Ritual over, Mamata open to talks
Bandh is right for Left, not for others
Heat on Buddha over cost cut
Kant gets an image boost on the House
BJP open to Farooq in Cabinet
Head-count trick hides missing numbers
Victorious Jaya for consensus President
From nail polish to ghazal, Pawar’s men party
Faceless angels bring light of hope
Congmen out of woodwork

Calcutta, June 7: 
With the bandh over, Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee today said she is ready to accept chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s offer for talks on issues of common concern. But the question is whether the chief minister is still willing.

Mamata said she was “forced” to call the 12-hour bandh to make people aware of the “financial bankruptcy” of Bengal’s ruling Left Front.

The bandh disrupted normal life in the city and the districts. Nearly 2,286 Trinamul activists were arrested from different parts of the state for obstructing road and rail traffic.

“Financial bankruptcy in the state has reached alarming proportions. We called the bandh because we wanted to alert the state government,” Mamata said.

The bandh was called in protest against the hike in electricity tariff, delay in payment of teachers’ salaries, distress sale of paddy and the government’s failure to publish an accurate list of people living below the poverty line.

“I have instructed our party MLA and leader of the Opposition Pankaj Banerjee to lead a team to hold talks with the chief minister when he gives an appointment. As far as I am concerned, it is not a matter of egos,” Mamata said.

The Trinamul chief stuck to her decision to go ahead with the bandh despite a written request from Bhattacharjee and an offer to sit for a discussion on issues of common concern. Her image, too, took a beating as she held the bandh disregarding Calcutta High Court’s sharp remarks against the culture of bandhs in the state.

Mamata’s move has only confirmed that a bandh can be called any time and on any issue in Bengal, Bhattacharjee said at Writers’ Buildings today.

“People will judge whether it was proper to call a bandh on issues which could be sorted out by discussions across the table. I had offered to sit with the Trinamul leaders for talks about a week ago. Yesterday, too, I wrote to the Trinamul leadership, offering to sit for talks. But, whenever I have approached them for a discussion, I have been spurned,” he added.

He said the bandh did not have any impact on industry, mines and tea gardens. Work at banks, LIC and other offices were partially affected. At Writers’, 55 per cent attendance was recorded. Several people could not attend office as local trains were not allowed to ply, the chief minister said, adding that only educational institutions, shops and markets remained shut.

Trinamul’s principal ally, the BJP, however, criticised Mamata for holding the bandh. “Bandh is not the solution to any problem. Today’s bandh was forced upon the people,” state BJP vice-president Muzaffar Khan said.

Angry at Mamata for forcing them to call off the June 14 bandh, the Congress heaped criticism on the Trinamul leader. Former state party chief Somen Mitra said no political party in its right senses would call a bandh like this.

Trinamul activists took out processions in support of the bandh in various parts of the city. Mamata, who led one such procession, fell ill and had to be rushed home.


Calcutta, June 7: 
The CPM and the CPI condemned today’s bandh called by the Trinamul Congress, saying bandhs should be the “last weapon of protest”, but are called over “baseless issues” by Opposition parties in Bengal .

Leaders of both parties claimed that bandhs called by the Left Front “enjoy spontaneous popular support and highlight genuine issues”, unlike those sponsored by the Opposition.

However, from CPM state secretary Anil Biswas to CPI counterpart Manju Majumdar to the RSP’s Sunil Sengupta, no one could give a convincing reply when asked what the basis of their claim was.

The parties agreed that strikes should be organised judiciously and not frequently.

Biswas said the Opposition bandhs have always been “politically motivated”.

“Look what the Trinamul did today. They did not respond to the chief minister’s invitation for talks yesterday and instead stuck to their decision to hold the bandh. Trinamul’s call for the bandh was more out of ego than to their will to fight for people’s causes. It was totally politically motivated,” he said.

Describing a bandh as the “last weapon of protest” for the working class, the CPI said: “We will never give up our right to organise a bandh in order to protect the interest of the working class. We will call bandhs in the future if we feel it necessary. No one can prevent us from holding bandhs and strikes”, Majumdar said.

