kalyan Singh’s Rashtriya Kranti Dal has emerged a major spoiler for the BJP in parts of west and west-central Uttar Pradesh, the Apna Dal has eroded its backward-caste base in the eastern parts of the state.

BJP leaders, however, insist the Samajwadi Party would suffer the most because of Apna Dal, but Kalyan Singh’s party does not think so. Kanaiah Lal Rajbhar, the Varanasi district president of Apna Dal, said BJP would be the worst hit followed by Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party.

Apna Dal’s main following is among the backward-caste Kurmis who number as many as four lakh in Varanasi district alone. Although Kurmis have benefited from land reforms as well as the Green Revolution, they are numerically smaller than the Yadavs and have failed to define themselves as a separate political entity.

In the Mandal aftermath, the Kurmis latched on to the Janata Dal. But when that did not take them far, they embraced the BSP hoping to take over the leadership, or at least share an equal place with the Jatavs. That did not happen. Mayavati’s rise in the BSP saw the departure of all its Kurmi heavyweights. Some went to the BJP, others to the Samajwadi Party.

But unable to carve out a niche for themselves in the BJP and the Samajwadi Party, a former BSP leader, Sonelal Patel, floated Apna Dal in 1998.

Rajbhar frankly admitted that while his party did not have too many legislators to speak of, it was effective in doing what the BSP had always done: gobbled up the established base of a mainstream party. He said just as the BSP grew, mainly at the expense of the Congress, Apna Dal would grow at the cost of the BJP.

To prove his point, Rajbhar claimed that in the last Bihar Assembly elections, the BJP-Samata alliance lost primarily because of the Apna Dal’s presence in as many as 200 constituencies. According to him, his party took away between 5,000 and 15,000 Kurmi votes — which would otherwise have gone to Nitish Kumar — in a closely-contested election.

Rajbhar, however, added that the Apna Dal was not a BSP clone. “We don’t give galis to any caste or religion. Our basic belief is that the backward castes, Dalits and minorities, are one and should work together to capture power,” he said.

Apna Dal’s other policies, spelt out in its manifesto, include abolition of private schools and the introduction of a uniform system of education that would create a level playing field for all irrespective of caste and “pedigree”.

Its other demand is that people in top positions — especially the Prime Minister and chief ministers — should relinquish their posts every two years to ensure “everyone gets an equal share of the power cake”.


Gorakhpur, Feb. 20: 
Yogi Adityanath emerges resplendent in his saffron kurta and multiple rudraksha beads. As the heir to one of the most powerful centres of Hinduism — the Gorakhnath Math — enters the serene temple premises for his ritual morning “court”, hordes of devotees dive for his feet.

The 30-year-old “Chhote Maharaj” smiles.

But beneath the tranquillity of the math’s spiritualism lurks an anger that is as tumultuous as it is potentially destructive for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.

In Gorakhpur, the cow is kicking its own calf. The yogi has gone against the BJP, fielding candidates to fight those put up by the party he represents in Parliament.

“I may be a BJP MP from Gorakhpur but I am not owned by the party,” says Adityanath, a science graduate who is pitting all his rationalism and logic to destroy the BJP in the prestigious Gorakhpur seat. “I merely fought on the BJP symbol.”

Adityanath says his only plank and ideology is Hindutva. The yogi is angry with the BJP for rejecting the candidates he had recommended for the last phase of the Assembly elections tomorrow.

He has fielded three candidates who are representing his party, the Hindu Mahasabha. With his powerful backing, all of them are expected to beat their counterparts from the BJP.

In the important Gorakhpur Sadar seat, Adityanath has foisted Radha Mohandas Agarwal against the BJP candidate, rural development minister Shiv Pratap Shukla. The other two, Bechan Ram and Deepak Agarwal, are fighting from Mundera Bazar and Pipraich constituencies in Gorakhpur.

