Modi to reap early-poll harvest
Sonia puts Congress in general election mode
22 pilgrims at altar of death
Bend It opens on mend it note
US pat for Sonia aide
Calcutta Weather

Panaji, April 12: 
In a calculated risk, the BJP today rejected Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s resignation offer and advised him to dissolve the Assembly and go in for an early election.

The decision capped a day of dramatic developments and hard-hitting statements issued by the BJP leadership spearheaded by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who, for the first time, sought to justify the post-Godhra violence.

There were reports of violence even today with the army being called out in Ahmedabad to stop a clash between two communities. Forty people were injured and 25 shops and houses were set afire.

By asking Modi to dissolve the legislature, the BJP hopes to kill two birds with one stone: meet the allies’ demand for his sacking and defuse the Congress’ campaign two days before the budget session of Parliament resumes.

Simultaneously, by refusing to replace Modi, the party is keeping the RSS, VHP and BJP hardliners, who opposed such a move, happy. The parivar’s reading is that an early poll in Gujarat will help the BJP because of the perceived consolidation of Hindu votes.

BJP president K. Jana Krishnamurthi said: “This does not mean Modi will dissolve the Assembly tomorrow and go in for elections immediately. There is no time schedule for the elections and it is left to him to take a decision.”

Only a couple of weeks ago, when Modi had his first meeting with Vajpayee, the Prime Minister rejected his request for an early election, saying it would send a “wrong signal”. Today’s decision indicates that he has had to play along with the overwhelming view in the executive in favour of Modi’s continuance.

The sequence of events began this afternoon after Modi’s announcement in the executive that he was willing to step down. Minutes before a public rally began at the Panaji Gym Cricket Ground this evening, Krishnamurthi told the media that a decision would be taken tonight on Modi’s offer.

The chief minister absented himself from the deliberations to facilitate a “free, frank and objective” discussion.

Later, Krishnamurthi said the executive had advised Modi to “go ahead (with an election) as in a democracy the people are the ultimate authority”. He said the decision was forced on the BJP by the Congress and other Opposition parties.

The BJP chief also challenged the Congress to “go to the people and place before them the omissions and commissions of our (Modi) government. We shall also say things to the electorate. Let them decide.”

But the fact that the BJP is determined to revert to its Hindutva agenda and discard whatever “liberal and secular” pretensions it had put on as the leader of the NDA was clear in Vajpayee’s public address.

The BJP’s “most acceptable” face labelled the entire minority community as “separatist”. “Wherever they live they create trouble. They don’t know how to get on with other communities. Instead of preaching their religion peacefully, they propagate it through money and terror.”

After lamenting before riot victims in an Ahmedabad relief camp last week that he did not know with “what face” he would go abroad after Gujarat, Vajpayee accused the minority community of following the “jihadi” stream of Islam.

“We don’t believe in fundamentalism but today our biggest threat comes from jihadi Islam,” he said and drew a distinction between Islam which believed in “truth and piety” and the more militant form which had no use for “virtues like mercy”.

“They want to conquer the world through terrorism,” he declared.

Vajpayee also justified the Gujarat violence, saying it would not have happened but for the Godhra incident.

“Consider what happened in Gujarat. Innocent passengers travelling by the Sabarmati Express were killed because of a conspiracy. The tragedy that followed would not have happened at all had they not been burnt. While the tragedy is condemnable, I wish to emphasise that we must not forget why it happened, why the fire spread throughout the state,” he said.

That the return to Hindutva was a well-thought-out political decision also became obvious in Krishnamurthi’s remarks at the executive, where he reinforced the RSS’ Bangalore statement that the well-being of the minority depended on the goodwill of the majority.


Guwahati, April 12: 
The Congress said it will continue to ask for Narendra Modi’s exit even as it began preparations for the next general elections, expecting the rift between the Sangh parivar and the NDA to widen and speed up the fall of the Vajpayee government.

Sonia Gandhi believes the general elections will be held sooner than expected, irrespective of Modi’s fate.

At the marathon session during the chief ministers’ conference, she moved to activate the organisational network to face snap polls. Sonia plans to set up small panels under Arjun Singh and Pranab Mukherjee to prepare for elections. A separate committee is likely to be named for southern states.

Sonia also wanted to know why the party is doing badly in Lok Sabha polls in states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra and Delhi, where it had performed well in the Assembly elections.

The Congress chief’s tough message for riot-free party-ruled states and her emphasis on good governance overcoming anti-incumbency are seen as part of the “face-early-Lok Sabha-polls exercise”.