Leaders from the two communist parties pointed out that a bandh is a political issue and no one should move court to force political parties to call off bandhs.

They said the recent high court verdict on bandhs was not specific. On Wednesday, Calcutta High Court in its judgment had criticised the politics of bandhs but had said it was “helpless and powerless” is in checking the trend.

Both parties, however, said if the court imposes restrictions on bandhs, they would contest the verdict.

Biswas refused to comment on the high court verdict. “I will not comment since the verdict has not given any specific instruction to political parties in regard to bandhs,” he said.

The Left leaders also dismissed the high court’s observation that bandhs in Bengal had become a “quarterly affair”.

They, however, refused to equate their attitude towards the high court judgment with that of the BJP and the VHP which had objected to the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Babri masjid issue.

“The issues of Babri masjid and organising bandhs are not similar. The VHP had played a destructive role in demolishing the mosque. Calling a bandh in the interest of the common people should not be seen in the same light as the VHP’s act of pulling down the Babri masjid,” Biswas said.

He denied that a bandh culture had developed in Bengal. “In every state, political parties organise bandhs over various issues. Bengal is not an exception. Here, people are politically more conscious and respond to bandh calls after judging the issues,” Biswas said.

He added that it would be wrong to assume that the ruling Left Front was the principal promoter of the culture of protest in the state.


Burdwan, June 7: 
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is facing flak from his own party for his cost-cutting campaign.

The state co-ordination committee, which represents an estimated nine lakh government and semi-government employees, today dubbed the campaign an “eyewash”.

Addressing a conference of the state government drivers’ association, co-ordination committee secretary Samarjit Roychowdhury alleged that the government was blocking the payment of Dearness Allowance to its employees citing funds crunch but was turning a blind eye to bureaucrats who enjoy a cushy lifestyle using government facilities.

“Bureaucrats, officers and engineers use cars and telephones with STD and ISD facilities for their personal work and go on expensive tours. Then where is the funds crunch? The government will have to impose its expense curtailment measures at all levels. They should not be confined to ordinary employees only. Otherwise, it will send a wrong message to the masses,” Roychowdhury said.

Finance minister Asim Dasgupta had initiated the move of cutting “avoidable” expenses in all government departments and had issued guidelines in this regard.

The government order had restricted the use of cars and telephones and had made it mandatory for government officers to take permission from the authorities before touring districts or flying to Delhi, the co-ordination committee pointed out.

“There are several officers drawing Travelling Allowance bills of Rs 50,000 in a month and there are many who fly to Delhi six times a month. Telephone bills of some officers amounting to several thousands are paid from the government exchequer. Officers often use government cars when going out with their family or friends. What is the government doing to stop this?” Roychowdhury asked.

He said some government departments and undertakings have more cars than officers. “We have often demanded to know the reason for this extravagance? We have been told that engineers need cars to visit sites. We wonder how many projects sites are there within the city, how many engineers visit them and how many times,” he said.

Roychowdhury also pointed out that cars are taken on hire despite the government owning a number of cars. The hired cars are repaired at private garages instead of government workshops.

“We have made it clear to the government that the co-ordination committee will not tolerate its dual policy. They can’t be strict for their employees and liberal for the officers. The government will have to be serious and take effective steps to curtail avoidable expenses but its policy should reflect in all aspects,” Roychowdhury said.


New Delhi, June 7: 
The Rajya Sabha secretariat seems to be doing its bit to boost Vice-President Krishan Kant’s chances of entering Rashtrapati Bhavan.

A 25-page glossy booklet detailing the illustrious past and sterling achievements of Kant, who is also Chairman of the Upper House, is being circulated by the secretariat. It portrays Kant as a “freedom fighter, able parliamentarian, experienced backbencher and ardent advocate of democracy”.

Published by secretary-general of the Rajya Sabha, the pamphlet carries effusive articles penned by leaders like Karan Singh, Inder Kumar Gujral, Najma Heptulla, T.N. Chaturvedi, Sanjay Dalmia, J. Chitranjan, Satish Pradhan and late Sitaram Kesri. Incidentally, both Kesri and Gujral played a crucial role in Kant’s appointment as Vice-President in August 1997.

