Heartland on Atal breakfast menu
Mayavati set to regain top slot
Sonia for ‘sane’ temple solution
Congress in clean-funds campaign
Peeved Paswan fires coalition quit salvo
Friends rush to nurse Naipaul ego
Sonia steps into Sangh territory
Sub deal boost to Indo-French ties
Top sleuth transfers trigger row rumours
Curbs on illegal abortions

New Delhi, Feb. 22: 
With a little over 24 hours left for counting of votes to start in Uttar Pradesh, the political scene shifted from Lucknow to the capital with the arrival of chief minister Rajnath Singh and state BJP president Kalraj Mishra this evening.

The leaders will hold a strategy session tomorrow over breakfast with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani. BJP president K. Jana Krishnamurthi, who was recalled from Chennai today, and Kushabhau Thakre, who was in charge of the Uttar Pradesh elections, will also be present.

With the BJP brass accepting the inevitability of a hung Assembly, the session is expected to discuss the various scenarios suggested by the exit poll results, which have come up with different figures, and the party’s own assessment, said sources. The feedback received from the state and intelligence will also provide an important input to the discussions, they added.

The session will decide whether it was “worth” in the party’s long-term interest to repeat the coalition experiment again or sit in the Opposition.

The sources said if the BJP and its present allies got to around 110-120 — as the Doordarshan poll said — the opinion was that they should sit in the Opposition rather than try and cobble together a government. But if the party crossed the 140-mark, they could consider having a shot at it with the help of other allies.

It was also mentioned that Vajpayee’s own estimate was reportedly “conservative” but the state leaders were supposed to revise his figures with a constituency-wise assessment. Mishra was contacting district-level workers to get their feedback.

Rajnath, who was earlier dead against the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), seemed to have climbed down several notches from his position and declared he would abide by “whatever decision is taken by the high command”. He said: “Let us see what political scenario develops. But we will definitely try to form a government.”

Asked about the BSP, he diplomatically answered: “If it comes to that, we will see who extends their hand for an alliance. We will definitely think about it.” Queried specifically again on the BSP, Rajnath said: “Such decisions are best left to the high command. But the matter will be discussed by the Uttar Pradesh unit as well.”

Mishra, who has a good rapport with BSP leader Mayavati, said: “Options are always open. In politics nothing can be ruled out.” But not wanting to be seen as a Mayavati advocate, he added: “But, of course, the BJP would like to have its own chief minister.”

Rajnath, billed as the BJP’s best bet, had the look of a defeated leader. His residence on Ashoka Road was bereft of well-wishers. Apart from a small retinue of officials and cops, there was nobody with the chief minister.

“I tried my level best (as chief minister). I don’t think I could have done better in the short time I was given,” he said.


Lucknow, Feb. 22: 
After playing pied piper, it’s time for political leaders in Uttar Pradesh to play shepherd.

Elections over, all three major parties in the state — the BJP, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party — are busy holding their flocks together, desperately keeping the most vulnerable ones out of the reach of political poachers.

But with exit polls giving the BJP and the Samajwadi a faint chance of cobbling together a majority on their own, all eyes are now rivetted on BSP leader and former chief minister Mayavati.

In any situation, Mayavati will emerge kingmaker, or perhaps, even queen. BSP leaders and prospective winners in the recently concluded elections have gathered in the capital at her express orders.

Sources close to Mayavati said she had prepared a list of “faithful and loyal” candidates. The group, BSP leaders said, has held two rounds of discussions on the post-poll scenario with senior members of the party.

Behenji, as Mayavati is often addressed as by partymen, has been chief minister twice — once for a five-month period in 1995 and then for six months two years later — and is familiar with the intrigues that can once again catapult her to the top. Moreover, this time, she doesn’t need exit polls to tell her that her party has fared well and will add quite a few numbers to her 1997 tally of 67 legislators. She is expected to garner around 80 to 90 seats, a formidable chunk in the sorely fractured mandate the election results are bound to throw up.

