Goa test for Modi & soft-target Sinha
No-confidence verdict on Gujarat govt
Monopoly goes, phone calls don’t
Control goes, govt stays
Musharraf grieves with Vajpayee
Lens to trap mob-rousers
Upbeat Sonia set to shuffle party posts
Congress softens up TMC for merger
Jaya rushes to runaway lover’s rescue
Calcutta Weather

 
 
GOA TEST FOR MODI & SOFT-TARGET SINHA 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, April 1: 

PM leaves it to party’s wisdom

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has left it to the “collective wisdom” of the BJP top brass to decide the fate of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and finance minister Yashwant Sinha.

Modi and Sinha have come under fire from different quarters for different reasons: the chief minister from the Opposition, human rights activists and a section of industry for failing to put a stop to violence and Sinha from his own party for an “unpopular” and a “non-populist” budget.

BJP sources said when the high command meets in Goa on April 12, 13 and 14 for the national executive, the roles of Modi and Sinha will be discussed in the context of their possible impact on the party’s electoral prospects. Despite the growing clamour for Modi’s head, Vajpayee is reluctant to act against him because of his “political” importance in the BJP scheme, the sources said.

During his Ahmedabad visit on April 4, Vajpayee will, however, seek answers from Modi on what has been done to restore normality, inspire confidence in all sections, especially the minorities, and speed up rehabilitation.

“The continuance of Modi in office has to be a political decision. As Prime Minister, he is right now dealing with the government of Gujarat which is headed by Modi. But whether he remains the chief minister or not is an issue which will be decided by the collective wisdom of the BJP high command,” said sources close to Vajpayee. “He (Modi) has a certain place in the party’s political scheme and, therefore, the mood of the members in Goa will be assessed closely before a decision is taken.”

Senior leaders have conveyed to Vajpayee that dispensing with Modi will mean “playing into the Opposition’s hands” and holding him “guilty” of the charges they have levelled against him.

“If the cry for his head becomes too strong, we have already decided he should step down, dissolve the Assembly and call for mid-term polls,” party sources said.

Although Vajpayee turned down Modi’s suggestion to hold an early poll, ostensibly to take advantage of the “communal polarisation”, the sources felt the campaign for his head may even help the party achieve its electoral objective.

Yashwant Sinha’s position is more “vulnerable”, the sources said. Delhi MPs hold him directly responsible for the rout in the municipal elections and the cut in the interest rate on provident fund is described as “rubbing salt in sore wounds”.

“Whatever the fiscal logic,as far as the salaried class is concerned, any reduction in their benefit, however small, will turn them against our government. It is going to prove costly in the coming elections,” the sources added.

Vajpayee’s admission in a news conference at Nainital last week of the Centre’s policies being partially responsible for the electoral debacles was interpreted as a “veiled threat” to Sinha.

The sources said that unlike Modi, who had emerged a “hero” of sorts for the Hindutva votaries, Sinha is politically dispensable in that he neither has a caste following in his home state of Jharkhand nor does he have a “Mr Clean” image. “The Kayastha (the caste to which he belongs) votes don’t matter in terms of numbers and Sinha is saddled with the UTI scam, among other things,” the sources said.

Earlier he could count on the support of the RSS and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, but he has since fallen foul of them too for his advocacy of liberalisation.

There is a feeling in the BJP that Sinha could come in for flak at the Goa executive. To counter the criticism, Vajpayee may make a concession of sorts by hinting at a “complete image change” for the government and the party.

   

 
 
NO-CONFIDENCE VERDICT ON GUJARAT GOVT 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 1: 
The National Human Rights Commission today virtually expressed lack of confidence in the Gujarat government, asking the Modi administration to hand over specific massacre cases to the CBI and set up special courts to try the suspects.

In an indictment that was much more scathing than its interim verdict, the commission questioned the functioning of both the Central and state intelligence agencies.

“We express concern over an extraordinary lack of appreciation of the potential dangers of the situation both by the Central and state intelligence agencies, given the history of communal violence in Gujarat,” the commission, headed by Justice J.S. Verma, said in its report.

The commission expressed concern over continuing clashes in Gujarat, where two more people died today. The army was called out tonight at Khanpur in Ahmedabad after a mob tried to attack some houses.

The panel report said the special courts should hold daily hearings and the judges should be “handpicked” by the chief justice of Gujarat High Court.

Questioning the Gujarat government’s stand that the Godhra massacre was “premeditated”, the commission said the state did not clarify who was responsible for the incident.

The report has been sent to the Centre and the state government for action.

