Mamata spoils Atal unity show
Hint of respite for govt behind VHP hot words
President’s happy New Year in March
Jury screen slur on Sony
Growth card to trump PWG
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, March 22: 
At the end of a meeting of coalition partners, the National Democratic Alliance sought to project a united front to pass the anti-terror Bill at a joint session of Parliament, but the cracks showed.

Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress, which stayed away from the Lok Sabha when the prevention of terrorism Bill came up for debate and voting, said it would not attend the joint sitting on March 26.

“We have not participated in the debate on the issue in the Lok Sabha and nothing new has happened after that. Therefore, we will not attend the joint session,” Trinamul leader and MP Sudip Bandopadhyay said.

The Bill’s defeat in the Rajya Sabha yesterday brought the rest of the alliance together, though. Its constituents resolved to have it passed with a “resounding” majority at the joint session.

Even the Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and National Conference leader, Farooq Abdullah, pledged his party’s support for the Bill after his MPs abstained from voting yesterday.

The show of solidarity was demonstrated at a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in his residence. That Vajpayee’s strategists were leaving nothing to chance was apparent in their success in adding four new members to the coalition’s tally today.

At the end of an over-three-hour meeting, NDA convener and defence minister George Fernandes said: “The NDA reaffirmed its faith in the common agenda of the NDA, to be implemented with greater vigour under the leadership of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The meeting reasserted that the common agenda is the bulwark of democracy, secularism and political stability in the country.”

The emphasis on the agenda was evidently a quid pro quo for the allies’ backing for the Bill. Parties like Trinamul, Telugu Desam, DMK and the Janata Dal offshoots had pressured Vajpayee not to stray from the agenda.

Mamata and Abdullah, who used the strongest language, attacked the VHP and the Bajrang Dal. Mamata’s outburst triggered a sharp response from finance minister Yashwant Sinha and Fernandes. Sinha said: “You keep criticising the budget.”

Mamata was accused of “creating an NDA within the NDA” in reference to a meeting earlier in the day of some of the allies.

Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan and labour minister Sharad Yadav tried to calm them down, but at one point Mamata walked out of the meeting. Abdullah and coal minister Ram Vilas Paswan coaxed her back from an adjacent room where Mamata had parked herself. By the time, however, the discussion on the Bill was over.

Later, asked if Trinamul would support the Bill, Fernandes simply said: “It was an NDA decision”.

Home minister L.K. Advani explained that the anti-terror Ordinance was not used selectively against Muslims in Gujarat, as alleged. Fernandes quoted Advani as saying: “The invocation of Poto in Godhra was made at the instance of the local administration. However, as soon as this came to the knowledge of the home minister, he directed that those arrested in Godhra be booked under the same law as those arrested elsewhere in the state.”

Advani also assured the meeting that there would no asthi yatra by the VHP with the ashes of the Godhra victims.

Key allies — Mamata and Bandopadhyay of Trinamul, Yerran Naidu of TDP, Raghunath Jha (Samata Party), Jainarain Prasad Nishad (Paswan’s Lok Janashakti), Ali Mohammed Naik (National Conference) and Sushil Kumar Indora of the INLD — had a separate meeting earlier in the day.

The allies authorised Mamata to take up the issue with Vajpayee at the NDA meeting. Bandopadhyay was appointed spokesman for the group that demanded a ban on the asthi yatra.

Fernandes and Mahajan went to work on some of the coalition partners. Mahajan knocked on the door of Desam chief N. Chandrababu Naidu for support for the anti-terror law. Naidu reiterated his party’s backing.

Mahajan complained about Yerran Naidu attending the allies’ meeting today. “He (Chandrababu Naidu) told me that he did not authorise Yerran Naidu,” sources said quoting Mahajan.


Ayodhya, March 22: 
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad today announced the next phase of its Ram temple agitation, but the programme did not appear to hold the threat of an immediate crisis for the Vajpayee government.

High on belligerence, the VHP said after an introspection over two days that the objective of the “second and most crucial phase” of the movement would be to secure what it believes to be the birthplace of Ram.

There were also indications that the plan to tour the country with the ashes of victims of the Godhra massacre had been given a quiet burial with the leadership pretending that it never had any such intention in the first place.

The “birthplace of Ram Lalla is non-negotiable”, the VHP declared, striking a pose of aggression that many within the outfit and in the sadhu samaj had accused it of losing.