In case of a hung Assembly, Mayavati’s role will be vital. Assaults, however, are being made, tactically and otherwise. A BJP leader has gone to the extent of saying that 35 of Mayavati’s men will change sides when the need arises as “they were planted in the BSP by the BJP”.

The Samajwadi, too, is making similar claims, saying at least 20 BSP legislators will switch loyalties to Samajwadi chief Mulayam Singh Yadav.

The BSP dismissed these claims as “fantasies”.

“We know and realise our importance in the rapidly changing scenario,” a BSP leader said, adding that this time, no one will be able to engineer a split in the BSP. The party had spilt in 1997 on the issue of providing support to the Kalyan Singh government. The BSP’s strength came down to 50 after that.

Despite her resilience, Mayavati will have to do much more than hold her flock together if she is to be a part of the government formation process.


New Delhi, Feb. 22: 
Congress president Sonia Gandhi today asked Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to call an all-party meeting and consolidate the opinion of all “sane elements” to tackle the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s periodic threats.

In a letter to Vajpayee, Sonia said parties across the political spectrum wanted the decision on the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya to be left to the courts. “I am sure you are aware of the developments taking place in Ayodhya and you must be also aware of the anxiety of all secular forces in the country on this issue. The plans being announced by the VHP are adding to this concern,” she wrote.

“It would be in the fitness of things that you kindly convene an all-party meeting at the earliest and consolidate the opinions of all sane elements. There seems to be a convergence of opinion across the political spectrum in the country that the Ayodhya issue must be left to the courts to give a final verdict,” the letter further said.

Congress spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy fielded questions from reporters who wanted to know if Sonia, who has gone to Dighauri in Madhya Pradesh, would take up the temple issue at the meeting of the Sankaracharyas beginning today. Reddy said Sonia has gone to attend the 78th birthday celebrations of Swami Swaroopananda, the Sankaracharya of Dwarka, and would not take up the temple issue.

“Swami Swaroopananda is a family friend of the Gandhis for the last five decades. A personal invitation was extended to Sonia Gandhi. She went there in response to the invitation. It has nothing to do with any issue,” Reddy said. The spokesperson added that in the “view of the Congress”, the solution to the Ayodhya issue could “only be through courts”.

The brain behind the Dharam Sansad is said to be Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh. Apart from Swami Swaroopananda, Sankaracharya of Kanchi Swami Jayendra Saraswati, Puri Sankaracharya Swami Nischalananda and the Sankaracharya of Sharada Peeth in Karnataka are attending the meeting.

VHP nod to mosque

The VHP today said it will allow construction of a mosque outside the parikrama marg but will not accept it being called Babri mosque.

“We will wait till March 12 for the Prime Minister to resolve the issue and will go ahead with our temple construction programme from March 15,” VHP president Ashok Singhal said.


New Delhi, Feb. 22: 
The Congress is looking for friends — people who will each fork out Rs 10,000 a year to create a Rs 500-crore corpus over a five-year period.

The move is part of its drive to bring about transparency, accountability and integrity in the financing of political parties.

It has set up a committee on party finances that will launch a campaign to identify one lakh people — banded together as the “Friends of Congress” — who will be prepared to cough up Rs 10,000 a year.

The party expects to collect Rs 50-100 crore annually through this drive; the corpus is expected to swell to Rs 500 crore over a five-year period.

In addition, the Congress plans to create an election fund corpus by asking applicants for party tickets to fork out money under a pre-determined formula — Rs 10,000 for a Lok Sabha ticket, Rs 5,000 for a Vidhan Sabha ticket and Rs 1,000 for local body elections.

There will be another election fund created out of contributions to be solicited from companies and the general public.

Speaking at a seminar on party and election finances, organised here today by the Confederation of Indian Industry, Congress leader Manmohan Singh said all contributions would have to be made by cheque.


Patna, Feb. 22: 
Union minister for coal Ramvilas Paswan today threatened to quit the National Democratic Alliance, peeved at the way the BJP treated him in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh polls.