“The tragic events that occurred in Gujarat had serious implications for the country as a whole, affecting both its sense of self-esteem and the esteem in which it is held in the comity of nations,” the report said.

Delving deeper into the fallout of the riots, the panel cautioned: “Grave questions arise of fidelity to the Constitution and to treaty obligations. There are obvious implications in respect of protection of civil and political rights, as well as of economic, social and cultural rights in Gujarat and also the country more widely; there are implications for trade, investment, tourism and employment.”

The report blamed the state government for failing to uphold the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

“Unless rebutted by the state government, the adverse inference arising against it would render it accountable. The burden is, therefore, now on the state government to rebut this presumption,” the report said.

The commission said it had received several complaints that even first information reports were not properly written, registered and lodged.

The panel said the investigations were “influenced” by players with extraneous considerations. It has recommended a CBI probe into incidents at Godhra , Gulbarga Society, Naroda, Sardarpura in Mehsana and Vadodara’s Best Bakery.

It said the victims should be protected from further trauma and the destroyed places of worship should be rebuilt.

   

 
 
MONOPOLY GOES, PHONE CALLS DON’T 
 
 
FROM M. RAJENDRAN
 
New Delhi, April 1: 
Videsh Sanchar Nigam’s monopoly over international call traffic ended today, but there was no alternative gateway in place for telephone subscribers.

Blame it all on another bureaucratic snafu: the plan to free up the airwaves has been coming for a long time and the ministry had advanced the date for the end to VSNL’s monopoly by a year. But in the end what did it do? It issued two licences — one to Bharti Telesonic and the other to Reliance Communications — to handle overseas calls. But the bureaucratic bumbledom has still failed to grant the access codes that will enable a customer to reach out to these private operators.

The access code is a set of numbers that need to be prefixed to the overseas number you are calling that will enable the call to be routed over the private network.

To be fair, the private operators haven’t got their act together to be ready for the Big Day. The Bharti group hopes to have its system in place in another fortnight; Reliance, which got its international long distance licence just a couple of weeks ago, is unlikely to have its system up and running before the middle of June.

Something is working, though. Today, the much-hyped and controversial technology, voice overInternet telephony, also become official. Anyone with a licence for internet services can offer this facility, which means you can call the US for the price of a local call.

Net4india was the first off the blocks. A subscriber of this internet service can go to its site and download the software to make calls over the Net. It might be a little scratchy, but it works.

The other debutant, private international telephone service, will have to wait some more. Sources in Bharti said: “Our services are scheduled to become operational by mid-April, but the issue of access code still remains a problem. We hope the regulator resolves the issue at the earliest and also directs all operators to follow those directives.”

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is yet to announce the numbering plan and the carrier access code for private services.

There are a lot of other glitches that remain, too. Domestic long-distance telephony was thrown open to private operators in January. The regulator also issued the carrier access code to Bharti’s IndiaOne network.

But in the end, the service never really got off the ground. Reason: basic telephony operators like BSNL said they did not have the software that would recognise the access codes and route the call over the IndiaOne network.

The regulator had ordered that the calls could be routed over the BSNL network on one day and the IndiaOne network the next, but even that compromise formula fell to the ground.

The same problem could arise with private operators’ access codes for overseas calls. This is how the empire strikes back even if the policy is in place.

Says a senior official at the regulatory authority: “We are aware of the issue (allocation of access codes for overseas traffic) and the exercise is being undertaken.”

Reliance Communications is unlikely to launch its service before June. Sources in the company said: “Our aim is to offer a full range of telecom services. We do not want our customers to wait to avail of any of our services.”

Other than international long distance, it already has Internet services and other value-added products. It also possesses a national long distance licence.

   

 
 
CONTROL GOES, GOVT STAYS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, April 1: 
Nothing much is going right for the Vajpayee government. Price control on petroleum products was scheduled to end today and the last thing the government — still bleeding from a hammering in the Delhi municipal polls — would have wanted was to kick off the new regime with a round of price increase.

Palestinian suicide bombings and Israel’s retaliatory incursion into Yasser Arafat’s backyard later, it faced exactly that threat. World crude oil prices are nudging up to $25 a barrel and market expectation for the near future is a further rise to $27.

End of government-enforced price control — in vogue for close to three decades — means domestic petroleum prices being dictated by movements in the world market. And that, in turn, implies an immediate price revision.

Petroleum minister Ram Naik didn’t have a stomach for this. So what does the government do? Officially, price control on petrol and diesel is dead as of today. Unofficially, they are alive and kicking. All in the name of the consumer.