Senior leader Pravin Togadia said: “Our earlier agitation focused on performing a puja at the undisputed site, the second phase of our movement will be to ensure that we get back the sanctum sanctorum where Lord Ram resides and also the 67 acres around it which we have been demanding. It will be non-negotiable.”

What this meant was not immediately clear, but it did not seem as if the VHP was going back on its word to abide by the Supreme Court verdict on the Ramjanmabhoomi dispute.

“We will wait for the court’s final order, we will also carry on with the dialogue process out of court,” Togadia said.

In a written statement, the VHP said the thrust of its next phase of agitation would be to get Parliament to enact a legislation that will hand over the land to it. “We will put pressure on Parliament and political parties to pass this legislation.”

It has worked out a three-pronged plan to get all Ram bhakts moving. There will be “Ram naam japs” every day in centres all around the country. Second, weekly sankirtans will be organised in “lakhs of villages till the temple is constructed”. Last, the Purna Ahuti Yagna, which will continue in Ayodhya till June 2, will be “carried on and spread” in the rest of the country.

Emerging from the “introspection meet”, Togadia said that while in 1986 the VHP had taken out the Ramjanki Rath Yatra and followed it up with a shila puja in 1989 and kar seva three years later, topping it off with the shila daan on March 15 this year, there were always moments of lull.

“From now onwards the temple movement will go on without any break or hindrance and it will go on continuously till the Ram temple finally comes up in Ayodhya,” he added.

On reports of a planned asthi kalash yatra — with ashes of Godhra victims — Togadia said: “We never announced it, neither did we talk to the press about it.”

“But the furore it has raised in Parliament has given us some food for thought. If they think it is such a big issue, maybe we can think about it. The pseudo-secular forces have inspired us.”

If that seemed like a respite for the government, there was no let-up in the criticism. “The BJP gave up Ram and look what happened to it in the elections,” Togadia said. “It was routed and I will go so far as to say that it has not just lost its support, but has got its base cracked. And after the base starts cracking, it is just a matter of time before the edifice crumbles.”

“The Hindu backlash began with the massive electoral defeat of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh,” Togadia said. “Soon there will be an absolute polarisation on the issue of Ram temple and it will herald changes in the country never witnessed before.”


Washington, March 22: 
When some of the heads of state in republics far, far away from India received New Year wishes from President K.R. Narayanan this month, they gasped in surprise.

Not even the first quarter of the year 2002 was over and India’s Rashtrapati was already wishing them a happy 2003?

Oh no, a more careful look at the cards, signed personally by Narayanan and first lady Usha, revealed — and then the expressions of several Presidents across the world changed from surprise to amusement — it was Narayanan’s New Year greetings for this year!

Believe it or not, the cards reached presidential palaces in many countries only a few days ago.

No one in particular is to blame for this fiasco. It is the way the “system” in Rashtrapati Bhavan and South Block works.

Indeed, a presidential aide in one Latin American country told The Telegraph on telephone that this is not the first year that such a foul-up has occurred on the part of New Delhi.

Every year, New Year cards for heads of state are signed by the President, after which his secretariat sends these cards to the ministry of external affairs.

South Block’s protocol department then despatches them to the ministry’s section which handles diplomatic bags. Given the slow way this process moves, with everything done manually, including documentation, this part of the operation alone could take a couple of weeks, though Rashtrapati Bhavan and South Block are just a stone’s throw from each other.

The cards are then sent by diplomatic bags to Indian embassies across the world. It could take up to three weeks for these bags to reach their destination.

A diplomatic bag that is not classified as “Category A” sent from the Indian diplomatic post in New York to New Delhi normally takes at least two weeks to reach South Block’s “bag” section.

An official letter sent by a diplomat serving in New York by such a bag to a joint secretary in the ministry could take three weeks to reach the addressee.

The problem with Rashtrapati Bhavan greeting cards has been with countries to which Indian ambassadors have concurrent accreditation. The Indian high commissioner to Nigeria, resident in Lagos, for instance, is concurrently accredited to Benin, Chad and Cameroon.

India has around 120 missions and posts around the world, more than 60 fewer than the number of countries that are members of the UN and engaged in diplomatic contacts with Delhi. So there are scores of concurrent accreditations in the foreign service.

When an Indian ambassador with a concurrent accreditation receives the President’s New Year card meant for that third country, he sends it to that country’s embassy in the city where he is located.