The Lok Janashakti Party chief alleged that he was marginalised during the distribution of seats among NDA partners ahead of the heartland polls. Paswan’s party had just eight seats to contest. “We wanted more to help (the) NDA have a brighter prospect at the hustings,” he said at a news conference here.

In future, Paswan said, Lok Janashakti would “contest polls alone in every state, irrespective of consequences”.

However, though Paswan ruled out any truck with the ruling alliance at the Centre, he said he would not snap ties with the NDA.

The Union minister alleged that the BJP had tried to help the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) consolidate Backward votes by denying him more seats. “The BJP has helped the backward votes to be consolidated in favour of Mayavati. Had we got more seats, we could have made inroads into BSP bastions,” he said.

It is premature to predict the poll outcome, Paswan said but added that there were indications Mayavati may form the Uttar Pradesh government with the BJP’s support.

The Lok Janashakti would be dictated by its own policies and not the NDA’s, Paswan said, even if it meant helping Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar. “I don’t care what happens but I will be on my own,” he said.

According to political observers here, Paswan was upset with the way he was treated by the BJP over the past six months.

First, he was stripped of the telecom ministry and given coal. Moreover, at a time when he was trying to consolidate his position in Uttar Pradesh by taking a slice of the Backward castes votes, the BJP offered him only eight seats.

The rumour mill is abuzz that Paswan would take up his case after the results in Uttar Pradesh are declared and might even threaten to quit the ministry.

However, another section feels he is issuing threats to the NDA to secure better deals in future.

Railway minister Nitish Kumar’s growing proximity with the Prime Minister and his not inviting Paswan to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s meeting in Patna irked the coal minister even more.

There is no poll around the corner and Paswan’s threats would have no consequence, said a senior BJP leader.


New Delhi, Feb. 22: 
A day after V.S. Naipaul made mincemeat of fellow authors at the Neemrana conclave, he had his ego massaged by “friends and admirers” at a meet in New Delhi.

“A Journey Without Maps”, a conversation between Naipaul and his friends and admirers, was turned into a platform to eulogise the Nobel laureate.

Tarun Tejpal, of Tehelka fame, gave a run through of Naipaul’s career.

UK-based writer Farrukh Dhondy spoke of Naipaul’s first book on India, An Area of Darkness.

He said that while the book had shocked Indian readers, he had learnt much from it. The scales fell from his eyes and India was revealed without a veil.

David Pryce-Jones, literary editor of National Review in New York, spoke about Naipaul’s tragic and comic vision.

Another friend and well-wisher, Khushwant Singh, was on the panel but did not turn up for the “conversation” in the main auditorium of India Habitat Centre.

Naipaul answered questions fielded to him in his well-modulated, sonorous voice. Adopting a magisterial tone, he spoke of his life and times, of culture and history.

But no uncomfortable questions were allowed. Tejpal carefully screened the queries before they were fielded to the Nobel laureate. Yesterday’s kerfuffle was quietly brushed under the carpet.

Elaborating on an earlier statement where he acknowledged the place of India in his life, Naipaul said the country had helped to shape him. He spoke about his ancestry in India and how his cultural concerns have been shaped by this country.

He referred to the touch of comedy in his early writing as the work of a “untutored, hysteric young man that I was”. Later, his concerns grew larger and larger.

Naipaul said he could never write on a subject unless he knew it well. Like Forster, he could not write about a tea-party and make you think it was a book on India, Naipaul said, refusing to pass up an opportunity to slam another writer.

The ICCR’s literary fest, At Home in the World, had its fair share of fireworks. This morning, the mild-mannered New York-based writer Amitav Ghosh crossed swords with Italian Roberto Calasso.

When Calasso advised Indian writers to look into their own myths and legends for their texts, Ghosh broke in. “I don’t want to hear such drivel,” he said.

Ghosh told Calasso to advise Italian writers rather than Indians on what to write, saying they probably needed more help. After the outburst, Ghosh was nowhere to be seen for the rest of the day.