According to Adityanath, the BJP “auctioned off tickets to the highest bidders” and made money at the cost of integrity. “The BJP,” he says, “has given the Mundera Bazar ticket to Shakuntala Devi, who is a first-timer in politics and got the ticket because she shelled out Rs 30 lakh for it.” The yogi is angry because the sitting MLA from Mundra, Bechan Ram, was denied a ticket.

Senior BJP leaders, including state unit chief Kalraj Mishra and chief minister Rajnath Singh, have made several attempts to mollify the yogi, but to no avail.

Shukla, who has won the Sadar seat four times, has been reduced to making whimpering, conciliatory statements. “I have nothing against Yogi Adityanath and I respect him with all my heart,” Shukla says, knowing what he is up against.

Thousands in this belt and in parts of Punjab, Haryana and Nepal blindly follow the Gorakhnath Math’s chief mahant. His word is law here.

Moreover, with Bade Mahant Avaidhyanath, a former BJP MP and chief of the Gorakhnath Trust, publicly backing his successor, the going has only got tougher for the BJP.

Adityanath, however, says his tirade against the BJP should not be seen as a rebellion. “I am just supporting candidates who are clean and honest, unlike Shukla who has links with criminals,” he says.


New Delhi, Feb. 20: 
The budget session beginning on February 25 will conclude on May 17, providing 41 sittings spread over 82 days. The two Houses will adjourn for a short recess of 23 days on March 22 and re-assemble on April 15.

Among the important Bills slated for discussion are the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Bill to replace the Ordinance, the Lok Pal Bill, the Central Vigilance Commission Bill, the Freedom of Information Bill, the Protection from Domestic Violence Bill, the Salaries and Allowances of Officers of Parliament and Leaders of Opposition in Parliament (Amendment) Bill, the Indian Succession (Amendment) Bill and the Passports (Amendment) Bill.

Among other important Bills that have been proposed to be introduced are the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Amendment Bill and the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill.

Union minister for parliamentary affairs, communications and information technology Pramod Mahajan today asked secretaries and senior officials of various government departments to identify the government business for the budget session.

The recess between March 23 and April 14 will enable department-related parliamentary standing committees to examine the demands for grants of various ministries and departments.

Of the 41 sittings, the first part of the session will have 18 and the remaining part will have 23 sittings.

Discussion and voting on demand for grants on account (general) for 2002-03, supplementary demands for grants (general) for 2001-02, demands for excess grants (general) for 1998-99 and demands for grants (general) for 2002-03 will also be taken up during the session.


New Delhi, Feb. 20: 
The Congress today accused Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of “dividing” the country on communal lines, pointing at his reported statement that the BJP could win without getting the votes of the Muslim community.

AICC spokesman Jaipal Reddy said it was not expected of the Prime Minister to speak in such a manner. “He should realise that he is the Prime Minister of the country. His remarks are highly objectionable and fraught with all sorts of dangers,” Reddy said.

He said Vajpayee’s remark had two disturbing undertones:

That Muslims, who are the single-biggest religious minority in the country, are disposable political commodities.

That the BJP could win without Muslim votes, a formulation that would encourage communal tendencies among other communities.

Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, too, lodged a protest asking Vajpayee to withdraw his remarks. Mulayam faxed a letter to President K.R. Narayanan and the chief election commissioner, alleging the Prime Minister had violated the model code of conduct.

In another development, the Congress asked defence minister George Fernandes to disclose the names of those “vested interests” that were blocking the purchase of the Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT).

“The raksha mantri must indicate who these sections are. He must disclose (the) identity of these elements. After all, it involves (the) security of the country,” Reddy said.


Andipatti, Feb. 20: 
Not even the bandobast in a constituency where the Prime Minister is contesting could match that in Andipatti where Jayalalithaa is in the fray.

No less than 5,000 security force personnel have been deployed ahead of tomorrow’s crucial bypoll. Of them, nearly 1,100 are CRPF jawans.