“I have advised oil companies to plan a strategy in which the changeover is smooth and customers are not burdened. In the transition period, oil companies would absorb volatilities in the international market,” he added.

Stripped of the jargon, it means oil companies will pick up the tab for keeping prices at current levels.

Domestic petrol is now ruling between Rs 26.54 and Rs 28.59 a litre, while diesel sells between Rs 16.59 and Rs 20.21. A rise of $1 a barrel in the global price of crude translates into a 64 paise increase in the price of a litre of petrol and a 58 paise rise in that of diesel.

But domestic prices are not being raised, at least not for now. The consumer won’t complain. The oil companies might, but being government-owned they’re holding their silence.

“We don’t intend to change the price line at least for the next three months,” Indian Oil chairman M.S. Ramachandran said. He admitted that the company would lose about Rs 200 crore a month as a result.

Sources said oil companies were asked to take the hit at a meeting between finance and petroleum ministry officials. The finance ministry has promised to help by slashing duties if the average global crude price crosses $25 a barrel, the sources added. The price of the basket of crude oils India buys is hovering around $23 a barrel and the future looks gloomy.

Reuters quoted a Merrill Lynch analyst as warning of a repeat of the seventies’ oil crisis. “The concern in the oil market is one of escalation in violence evolving into a pan-Arab conflict that might ultimately involve the movements of oil in a manner similar to the ‘73 oil embargo that targeted the US for its support of Israel,” the analyst said.

If price control has re-entered through the backdoor, one shibboleth of the era of government intervention stood abolished. The epitaph was written for the oil pool account, which was a mechanism for subsidising cooking gas and kerosene. The government owed oil companies Rs 12,000 on this account and liquidated Rs 9,000 crore of it by issuing to them bonds maturing in seven years.

   

 
 
MUSHARRAF GRIEVES WITH VAJPAYEE 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, April 1: 
After the famous handshake in Kathmandu in January, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has again taken the initiative to break the diplomatic ice with Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This afternoon, he sent a message to the Prime Minister to condole the death of his elder sister, Vimla Mishra, who died in Gwalior yesterday.

“I was saddened to learn about the passing away of your elder sister. I share your grief and offer my deep condolences to you and other members of the bereaved family,” the message said. “Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.”

Though there is no political content to the message — handed over to the Prime Minister’s Office by Pakistani deputy high commissioner Jalil Abbas Jeelani — it comes at a time when the Vajpayee’s pointman on Kashmir K.C. Pant is scheduled to visit Pakistan. Pant’s visit, which will begin on April 7, has given rise to speculation that India might explore possibilities to break the impasse between the neighbours.

Pant, also the deputy chairman of the planning commission, is going to Pakistan for a South Asian meet on poverty. But he might discuss measures Delhi proposes to take to hold elections in Kashmir.

Reports from Pakistan suggest that Delhi’s moves, beginning with the Prime Minister’s visit to Srinagar, are worrying Islamabad. They are being seen as an attempt to minimise Islamabad’s role in Kashmir by making it an internal matter.

South Block is making all attempts to play down Pant’s visit. But in private, policy makers and advisers of the Prime Minister are not ruling out the possibility of Pant exploring whether any diplomatic breakthrough is possible.

   

 
 
LENS TO TRAP MOB-ROUSERS 
 
 
FROM BASANT RAWAT
 
Ahmedabad, April 1: 
Accused of inaction when the marauding mobs went on the rampage, the city’s police force is now desperately trying to reverse that image by cracking down on mischief mongers with an iron fist.

Camera-fitted mobile vans will start patrolling Gujarat’s financial capital from tonight so that the police can later identify the culprits if there is any mob violence anywhere, police commissioner P.C. Pande said.

The commissioner blamed rumour-mongers for fomenting trouble, and claimed that every incident was sparked off by some rumour. “We have not been able identify them (the mischief-makers), though we have got some vital clues,” he said.

“But certainly, these are the people who do not have the interest of the city in their heart and certainly do not want normality restored. And it is these elements we want to identify and arrest with the help of videograph.”

Asked whether he would accept documentary films from private filmmakers as evidence, the commissioner said he would. He also did not rule out hiring private filmmakers and trained videographers.

Pande said their job had become difficult because of the baseless rumours and calls which the police had to attend to but which later turned out to be hoax. This, he added, has been going on since February 28, the day after the Godhra massacre.

He underlined that rumours were behind every major flare-up as they made people come out on the streets, which in turn scared people of the other community, leading to clashes.

The commissioner said in the last 33 days, the police had not recovered any rocket launchers — as reported by sections of the local press — or modern weapons from any part of the city during combing operations. The only arms the force had recovered were crude bombs, swords and country-made pistols.