Bhopal, Feb. 22: 
Draped in a yellow saree, worn by Hindu women during auspicious rites, Sonia Gandhi today took part in a religious ceremony that could symbolise the beginning of the Congress’ challenge to the Sangh parivar as the self-appointed spokesman for Hindus.

With the blessing of three Sankaracharyas, and accompanied by three Congress chief ministers, Sonia attended the mahaabhishek for the world’s first and largest crystal shivling, installed on February 15 at Dighauri.

About 400 km from Bhopal in southeast Madhya Pradesh, this is the birthplace of Swami Swaroopananda Saraswati, the Sankaracharya of Dwarka and Badrika Peeths.

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh had invited the Prime Minister to participate in the mahaabhishek but he chose to keep away.

A magnificent temple named Sri Guru Ratneshwar Mahadev has been built here on a 300-acre plot in Seoni district on the banks of the river Benganga.

The Sankaracharya of Kanchi Kamkoti, Jayendra Saraswati, was present on the day of the installation. The Sankaracharya of Puri, Swami Nishchalananda, later visited the temple.

Sonia landed around 1 pm. Seeking the blessings of Swami Swaroopananda, she performed the mahaabhishek, washing the 55-kg crystal shivling with holy water brought from different places of pilgrimage, milk, ghee and honey. Her puja lasted over half-an-hour.

Digvijay, Ajit Jogi, Vilasrao Deshmukh, Kamal Nath, Motilal Vohra and other Congress leaders followed suit.

Sonia and her partymen then joined the ongoing dharma sabha on the temple premises and held meetings with the dharmacharyas and sought their blessings.

She held a separate half-hour meeting with Sankaracharya Swaroopananda.

“No religion teaches man to differentiate one from another. Adi Sankaracharya had taught us this. Lifestyle, religion, language, traditions, cultures may be different in India but this country is everybody’s home and everyone belongs to this country,” the Congress president said in her speech at the meet, which was attended by religious heads of other communities as well.

“Dighauri is the sacred birthplace of Sankaracharya Swaroopananda. Adi Sankaracharya had also come to Dighauri and delivered a secular message for the unity of this country,” she said.

In a direct appeal of support in the battle against the VHP, which has upped the Ayodhya ante, the Congress president said: “Because there is violence and disturbance prevailing in the country today, people are looking forward to sants, priests and religious heads for guidance. However, there are those who are using the concept of religion to spread hatred. Our religious leaders should save us from these people and political parties too.”

The response was encouraging. Sankaracharya Swaroopananda said he was pleased that Sonia had come to Dighauri and that she is doing well, “following her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi’s footsteps”. He asked her to keep serving the country. All the dharmacharyas present blessed her: “Shakti aur bhakti prapt ho”.


New Delhi, Feb. 22: 
India and France are set to clinch a deal on the supply of submarines to the Indian navy, re-affirming a military cooperation that got a boost after the 1998 Pokhran blast that Paris did not condemn.

A Franco-Spanish product, the Scorpene submarines, has been in the negotiation for a decade and now look set to be signed. No detail on the deal was forthcoming from either the French or the Indian side.

“Our relations with India rest on three pillars,” said French ambassador Bernard de Montferrand. “Strategic dialogue, military cooperation and cooperation in the field of armaments. This is not a partial cooperation. It is consistent and comprehensive.

“We have a made a long term commitment to India that did not waver even after sanctions imposed by the western nations,” said de Montferrand.

The Scorpene has been jointly developed by the French company, DCN, and the Spanish firm, Izar — both represented at Defexpo 2002.

DCN is exhibiting a model of the submarine that reveals its cross-section. It has six torpedo tubes and a total payload of 18 torpedoes. The submarine will need a crew of 31.

A DCN official said the Scorpene has two versions, one with the air independent propulsion system (Aips) — a separate chamber in the submarine that allows it to stay underwater for an extended period. The other is without the Aips and slightly shorter in length. It is not known which version India is going for or, indeed, if it is going for both.

