Betrayed Mamata loses old hand to Congress
Light after 54 years
Hot spring find fuels tourism plan
Beaten BJP readies for soul-search
Sangh wing to cash in on Delhi rout
President in Holi peace plea
Jaya seeks Atal pill for cash-starved states
Atal heads east, again
Bill lesson for President poll
RSS leader stabbed

 
 
BETRAYED MAMATA LOSES OLD HAND TO CONGRESS 
 
 
OUR BUREAU
 
Calcutta, March 29: 
First, it was the four “betrayers”. Today, Mamata Banerjee received another jolt with former Union minister Debi Prasad Pal rejoining his parent party, the Congress.

The Trinamul leader, who had earlier claimed she had identified the four MLAs who had cross-voted for the Congress in the Rajya Sabha polls, today launched a fresh hunt for the “recalcitrant” legislators.

If the feeling was one of urgency and desperation in the Trinamul camp, the Congress could barely hide its glee.

Welcoming Pal, who had won from Calcutta north-west Lok Sabha constituency thrice since 1989, state Congress president Pranab Mukherjee and former PCC chief Somen Mitra said they were “happy” the former minister had returned to the party.

Pal — who had won on a Congress ticket — said he had made a mistake by joining Trinamul. “I had spoken to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and she was very keen on my return,” Pal said.

Mukherjee, however, used the opportunity to urge Mamata to quit the NDA and lead the Trinamul-Congress combine.

But Mamata was busy putting her house in order. Trinamul sources said she had spoken to some MLAs who had joined her party at the time of the May polls and quizzed them about their voting.

She also decided to start a probe by some of her key men to see if the “suspects” had any “clandestine links” with suspended party MP Ajit Panja.

“Besides, Mamata has planned a one-on-one session with those whom she suspected of cross-voting. This is necessary to ensure that those who are innocent are not brought to book,” said a Trinamul leader. He said a general body meeting will be convened to announce the party’s decision on the “errant” MLAs.

   

 
 
LIGHT AFTER 54 YEARS 
 
 
BY DEBASHIS CHATTOPADHYAY
 
Calcutta, March 29: 
It took 54 long years since Independence for electricity to travel to Basanti, the gateway to the Sunderbans, just 98 km away from the city.

For the over 25,000 villagers in this last human habitat on Bengal’s mainland in South 24-Parganas, life will be different after chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee inaugurates the supply station on April 2.

The chief minister had made a detailed inquiry about the progress of work on the electrification of the village when he visited the Sunderbans in January to inaugurate the Ban Bibi mela.

Bidhubhusan Mondal, the saha-sabhadhipati of the zilla parishad, said: “At that time, the chief minister had asked the authorities concerned to ensure that the electrification of the village is completed quickly.”

Basanti, apart from being the gateway to the Sunderbans, is a major tourist attraction with the flora and fauna of the region drawing thousands of tourists every year.

Moreover, a number of fishermen use this region as a major trading centre.

Under the electrification project, power will be drawn from the state electricity board’s Jibantala sub-station in Canning, about 40 km from Basanti.

The supply will cover eight mouzas, including Dhuri, Amjhara, Kanthalberia, Bhangan Khali, Narayantala, Uttar Mokambari and Uttar Sonakhali.

Though, initially, only villagers of Basanti will benefit from the power supply, gradually more adjoining villages will be provided electricity under the scheme.

“The whole project will cost around Rs 6 crore. We have also plans to supply power to the other side of the river Hogol,” said Bijon Bairagi, zilla parishad member-in-charge of the electricity department.

“We are waiting for the completion of a bridge across the river as its lower portion can be used for transmission purpose,” Bairagi added.

   

 
 
HOT SPRING FIND FUELS TOURISM PLAN 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Asansol, March 29: 
After Bakreswar in Birbhum, the second natural hot spring in the state has been discovered at Panifala, about 15 km from here. The state tourism department and the Burdwan zilla parishad have taken up the project to develop the area into a prime tourist destination.

Tourism minister Dinesh Dakua will open the spring to the public on Sunday.

The administration plans to set up an eco-park, tourist cottages, a lake with boating facilities and a children’s park.

Ramkrishna Banerjee, sabhadhipati of the Burdwan zilla parishad, said: “The new project will provide employment to villagers. We are also trying to start pisciculture in the nearby lake and horticulture around the area.”

He added that the Panifala-Nirala-Ushna Prasraban has been developed over five acres. Banerjee said the tourism project would also involve private participation.

Bolpur water plant

People in Bolpur will taste specially-treated drinking water from next month. The state government has set up a modern water-treatment plant at Muluk near here, which will be inaugurated by the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, on Sunday.

The project, a brainchild of CPM MP Somnath Chatterjee, has been implemented with German assistance at a cost of Rs 95 crore. Germany provided 70 per cent of the cost besides technical expertise. The public health engineering department contributed the remaining 30 per cent. The plant has the capacity to filter and supply nearly 19 million litres of water daily.