Pande had personally visited places like Gomtipur, Juhapura and Vejalpur following reports of firing and explosions when nothing like that had happened. In fact, rioters had burst crackers in some of these places.

Asked if he feared a backlash, Pande said: “Though tension has reduced, it will take time before complete normality is restored and the people regain confidence.”

The police, the commissioner added, has initiated the “healing process” by setting up peace committees at various levels, but pointed out that the force on its own could not bring the situation back to normal.

SC rejects sack plea

The Supreme Court today dismissed a petition seeking dismissal of the Gujarat government for its alleged failure to prevent the communal riots following the Godhra train carnage, according to PTI.

The public interest litigation, filed by the Conference of Human Rights (India), had sought banning of the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal.

The rights group had demanded a CBI probe into the riots and prosecution of chief minister Narendra Modi and other state government officials for their alleged failure to prevent loss of lives and property.

   

 
 
UPBEAT SONIA SET TO SHUFFLE PARTY POSTS 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, April 1: 
An upbeat Sonia Gandhi plans to execute a “Kamraj plan” in the party, shuffling the All-India Congress Committee secretariat to revitalise the organisation.

Sonia will also hold a Congress chief ministers’ conclave in Guwahati on April 12 and 13 to unveil a plan of action on how to capture the Delhi throne.

All AICC general secretaries, secretaries and office-bearers have authorised Sonia to bring about any change in the organisation that she deems fit. She had toppled Sitaram Kesri on March 14, 1998, and this week marks Sonia’s fourth year as Congress president.

Sources close to the party chief said she was keen to bring in a “new team” in the AICC and make changes in the state units of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

Some AICC office-bearers are likely to be sent to the states on the lines of the assignments given to Ghulam Nabi Azad and Pranab Mukherjee, who are heading the Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal units. It is another matter that both Azad and Mukherjee were reluctant to head the state units.

Sonia is keen to prune the size of the AICC secretariat. Some secretaries, including Bhubeshwar Kalitha, Satya Bahn, Subodh Kant Sahay, Chandan Bagchi and Sushila Triha, are likely to be dropped.

Fourteen chief ministers of Congress-ruled states will meet for a brainstorming session in Guwahati on April 12-13 to work out how to overcome the anti-incumbency factor and showcase “good governance”. Sonia will address a public meeting Guwahati on April 12 to kick off the conference.

The Congress conclave will coincide with the BJP’s national executive in Panaji, where the party is meeting to contemplate why it has been losing ground.

At Guwahati, Sonia will sit through the deliberations as veterans like Digvijay Singh, S.C. Jamir, and S.M. Krishna offer useful tips on governance to newly-appointed chief ministers Amrinder Singh and Ibobi Singh.

Uttaranchal chief minister Narain Dutt Tiwari is a seasoned politician who has served as Cabinet minister in the Union government and was chief minister of undivided Uttar Pradesh thrice. Digvijay jokingly described Tiwari as “vice captain” of the team.

According to Sonia, the Guwahati meet is important because it will usher in her “Capture Delhi campaign.”

In her assessment, the Vajpayee regime might not last its full term and general elections might be called much before April 2004. In such a scenario, Sonia plans to showcase the performance of the 14 Congress-ruled states to stress the point that the Congress alone knows how to govern.

The chief ministers have been asked to prepare details of their “people-oriented policies.” For instance, the Digvijay government’s food for work, grain bank, education guarantee and cooperative movement schemes have been popular and have won the approval of Amartya Sen and Manmohan Singh.

Sonia’s decision to hold the third meeting of party chief ministers in the Northeast is aimed at broadening Congress’ support base outside Delhi.

She feels that successive party leaderships have failed to give the seven northeastern states the thrust and political importance that they deserve. Sonia believes that the Congress should shed its “Delhi-centric” image.

In the past, too, there were several proposals to hold party conferencess, including Congress Working Committee meetings, outside Delhi but somehow these never took off.

This time, Sonia is determined to visit the Northeast with entire CWC. She has already sent party leader Kamal Nath to Guwahati to work out the necessary arrangements with Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi.

   

 
 
CONGRESS SOFTENS UP TMC FOR MERGER 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Chennai, April 1: 
The first-ever “authoritative talks” to discuss a merger between the Tamil Maanila Congress with its parent body — after the death of the veteran Congress leader G.K. Moopanar — got off to an “optimistic start” today.

With All India Congress Committee secretary Ramesh Chennithala carrying a clear brief from Congress president Sonia Gandhi, his 45-minute meeting with TMC president G.K. Vasan at the latter’s residence here set the stage for candid exchange of views, party sources said.