The signing of the Scorpene deal, when it finally comes through, will break a deadlock for the Indian navy. Its submarine building programme had been practically junked since its deal on the German HDW submarines in the 1980s was dogged by scandal.

But the navy is said to have been working on designing and the agreement with DCN is likely to incorporate a proviso for joint construction of three Scorpene class submarines while supplying six. The entire deal, according to unconfirmed reports, could total $800 million.

DCN has also been supplying Scorpene submarines to the Chilean, Portuguese and Malaysian navies.


New Delhi, Feb. 22: 
Three top sleuths of the Central Bureau of Investigation have been told to return to their parent cadre despite a request from bureau director P.C. Sharma to allow them to continue for another year.

The transfer orders came at a time when Sharma is away in Colombo for the Asian regional meeting of Interpol. He is expected back here late tonight.

Official sources said the Cabinet committee on appointments, chaired by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, turned down the recommendations that the three officers — M.S. Bali, Neeraj Kumar and J.K. Dutt — be allowed to continue.

They said the director’s reluctance to let Bali and Dutt go was inexplicable, but conceded that his plea for another year’s extension for Kumar, joint director, economic offences, was justified.

Kumar is leading the team probing Aftab Ansari, prime accused in last month’s attack on policement outside Calcutta’s American Center.

He had escorted Ansari back from Dubai and was probing the don’s links with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and Omar Sheikh, the man said to have lured slain US journalist Daniel Pearl to his abductors.

The transfers have triggered murmurs of internecine rivalry between two government departments, with CBI officers claiming that the Central Board of Excise and Customs was hitting back at the men responsible for exposing its corrupt officers.

Joint director Bali was responsible for exposing former customs chief B.P. Verma. Dutt, joint director, administration, is from the West Bengal cadre.

Sources, however, dismissed rumours of shadow boxing between government agencies. They said all three officers have been with the CBI beyond the regular seven-year tenure allowed.

“Everything was done aboveboard. The entire process took about one-and-a-half months and all concerned knew that the … requested by Sharma would not be granted,” the sources said.

Black-money raids

In perhaps the first ever such drive, hundreds of CBI sleuths today searched premises of government officials across the country in a bid to unearth black money, including that derived from criminal links, according to a PTI report. Initial reports suggest that black money worth lakhs of rupees have been seized, agency sources said.


New Delhi, Feb. 22: 
Quacks and unauthorised abortion clinics — watch out!

After “allowing” them to mushroom for over two decades, the government is now tightening the screws on quacks who have been carrying out abortions in backroom clinics without even the pretence of following safety norms, says our special correspondent.

The Cabinet today gave the go-ahead to amend the 28-year-old Medical Termination Pregnancy Act to check the growing number of unsafe abortions that account for more than 10 per cent of the country’s maternal deaths.

“Although MTP was legalised about three decades ago, it is a fact illegal abortions still outnumber legal abortions by a wide margin,” said a Cabinet note.

One of the proposed amendments seeks to make illegal abortions a punishable offence. “This is necessary since the Indian Penal Code was laid down at a time when abortion was not legal and was therefore without specific penal provisions. This has prevented the MTP from having any teeth,” the Cabinet stressed. It proposes delegating authority to a district-level committee, headed by a chief medical or district health officer, to sanction the setting up of an abortion clinic.

Health and family welfare ministry officials say the MTP is violated with impunity. According to the Act, clinics are supposed to keep a record of all abortions — but the register is always clean.

The amendments are primarily aimed at taking care of women from low-income groups who have little option and no resources to go to proper clinics. “We are aware that illegal clinics are flourishing in the alleys of Delhi. There are hundreds of small hoardings announcing ‘safe abortions’ — it is so common that it cannot escape anybody’s notice,” says a woman activist.

The clinics are growing because there are no checks to ensure whether they have the medical wherewithal to carry out abortions — and also because there is a huge demand, say officials. “As long as males resist contraception women will have to knock on the doors of unsafe abortion clinics,” says Sabu George, another activist.


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