In an uncharacteristically aggressive voice, she said: “Normally I do not give any directive to chief ministers of Congress-ruled states. But today, I am giving you one. Any individual or any organisation preaching or practising politics of hate must be dealt with without fear and favour, according to law. My directive to you from this Guwahati conference is that there must not be any compromise, under any circumstances, on this under a Congress state.”

A section of the leadership said the remarks were a warning to Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and his Rajasthan counterpart Ashok Gehlot, in whose states incidents of communal violence have taken place in recent days.

The leadership had initially hoped that Modi’s exit would dampen the spirit of Hindutva hawks in Gujarat. At Brahmaputra Ashok, where the conference is being held, many senior leaders had even begun to take credit for Modi’s exit before the BJP national executive in Goa rejected the offer.

Disappointed, party leaders termed the resignation proposal a “stunt” and a “drama” and resumed watching bamboo dance to celebrate Bihu on the banks of the Brahmaputra. They said it was now up to the Telugu Desam and other NDA allies to make up their minds.

Feedback gathered last week painted a dismal picture for the Congress in Gujarat in the event of early elections.


Calcutta, April 12: 
Twenty-two pilgrims were killed when a van, going at break-neck speed, crashed into a truck on the Kona Expressway this morning.

An 11-year-old girl was among those who died. A two-year-old survived, but lost both parents. Twenty were injured and are in hospital.

District superintendent of police C.V. Muralidhar, who visited the spot along with additional director-general of police (traffic) K.J. Singh, blamed the driver for one of the worst road accidents in the state in recent times.

“It was his bravado…, driving at 70 kmph with his hands off the steering wheel to impress, that claimed 22 lives,” he said. This was corroborated by the injured.

The driver, Tapan Naskar, lost control of the vehicle while negotiating a sharp bend near a popular resort in Howrah. Hit by a truck coming from the opposite direction, the mangled van rolled over and fell off the expressway, into an adjacent field. Naskar died on the spot.

The passengers were among 150 devotees on their way to a Shiva temple at Nanna, near Bagnan.

The pilgrims, from Maheshtala in South 24-Parganas, were travelling in four vans. The one that crashed was the last.

“I was making tea at 7.15 am when I heard a loud crash and screams. We rushed to the spot and found people lying in pools of blood. Many were writhing in pain while others lay motionless,” said Maya Malik, a resident of Jagachha village.

Maya’s husband Samir, a railway employee, called the police from his house. “But they took nearly an hour to reach the spot,” said Billa Polel, another villager.

“Our boys started stopping lorries and tempos to carry the injured to hospital before the police arrived. It was a horrible sight with men, women and children crying for help.”

In the evening, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee visited the Maheshtala village where the victims belonged to pay respects to the dead. Pointing out that the victims were poor, Bhattacharjee said he would try to help their families. “There is no provision to declare any government compensation for any road accident victim. Even then, I shall consider if some assistance can be offered from my relief fund,” he said at Writers’ Buildings.

Minister Kanti Ganguly and Trinamul legislator Ashok Deb visited the accident site because some of the victims belonged to their constituencies. Residents told them the sharp bend and the absence of proper road signs had made the spot accident-prone.

“We live in constant fear. Crossing the road here is inviting an accident. There are no traffic policemen posted here either,” they said.


London, April 12: 
Anupam Kher, who has been imported from Bollywood to play a strict Indian father in the British Asian comedy, Bend It Like Beckham, predicted that the film will be a big hit when it is released in India in mid-June.

The film’s world premiere in London’s 2,000-seat Leicester Square Odeon was on a par with any Hollywood release but there was disappointment that David Beckham, the England football captain who is nursing a broken left foot, was unable to attend.

The injury to Beckham was sustained in a clash between Manchester United and Spain’s Deportivo La Coruna on Wednesday night when he was sent flying by a tackle by Aldo Dusher, an Argentinian player. He was taken off the ground on a stretcher, with his face covered as he realised that his dreams of leading England to glory in the World Cup this summer had probably vanished.

England has been plunged into national mourning after X-rays confirmed that Beckham had fractured the second metatarsal in his left foot. Although his fans hope that he will be able to “Mend it like Beckham”, his chances of a speedy recovery are not thought to be bright.

Beckham seems jinxed by Argentina. Four years ago, during the World Cup in Paris between Argentina and England, he was shown a red card after committing a foul and probably cost his country the match. Since then, he has transformed his position from being the country’s number one villain to one of its greatest heroes, principally because of his ability to win crucial matches for England with an amazing kick that curves the ball past baffled defenders into the back of the net.