With both the ADMK and DMK accusing each other of trying to foment violence tomorrow, the district administration has banned the use of cellphones within a radius of 200 metres of any of the 216 polling booths in the constituency.

Restrictions have also been imposed on the entry of vehicles.

Sources said this kind of security arrangements were unprecedented for a single bypoll.

Theni district collector Atul Anand and superintendent of police Vanniya Perumal today said that except the returning officer and some key polling officials on duty, stringent action will be taken against anyone found using cellphones in the vicinity of any booth.

“We have made all arrangements for a totally free and peaceful polling,” an official said.

Officials said, for the first time, a nine-member force of six CRPF jawans and three local policemen will guard each polling booth.

Nineteen companies of “striking force” from the Tamil Nadu special police and 17 mobile police parties will be deployed. Eleven superintendents of police and two deputy inspectors-general of police are overseeing the security arrangements.

Anand said activities on polling day would be captured on video. One video-photographer has been assigned the job of covering 10 booths.

Last evening, DMK president M. Karunanidhi alleged that Jayalalithaa had a meeting with top police officials at the bungalow in Theni she was putting up during the campaign period. Karunanidhi said this was very unusual and would send wrong signals to the voters.

But ADMK senior functionary K.A. Sengottaiyan denied the charge immediately after Jayalalithaa reached Chennai yesterday after her campaign.

What has emerged as a side-show to this war of words between DMK and ADMK on poll code violations is a section of the Congress and the Tamil Maanila Congress openly defying their party’s diktat to “boycott” the Andipatti by-election.

Heading this group of dissidents is former Tamil Nadu Congress president K.V. Thangabalu, who appealed to Congressmen to vote for Jayalalithaa in this election.

State Congress chief E.V.K.S. Elangovan promptly served him a showcause notice, but Thangabalu’s refused to budge.

As Andipatti has a very small base of Congress supporters, some were amused by Thangabalu’s “bold statement”. But his move to back Jayalalithaa is threatening to lead to a split in the Congress.


New Delhi, Feb. 20: 
Delhi High Court today cleared a last-minute hurdle that might have blocked Jayalalithaa’s bid to return as Tamil Nadu chief minister after it dismissed a petition seeking cancellation of the Andipatti Assembly byelection.

The ADMK chief’s rival DMK candidate Vaigai Sekar had sought cancellation of the crucial bypoll on grounds that the ADMK government had inserted the names of thousands of bogus voters to ensure her victory.

But the suspense was prolonged as the rival camps had to wait till the fag end of the judicial hour for the verdict of the single-judge bench. Andipatti, a tiny, rural constituency near the city of Madurai, goes to polls tomorrow.

Justice Manmohan Sarin was closeted in his chamber giving final shape to the judgment. No matter was taken up in his court in the pre-lunch session.

As the countdown began after lunch, a few Election Commission officials and some intelligence officers wondered “what to do with the poll arrangements” while the anxious rival camps speculated whether there would be time to move the Supreme Court if the judge stayed the election.

But the judge dismissed the writ petition. He said the election process had started as the poll notification had been issued and the court had no jurisdiction to issue a directive as it was barred under Article 329 (b) of the Constitution.

Justice Sarin also pointed out that the jurisdiction for hearing a petition of this nature was vested with Madras High Court, which had already dismissed a similar petition on the same grounds.

The Madras High Court verdict had a “persuasive effect” on his decision, too, he added.

K.K. Venugopal, Jayalalithaa’s counsel, and the counsel for the Election Commission had also argued along the same lines.

They had contended that between notification and declaration of result, courts were prohibited from intervening in the poll process by the Constitution and cited several Supreme Court decisions to back up their argument.

But Sekar’s counsel P.N. Llekhi said “this bar or ban under the Constitution does not extend to the revision of the electoral rolls”.

He said the petition was on enrolling of bogus voters for which the Election Commission, and not Jayalalithaa, had been made a party.

However, Jayalalithaa had filed an intervener’s petition seeking to implead her as a party, which was earlier granted by the court.


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