   

 
 
BEATEN BJP READIES FOR SOUL-SEARCH 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, March 29: 
As Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee left for Nainital after weathering a series of crises — from Gujarat to a stormy Parliament session and the Delhi civic poll rout — his BJP colleagues informally started discussing ways to restore the party’s image and prevent it from going the “way of (the) Congress in 1991”.

The Goa national executive, slated to take place from April 12 to 14, is expected to see a “frank and threadbare” discussion on why things went wrong for the BJP and take stock of its chances in the next Lok Sabha elections.

Former chief minister Sahib Singh Verma resigned yesterday from the post of BJP vice-president in the wake of the Delhi civic poll debacle.

Verma, a Lok Sabha MP from Outer Delhi, attributed the “humiliating” defeat to the Union budget, Ayodhya and the Gujarat violence, instead of anti-incumbency sentiments despite the BJP being in control of the municipal corporation for five years.

Verma referred specifically to the widespread resentment among the salaried class against reduced tax exemptions. His allegation was, however, disputed by finance minister Yashwant Sinha, who argued that “popularity and the finance minister are contradictory terms”.

The party’s central functionaries privately said if tough measures had to be introduced in an unfriendly economic climate, the exercise should have been “sugar-coated and packaged well” to make it “palatable”. However, BJP sources said the economic resolution that would be adopted at the Goa executive is not expected to openly criticise Sinha’s budget because of the undeclared decision not to attack the government in party fora.

On Gujarat, too, party sources felt “bad” governance could neutralise the “political gains” that could be got from the communal violence. “(Chief minister Narendra) Modi should not have behaved like an Opposition leader. His job was to govern and not to let things get out of hand, deliberately or unwittingly,” said a national executive member about the attacks on Muslims.

The “feel good” sentiments on Gujarat have become diluted with reports of the economy taking a turn for the worse and even Hindu businessmen suffering severe losses. “Emotions seldom last for months or even weeks. More so in Gujarat, where people let their heads rule them as much as their hearts. So, by the time elections (scheduled in 2003) are held, the issue may not be Hindu consolidation as much as bad administration,” said a BJP functionary.

Delhi, for long a BJP bastion, was expected to put to test the so-called Hindu consolidation the party thought it had achieved after the Godhra carnage. “The debacle shows how wrong we were,” sources said.

They maintained that Vajpayee’s remarks last Wednesday distancing himself from the RSS-VHP brand of Hindutva was a “gut-level” reaction to the feeling that religious aggression may not pay off electorally. Sources said the Goa session would also discuss whether the party should indulge the VHP and the Bajrang Dal.

   

 
 
SANGH WING TO CASH IN ON DELHI ROUT 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, March 29: 
The BJP’s rout in the Delhi municipal polls could strengthen the hands of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh in its fight against the Vajpayee government’s economic policies.

Several BJP leaders have blamed the budget of finance minister Yashwant Sinha — the BMS’ bete noire — for their party’s wipe-out in the civic polls, an allegation the trade union wing of the RSS is likely to make the most of. Some BJP leaders have openly said that voters switched to the Congress after Sinha presented his budget that rubbed everyone the wrong way. They appeared to be echoing the BMS leaders’ foreboding on the government’s “disastrous” economic policies, particularly the government’s recent decision to offer voluntary retirement scheme to employees.

Till recently, the BMS — and to an extent the Swadeshi Jagran Manch — were the lonely crusaders within the Sangh parivar against the liberalisation policies of the BJP government. The RSS chose to gloss over economic issues at its Bangalore session. Manch and BMS representatives also played along with the general mood.

“The government’s economic agenda was not discussed at all because the whole focus was on the ideological plank,” said BMS leader Hansubhai Dave, who was a delegate at the annual meeting. Dave said one of the resolutions only carried a passing reference to economic policies.

Though the Manch appears to have toned down its swadeshi rhetoric, the BMS is not easing the tempo. The outfit has taken on the responsibility of getting the Congress-sponsored Intuc to join the general strike planned by all trade unions next month.

“We will meet Intuc president Sanjeev Reddy to make him agree to join the strike. We are hoping to paralyse the entire nation on April 16,” Dave said.

The BMS seems to have found an ally in the Shiv Sena — an NDA partner — on economic issues. BMS leaders believe the Sena is mounting pressure on the government to put the labour law reforms on the back-burner. The Sena’s own trade union has been participating in almost every joint trade union action.

The BMS, however, is not hopeful of getting the government to undo its labour law reforms in full. But it believes the BJP’s rout in the Assembly elections followed by the crushing defeat in the Delhi civic polls will give the BMS enough ammunition to force the government to backtrack on some of its policies.