This ability inspired Gurinder Chadha, an Indian film director in London, to make her film in which Jess, an 18-year-old football fan in Southall, the heartland of the Punjabi settlement in Britain, seeks to bend the rules set by her strict Asian parents. Jess is played by Parminder Nagra, 26, one of Britain’s brightest Asian actresses.

Although Beckham does not appear in the film, he has seen a private screening with his wife, Victoria — she is the former pop singer “Posh” Spice — and said he very much wanted to come to the premiere. Asian values had clearly rubbed off on them because the Beckhams “requested extra tickets for their parents”, according to one of the organisers.

Although the majority of the cast in Bend It Like Beckham is Britain Asian, Anupam Kher, who has acted in 270 Bollywood movies, was imported from Mumbai to do his first film in Britain.

His character, Mr Bhamra, based on Chadha’s late father, is of a man who is initially strict with his daughter but later relents when he accepts Jess’ explanation that Guru Nanak had given her special footballing skills.

Although Beckham was in obvious distress yesterday, he was thoughtful enough to send Chadha a bouquet of flowers, which was presented to her on stage just before the film’s screening. Attached was a note from him and his wife, which read: “We are really, really sorry we can’t be there with you. Good luck with the film. We love it.”

The premiere was a grand affair, with large crowds held back behind steel barriers by police. The cream of Britain’s Asian acting talent, nearly all of whom have roles in the film if only in crowd scenes, last night found themselves being treated as “celebrities” as they braved the ranks of Fleet Street photographers.

Asked whether he had been cast to ensure he could ham an “Indian accent”, Anupam Kher replied coolly: “I like to think I was brought in because I am a good actor.”


Washington, April 12: 
In a unique gesture which Capitol Hill circles believe is a sign of times to come, two of America’s leading lawmakers have hailed an individual election from Maharashtra to the Rajya Sabha.

The object of such praise, unusual in the annals of the House of Representatives, is Murli Deora, president of the Mumbai Regional Congress Committee, who was recently elected unopposed to the Rajya Sabha.

According to Congressional aides, the singular praise for Deora reflects a desire on the part of US lawmakers to forge ties with their Indian counterparts overriding considerations of state-to-state policies and the exigencies of diplomacy.

Said one Congressional aide: “When something like Gujarat happens, for instance, lawmakers here want to be able to get on the phone and talk to their parliamentary colleagues in New Delhi.

“They don’t want to go by official versions or briefings. They want to know the pulse of the people, like all politicians. That is possible only through strong personal bonds across the national divide.”

The aide pointed out that the recent launch of the Indo-US Parliamentary Forum in New Delhi to function as the Indian counterpart of the Congressional caucus on India here was part of the same objective.

In his reference to Deora’s election to the Upper House, Gary Ackerman, the ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives International Relations Sub-Committee on South Asia, said: “Mr Speaker, one of the newest members of the Upper House of India’s national Parliament is Murli Deora, who has been one of the United States’ strongest advocates and closest friends for many years.

“Murli worked tirelessly to bring the world’s oldest democracy closer to the world’s largest democracy. Murli carried on this effort even when relations between our two countries grew distant during the Cold War.”

Jim McDermott, the Democratic chair of the Indian caucus said: “Mr Speaker, one of the architects of the growing diplomatic relationship between the US and India received some long overdue recognition when Murli Deora was elected to the Rajya Sabha.… Even during the weakest of times in our relationship with India, Murli Deora worked hard to bring our two nations together.

“His views were often times at odds with the foreign policy establishment in his country.… In the process, Murli Deora was vindicated.”

Narayanan D. Keshavan, aide to Ackerman and executive director of the Indian caucus during Ackerman’s chairmanship, recalled that several Congressmen were disappointed when Deora lost the last Lok Sabha poll.

“It was left to me to inform the caucus members of Murli’s loss and there was a palpable sense of defeat among our Congressmen who were interested in India. So I am not surprised by this week’s references on Capitol Hill,” Keshavan said.

Another interpretation of the praise for Deora is that in Washington, people who matter are reading the writing on the Indian wall and want to take out an insurance on Deora for Indo-US relations in anticipation of a Congress victory in the next election.

“There is some criticism here that the US has identified better relations with India in terms of relations with the BJP-led government,” said one source. “We want to cast the net wider across India’s political spectrum.”

According to the source, it has not been lost on the leadership here that Sonia Gandhi brought Deora along when she visited the US last year, her first foreign visit as leader of the Opposition. “And there is speculation in New Delhi that Deora may be the next treasurer of the Congress party or get some post in the national leadership of the party.”




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