In political circles, the timing of the booklet has generated a lot of interest. While Kant’s critics labelled it as a form of canvassing support, his supporters rubbished the charge, maintaining that his elevation from Vice-President to the President’s post would hardly depend on a booklet.

“Are you saying MPs would change their minds after reading the booklet?” asked a Samajwadi Party MP, who did not want to be quoted.

A cursory glance at the booklet showed that most articles had been written five years ago, when Kant took over as Vice-President, he pointed out.

Kant’s detractors, however, say that as Chairman of Rajya Sabha, he should have been more discreet. While the articles may be old, publishing them now could only be aimed at reminding parliamentarians about Kant’s past contributions at the government’s expense, they contend. “It is the Rajya Sabha secretariat that has published the booklet. In the event of Kant facing a contest for presidential or vice-presidential post, would it not put his competitor to a disadvantage?” they said.

In the booklet, Karan Singh, nursing an ambition to secure either the presidential or vice-presidential post, has described Kant as an “experienced backbencher”, while another aspirant Najma Heptulla of the Congress has dubbed him a “custodian of the House”.

Late Sitaram Kesri described Kant’s temperament as “samanvay ka vektitva (consensual personality)”. If politicians agree upon Kant as consensus candidate for Rashtrapati Bhavan, Kesri’s assessment of Kant would come true.


New Delhi, June 7: 
Farooq Abdullah may not be in the race for the Vice-President’s post, BJP sources revealed today. However, they said if he opted out of Jammu and Kashmir politics — a “distinct possibility” — he could be inducted in the Union Cabinet with an “important” portfolio.

A BJP Cabinet minister said Farooq had conveyed to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that his son Omar Abdullah would be projected as the chief ministerial candidate of the National Conference in the Assembly elections. Omar, at present the minister of state for external affairs, would, therefore, eventually move out of the Centre.

A quid pro quo arrangement has been worked out whereby if Abdullah junior moved to Jammu and Kashmir, his father would move to Delhi, given that Kashmir could not go unrepresented in the Cabinet and Farooq was the most “acceptable” face in the present circumstances.

Initially, the BJP seriously considered Farooq for vice-presidentship. But doubts were expressed on whether he could effectively preside over the Rajya Sabha.

Sources in the Vajpayee camp said the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues felt that as the minister of state for external affairs, Omar had conducted himself with “grace and confidence” through India’s war of attrition with Pakistan.

“His presence in Almaty, for instance, was useful for the country as he came across as the young, liberal face of India’s Muslim community, and that, too, from Kashmir, the epicentre of the tension,” said sources.

Asked if Farooq could be considered for the external affairs ministry in the event of a larger Cabinet reshuffle, BJP sources were non-committal. “Anything can happen and obviously Farooq will not settle for coal and mines or power,” they pointed out.

The possibility of making Farooq the external affairs minister emanated from the speculation that Yashwant Sinha was on his way out as the finance minister and Jaswant Singh — Vajpayee’s original choice for the post — would replace him.

A section of the BJP believe that having Farooq as the foreign minister could, post-Gujarat, redeem India’s “secular” credentials in the eyes of the West and also send a positive signal to the Islamic countries, thereby strengthening India’s case on Kashmir vis-à-vis Pakistan’s.


Indore, June 7: 
The numbers are still confusing, nearly a week after Maharashtra’s Democratic Front government plunged into crisis.

Spokesmen for Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party claim that they have 51 out of their 58 MLAs in Indore under safe custody, away from the reach of the BJP and the Shiv Sena.

But the party has failed to show to reporters all the 51 they claim to have with them in the Sayaji Hotel.

“The NCP has 58 seats in the Assembly. When we came here on the intervening midnight of June 5 and 6, we brought with us 46 MLAs. Five more have joined us. So now we have a total of 51 in Indore,” the party’s state president in Maharashtra Govindrao Pachpute told reporters.

But the NCP has so far been unable to show all the heads together.

They show the MLAs in groups of two, three or four. Even when they emerged from the hotel to go for a sightseeing tour to Ujjain, the MLAs did not come out together. They trickled out in groups of two or three, and were hastily packed off into waiting cars.