The proposed strike on April 16 is to protest against labour law reforms, privatisation of industrial units and VRS for government employees.

   

 
 
PRESIDENT IN HOLI PEACE PLEA 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, March 29: 
President K.R. Narayanan has spoken out on Gujarat for the first time, choosing the customary greetings on Holi to express his anguish at the continued violence.

“At this moment, when communal disturbances are taking place in parts of our country, it is important that we summon our traditional spirit of tolerance in order to establish peace and harmony among our people.”

Like Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi, Narayanan did not celebrate Holi because of the trouble in Gujarat.

The President said the festival of colours has been an abiding symbol of communal harmony. “It is symbolic of the multi-religious harmony that has existed in the country for centuries and the spirit of tolerance that has been the essence of the country’s culture and civilisation.”

Rashtrapati Bhavan sources said the head of the state has been greatly exercised over the state government’s failure to protect innocent lives in Gujarat. He was looking for an opportunity to make a public statement without kicking off a controversy. Holi offered one.

The presidential elections are slated for July this year. Narayanan’s prospects for getting a second term depend largely on his rapport with the ruling NDA coalition as well as the Opposition as he has made it clear that he would accept the job if both sides back him.

Sources close to Narayanan, however, asserted that the question of a second term was irrelevant to his statement on Gujarat. “The President would much prefer to lead a retired, private life than be a mute spectator to the inhuman and uncivilised orgy of violence in Gujarat,” said a source close to Narayanan.

He said Narayanan’s criticism should be seen in the context of his frustration with a polarised polity. “What he is saying is that violence of this magnitude has no place in a civil society. He wants the political class to stop viewing the Gujarat carnage from a partisan, political angle. And lastly, he deeply resents the state’s apathy. It is now for the executive to take corrective steps,” a Narayanan associate said, summing up the spirit behind the Holi greetings.

In the past few days, Narayanan has received many delegations that presented a grim picture of Gujarat. According to those who met him in recent days, the President seemed dissatisfied with the measures taken by the Centre and the state government to restore normality in Gujarat.

   

 
 
JAYA SEEKS ATAL PILL FOR CASH-STARVED STATES 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Chennai, March 29: 
Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa has urged Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to convene a meeting of all chief ministers to “work out a common agenda for reforms and development”.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, the ADMK chief said several states were in dire need of “special financial assistance packages” to tide over their fiscal crises. Tamil Nadu has sought Vajpayee’s sanction for a Rs 3,000-crore aid package.

Jayalalithaa drew Vajpayee’s attention to the “declining fiscal health” of many state governments. This, she said, would not only “derail the entire gamut of economic and fiscal reforms being pursued by the Union government, but also prevent us from being able to meet even the basic needs of our people”.

Stating that the Centre’s decision to implement the recommendations of the Fifth Pay Commission had compelled most states to follow suit, the ADMK leader said: “This has resulted in an unbearable strain on the finances of the state governments.”

Jayalalithaa said Tamil Nadu’s problems had been compounded by the sharp decline in the collection of Central taxes this year, which had resulted in a corresponding drop in the devolution of taxes to the state.

The Centre’s decision to compensate this loss by allowing additional open market borrowing was “too little and too late”, she pointed out. Therefore the need of the hour was to jointly “take stock of the situation before our financial problems spiral out of control”, Jayalalithaa added.

Rural unemployment is on the rise in Tamil Nadu despite the implementation of a number of welfare schemes, the chief minister said, adding that unless unemployment is tackled, social discontent will increase. She stressed that the Centre’s economic and fiscal reforms programmes require participation by the states.

Jayalalithaa lauded Union finance minister Yashwant Sinha’s announcement of numerous reforms-linked devolutions to states in his latest budget. However, she added: “I do not know how far cash-starved state governments will be able to take advantage of this announcement.”

The decision to devolve the entire small-savings collections to states was welcome, the ADMK chief said, but the gains “may not be real because of the reduction in the rates of small-saving instruments”.

Jayalalithaa urged the Centre to consider evolving a “united grants package for states to enable them to overcome the present financial crisis”.

   

 
 
ATAL HEADS EAST, AGAIN 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, March 29: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee will leave for a four-day official tour of Cambodia and Singapore on April 7, in what appears to be a sign of the growing closeness between India and Southeast Asian countries.

Vajpayee, who was to have left for Australia to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meet last month, had cancelled his trip at the last minute because of the Gujarat communal violence and the Ayodhya temple crisis.

Despite the pro-western tag, this will be Vajpayee’s fifth visit to Southeast Asia in less than one-and-a-half years. Last year, he had visited Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia and is also scheduled to visit the region a few more times before the year ends.

“It is a clear indication of the importance that India attaches to Southeast Asia and the respect and admiration that it gets in turn from the key nations in the region,” a senior South Block official said. Cambodia is the current chairperson of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) — one of the most important groupings in the region. Singapore, one of the biggest foreign investors in Southeast Asia, is one of its key members.