Shedding its past reservations, the TMC today seemed set on the “merger track”, as Vasan, for the first time, conceded that these talks had been initiated in the “interests of both the people of Tamil Nadu and that of the country”.

Chennithala, during his one-on-one meetings with Vasan, had conveyed the Congress chief’s message that all Congressmen should stand united under the present circumstances. Significantly, TNCC president E.V.K.S. Elangovan did not thrust himself as an interlocutor during the discussion.

Chennithala’s terse communication was free from the past strains too, in the context of Vasan having recently got elected to the Rajya Sabha from Tamil Nadu with the support of Congress MLAs.

Sources indicated that the high command’s decision to back the TMC president was on the condition that the latter would no longer dilly-dally on the merger issue.

Though no time frame has been set for the merger, Vasan also sees his limitations now, with the TMC facing a cash crunch and the party losing a leader of the stature of the late Moopanar.

Some MLAs of the TMC Legislature party, particularly a motely group led by Kumaradoss, who was recently expelled from the party and Hakeem, had threatened to split the Assembly group if Vasan went ahead with the merger proposal.

However, at the TMC Legislature party meeting here a few days ago, most MLAs agreed to abide by any decision taken by the party on this issue, while Kumaradoss himself is soft-pedalling his protest.

The Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress, led by Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthy, had come back to the parent party fold last month, while Elangovan had been urging former finance minister P. Chidambaram to also merge his breakaway TMC, now called the Congress Jananayaga Peravai, with the Congress.

After their meeting, Vasan said he would take up the proposal for more broad-based discussions within the TMC before declaring the party’s final stand on the issue.

As of now, the first hurdle has been crossed with both sides agreeing to “talk”. The modalities of the merger would be worked out once TMC formally puts its seal of approval.

   

 
 
JAYA RUSHES TO RUNAWAY LOVER’S RESCUE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
Chennai, April 1: 
Jayalalithaa has taken up cudgels for a 23-year-old Kuwaiti woman who eloped with her Indian boyfriend and arrived in the country on March 22 using a fake passport.

Dhalal Azmi fell in love with Khader Basha, who belongs to Cuddappah in Andhra Pradesh, while he was working as a driver at her house. The couple decided to flee to India to marry. But once here, Dhalal landed in jail for faking her travel papers.

She was freed on bail tonight following Jayalalithaa’s intervention. MDMK leader Vaiko, who had also pitched in for her, said Union home minister L.K. Advani had promised not to deport Dhalal to Kuwait.

Dhalal and Khader had stolen the passport of an Indian maid working at her house in Kuwait and replaced the photograph with her own.

The 23-year-old was arrested as soon as she landed in Chennai and the authorities had intended to deport her, but put off the decision on health grounds. Dhalal was remanded in judicial custody for 15 days on March 26 and her bail petition was cancelled.

Lodged in Vellore central jail, the pregnant woman had been refusing food and was shifted to hospital on Saturday evening.

Dhalal petitioned the chief minister, asking to be allowed to stay in India and to be granted Indian citizenship.

Informing the Assembly about the petition today, Jayalalithaa quoted Dhalal as saying that she had “come here to stay and live a peaceful life”. Returning to Kuwait would invite the most stringent punishment. Under Kuwaiti law, she can be stoned to death for eloping.

The petition to the chief minister had been sent through the Vellore prison authorities.

Jayalalithaa said a “humanistic approach and sensitivity to women’s rights and their welfare” should be the guiding principles in resolving this tangle and added that Dhalal was being looked after by a team of competent doctors at CMC hospital. Her condition is “satisfactory” now, the chief minister added.

Since only the Centre has the right to grant a stay permit and confer Indian citizenship, Jayalalithaa asked the chief secretary to write to the Union government to consider Dhalal’s case on compassionate grounds.

“I hope the government of India will respond positively to Tamil Nadu’s request,” Jayalalithaa said.

Since Dhalal’s conditional bail had been cancelled, the chief minister also directed the Chengalpattu (East) superintendent of police this afternoon to move a fresh bail application in the magistrate’s court here.

The chief minister’s efforts have the support of leaders of almost all parties, including arch rival M. Karunanidhi of the DMK.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 34.1°C (-2)
Minimum: 25.4°C (+1

Rainfall

Nil

Relative humidity

Maximum: 92%,
Minimum: 55%

Sunrise: 5.32 am

Sunset: 5.48 pm

Today

Partly cloudy sky, with possibility of light rain, accompanied by thunder, in some parts
   
 

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