Baki saab MLAs idhar, udhar hain,” Pachpute said.

The strategy seems to be to confuse, lest any one figured out the numbers.

Maharashtra excise minister and NCP MLA Anil Deshmukh said at a news conference here that six of the 24 NCP ministers in the Vilasrao Deshmukh government were in Indore. This clearly contradicts Pachpute’s claim of 51 MLAs.

Police sources told The Telegraph that the MLAs should number anywhere between 34 and 37. Pachpute, however, vehemently denies Deshmukh’s count. “Not six, we have 16 ministers with us in Indore now,” he said.

The NCP chiefs have made it clear this morning that taking shelter in a Congress state does not mean that the party is moving closer to rejoining its parent organisation.

“There is no chance of us going back to the Congress,” Deshmukh said. “We were thrown out of the Congress and the reason why we left still remains with the Congress and has not been corrected yet.”

Deshmukh said the NCP did not want the “communal” BJP-Sena to form the government. “That’s the only reason we joined hands with the Congress.”

NCP MLAs say Digvijay has always been a good host and pointed out that the chief minister had invited filmmaker Deepa Mehta to shoot Water after she was denied permission in Benaras, and hosted the history congress in the midst of a controversy.

“The Congress is hosting us for their own political reasons. They have their own partyman, Vilasrao Deshmukh as the chief minister in Maharashtra,” they said.

Indore has, however, come up with an interesting phrase. The MLAs are being referred to as “Maharashtra ke bhagore vidhayakgan (the fleeing MLAs of Maharashtra)”.

Pachpute justify their “holiday”. “We don’t want violence in Maharashtra. That’s why we have come here. The Sena-BJP are kidnapping our MLAs, first wooing them with big money and ministerial berths and when that is not working, the MLAs are being beaten up,” he said.

“It’s not as though we are scared of the Shiv Sena and are running away from them. But we do not want trouble. We are in the government there. If we participate in the trouble, we will be held responsible for it. So we have decided to take a holiday in Madhya Pradesh.”

NCP leaders are trying to keep a chartered plane ready, just in case they need to fly their MLAs to another safer haven. In fact, NCP MLAs are also not sure where they might find themselves tomorrow morning.


Chennai, June 7: 
A triumphant Jayalalithaa, fresh from her party’s victory in the Saidapet Assembly byelection, today backed the need for forging a consensus on the country’s next President.

“It will be good if there is no contest for the President’s post, and it will be even better to avoid an election, given the India-Pakistan standoff,” the ADMK chief told reporters at the secretariat, soon after party candidate Radha Ravi was declared elected from Saidapet.

Ravi beat his nearest DMK rival, M. Subramaniam, by 11,925 votes after repolling was ordered in 58 booths.

Jayalalithaa said Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee spoke to her on the presidential poll issue before the byelections in Tamil Nadu. Vajpayee had told her that he would “again get back to her on this”, the ADMK chief added.

“Since I am going to Delhi on June 12 and will be meeting the Prime Minister, these discussions will continue,” she said, asserting that ideally there should be one candidate acceptable to all parties.

The ADMK chief, however, added that she did not see any legal bar to running for the post a second time.

Jayalalithaa said the ADMK’s “resounding victory” in all the three byelections have demonstrated the “people’s abiding faith” in my party.

“We will endeavour to live up to the people’s expectations,” she added.

On the success in Saidapet, where Opposition parties had alleged “widespread rigging and booth capturing”, Jayalalithaa said “our victory could only be delayed but not stopped”.

Regretting that several development works had come to a halt because of the byelections, the chief minster accused DMK president M. Karunanidhi of needlessly dragging the election process by “obstinately” asking for a repoll.

“Because of Mr Karunanidhi’s obduracy, an additional Rs 17 lakh has been spent in the repolling which could have been saved,” she said.

Stalin not to resign

Karunanidhi, who termed the Saidapet bypoll result as a “victory for Musharaff-type democracy”, today indicated that Stalin will not resign as Chennai mayor in view of the new Act which bars MPs and MLAs’ from simultaneously holding top posts in civic bodies.