Besides the bilateral aspect of Vajpayee’s visit, the trip is significant because of the forthcoming India-Asean Summit at the end of this year. The proposal for the summit was given in January last year in Vietnam and the alacrity with which the Asean members have responded to the idea is a clear signal of the importance they attach to relations with India.

The announcement of the summit was made by Malaysia, a country often perceived as India’s rival. In the past, Malaysia has been accused of taking the Asean more towards East Asia and away from South Asia to prevent Delhi from playing a significant role in the region. But as all decisions of the grouping are taken through consensus, it indicates that the proposed summit has the support of all Asean members.

Vajpayee will spend two days in Cambodia, where his main interaction will be with his counterpart, Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen. In Singapore, Vajpayee will interact with the country’s leadership on bilateral, regional and international issues and is also scheduled to deliver a lecture on India’s perspective on Asean and the Asia-Pacific region.

India began its “Look East” policy in the early 1990s under P.V. Narasimha Rao. Subsequent governments, too, followed the policy, earning Delhi a berth in the important Asean Regional Forum — the highest body in the region to assess security-related issues.

Before the May 1998 nuclear tests, India was seen mainly as an investment destination by most Asean countries. But after Pokhran, despite their initial reservations, many of them began looking at India as a country that could also counter China’s influence in the region.

   

 
 
BILL LESSON FOR PRESIDENT POLL 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, March 29: 
The joint sitting of Parliament on the anti-terror Bill has an important message for the Opposition. If the voting pattern remains the same in the presidential polls in July this year, the NDA coalition will have an overwhelming say in who should move to Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Until last month, the Opposition was ahead by 67,000 votes, forcing the government to send feelers for a consensus on the nominee for the post. The government was even willing to barter the Vice-President’s office in exchange for having its nominee in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

But the Opposition wanted to have its candidate as the President and leave the Vice-President’s post to the NDA.

Now the BJP and other members of the NDA are having a rethink on the deal. The volte-face comes in the wake of the ADMK, the NCP and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s changed stand on the Bill.

In the presidential polls, if they decide to back the NDA nominee, the Opposition would lose out in the complex numbers game where each MLA and MP has votes proportionate to the population of the state.

For instance, if an Uttar Pradesh MLA has 200 votes and the BSP decides to back the NDA, it would mean about an additional 20,000 votes for the ruling coalition. Add to that the votes of its 14 MPs, each equivalent to 40. Jayalalitha’s ADMK has 170 MLAs and 11 MPs. Sharad Pawar’s NCP has 58 MLAs in Maharashtra and eight MPs.

Rattled by this change in the relative strengths, the Opposition is now chanting the “consensus” mantra. It wants the government to give another term to incumbent K.R. Narayanan and have its nominee as the Vice-President.

While the President is elected by MPs and MLAs, the electoral college for the Vice-President merely consists of members of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha where the NDA has a distinct numerical strength.

Prominent Opposition leaders like Sonia Gandhi and Harkishen Singh Surjeet are keen on continuing with Narayanan. They feel if Narayanan were in the fray, parties like the BSP would not oppose his candidature. But Narayanan has made it clear that he would accept a second term on one condition: to be elected unopposed through consensus.

Given the complex composition of the 13th Lok Sabha, it is a tall order to hammer out a consensus among 43 political parties. Noted lawyer and MP Ram Jethmalani has already indicated that he would force a contest.

For Sonia and Surjeet, Narayanan has been an ideal President. He has maintained the dignity of his office and missed no opportunity to act as the nation’s “conscience keeper”. A known critic of the Sangh parivar, Narayanan also took on “secular parties” when he refused to agree to the dismissal of the BJP’s Kalyan Singh government in Uttar Pradesh.

There are several aspirants for the presidential and vice-presidential posts in and outside the ruling coalition. P.C. Alexender, L.M. Singhvi, Karan Singh, Farooq Abdullah, Pranab Mukherjee and Najma Heptullah are some of the names doing the rounds. After his acquittal in the JMM bribery case, a section is lobbying for former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, but the Congress leadership is lukewarm to the idea.

   

 
 
RSS LEADER STABBED 
 
 
OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Chennai, March 29: 
The murder of an RSS pracharak threatened to disturb communal peace in Coimbatore, reports our special correspondent.

Murugesan (33), the propaganda secretary of a Coimbatore RSS unit, was attacked by a six-member gang at suburban Kovaipudu while returning home from a temple on Thursday.

He died on the way to hospital, triggering tension. Shops immediately downed shutters. The city, however, remained peaceful.

Police took no chances. Four companies of the CRPF and three companies of the Tamil Nadu Special Police have been mobilised in the city. In rural areas of Coimbatore, five companies of the RAF have been deployed.

   
 

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