That embassy, in turn, sends Rashtrapati Bhavan’s greetings by diplomatic bag to its foreign ministry. It is a process that could take several weeks. But once the card reaches that foreign ministry, it is again a time-consuming process to get it delivered to the head of state of that country.

Narayanan signed his cards for 2002 in December last year. But the process of getting many of these cards to their addressees has taken three months.

More than one Indian ambassador with concurrent accreditation, who confirmed the fiasco, had a simple question. How do the Presidents of France or Israel, to take two diverse examples, handle this problem?

The answer: they send out the presidential greeting cards as early as September instead of the practice in Rashtrapati Bhavan of waiting till December. After all, a New Year comes every year on a fixed date that is known in advance. No surprises there.


London, March 22: 
Sony, the distributor of Lagaan, India’s hot contender in the best foreign film category at the Oscars, has been accused of trying to fix the prize by restricting screenings for only pro-India members of the Academy, according to The Times newspaper.

In a bizarre twist to the pre-Oscar wars between production houses, Sony, which has two Oscar nominations for best foreign film (Lagaan and Son of the Bride, from Argentina) has been accused of using a Machiavellian strategy — never followed before at the Oscars — of minimising the number of Academy members who can see the film rather than increasing them.

This is the opposite tactic usually employed by studios that spend fortunes on ensuring that as many Academy members see their movie as possible. The Times reported that usually the “mostly geriatric” members, who are entitled to vote for life as long as they have been employed in the business and have seen all the films in the category, are wooed to lavish screenings or bombarded with videotapes or DVDs, often accompanied by a “gift” to ensure that the film is watched and not simply stacked up with the rest.

But in the case of a category like best foreign film, which is usually subtitled, there are no videos or DVDs, which makes the number of people seeing the films small.

While all the other studios with best foreign films nominated have been trying desperately to get Academy voters to see their picture, Sony stands accused of adopting a more sophisticated device, according to the Times.

By deliberately showing its films to a small number of carefully chosen, pro-Argentine or pro-Indian Academy members, it is accused of drastically reducing the numbers who can legitimately vote, thereby increasing significantly their prospects of success. While United Artists is holding 12 Los Angeles screenings of No Man’s Land, Sony is arranging only two and invitations are restricted.

Miramax, which has high hopes for Amelie, took the battle to Sony, suggesting that all the studios hire a hall and run daily back-to-back screenings of their foreign movies to inform and maximise the electorate. This suggestion was rejected by Sony and the other studios.

The report contradicts what Aamir Khan, producer of Lagaan, has been telling the media so far. He and director Ashutosh Gowarikar have spent a month campaigning in Los Angeles for the film and have said the biggest challenge is to get Academy members to come and see it. The British cast, including Rachel Shelley and Paul Blackthorne, have also been in Los Angeles helping with the lobbying.

The final votes closed on March 19. The results will be announced at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on March 24.


Paschim Midnapore, March 22: 
Stung by the growing influence of Naxalites on disgruntled tribals, the district administration has decided to take up special development projects in seven blocks to wean them back into the mainstream.

District magistrate M.V. Rao said comprehensive development projects had been drafted keeping in mind the demands and needs of the tribals.

He said the Paschimanchal Unnayan Samity would provide funds for the projects. The additional money would come from the district’s own coffers.

The project includes building roads, sinking tubewells, setting up primary schools and health centres, rural electrification and digging of irrigation canals.

Seven blocks in the district — Garbeta (three blocks), Salboni, Jamboni, Binpur-I and II — are dominated by tribals. These are also the areas where the PWG is active.

The PWG has wooed a large number of tribals by capitalising on their grievances and backwardness.

PWG activists have convinced the tribals that the armed struggle launched by them was to highlight the lack of development in the seven blocks. The militants have also been urging the tribals to join their outfit for their own benefit.

Realising that the bone of contention was development, the district administration has adopted a two-pronged strategy.

The first step is to start massive development work in the tribal areas. Second, to demolish the PWG dens.

However, the district magistrate denied there was a political motive in the development effort.

“There is no question of politics. We have taken up the special development programme for the benefit of the tribal people. Our major thrust is overall development and employment generation,” he said.

The district administration has also drawn up a plan to improve health care in the area. A number of health check-up camps has been opened in remote areas. Construction of a primary health centre is also on the cards.




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