“We have no objection to the one-man one-post principle, but this legislation has been targeted at one individual and we have already rejected it in the Assembly,” Karunanidhi said.

“We do not respect this new law to abide by it and if they themselves snatch away the mayor’s post, it is fine,” the former chief minister added.


Indore, June 7: 
What are Sharad Pawar’s boys up to?

Nearly 48 hours after being whisked away to this commercial town from the rough and tumble of Maharashtra politics, Dileep Supal is keeping himself busy by scaring salesgirls in supermarkets.

Accompanied by half-a-dozen of his party colleagues and a few local Congressmen, this Nationalist Congress Party MLA walked into Globus, an up-market departmental store for fashion accessories, and headed straight to the cosmetics counter.

Spotting a young lady behind the counter, he shouted: “Hey! Have you got nail polish?” The salesgirl gulped. “Yes sir,” she squeaked.

“Not women’s nail polish. I want nail polish for a man. For my nails... See,” Supal said, stretching out all 10 fingers.

By this time the girl had recovered. “OK, Sir,” she replied.

Then, as Supal and his colleagues picked at random the reds, maroons and browns, the girl took out a bottle of transparent nail enamel. “Sir,” she called out to Supal. “This is all right for you.”

Supal literally snatched the bottle from her. “Let’s see,” he said, then shouted: “No! This not good.” As his colleagues burst out laughing and moved to the perfumes counter, Supal was at it again.

“What perfume you got,” he asked in broken English to the salesgirl behind the counter, who brought out an array of the world’s finest brands — Hugo Boss, Escada, Ferrari, Jovan, Dolce and Gabbana.

“What, perfume for Rs 2,000?” the MLAs cried out, this time all together. “No, no, show us something within Rs 300 to Rs 400.”

“Sorry Sir,” the girl replied, nearly in tears. “We have nothing in that range.”

“OK,” Supal said. “We’ll come back.”

The VIP customers then went from counter to counter, but bought nothing. Then they came out holding hands and giggling like schoolboys. “Scared her, didn’t I,” said an MLA said as the others guffawed.

At the Sayaji Hotel, the MLAs today were given a little freedom by NCP chief Govindrao Pachpute. Like Supal and his friends, some were allowed to go out.

At 10 in the morning, three MLAs — Balasahib Patil, Kumar Goswavi and Shashikant Shinde — were seen doing laps in the swimming pool. Others sat at the poolside, clapping and cheering.

Four MLAs sweated it out at the gymnasium. Fifteen minutes later, they gave up. “Enough for today. Let’s have beer,” one of them said, walking away.

In their rooms, the legislators watched World Cup matches on the television, listened to ghazals and sipped chilled beer.

Maharashtra excise minister and NCP MLA Anil Deshmukh tried to emphasise that he and his men were here on a “picnic”. “We keep roaming around in Maharashtra,” Deshmukh said. “So we thought this time let us go to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh and have some fun. Indore is a great place, big town, yet not congested. Some of us have our relatives residing here.”

They are being guarded by AK-47-toting policemen of the state’s Special Task Force.

Congressmen in Indore have been instructed by chief minister Digvijay Singh to play good hosts. The five-star hotel is also serving a special buffet.

This afternoon, the MLAs, accompanied by a group of Digvijay’s men, went out sightseeing. They will visit the Mahakaleshwar temple in Ujjain and return after midnight.


Ahmedabad, June 7: 
They want to remain anonymous. But their help has brought a little light back into the lives of Gujarat’s riot victims.

Relief camp organisers in the city have been flooded with offers from individuals who want to help with anything — from money to household goods — in return for absolute anonymity.

Today, the number of these faceless voluntary donors is much higher than that of the rioters who savaged the city.

“That is why we are optimistic and believe that there will be communal harmony so long as people like these are there,’’ said Safibhai Memon, in-charge of the Shah-e-Alam camp.

“We realised there are people — and not just Muslims — who were deeply hurt by what happened in Gujarat after the Godhra carnage,” Memon said. Many people came to the camps to share the suffering and offered help to feed thousands of people much before the government stepped in, he added.

The recent community wedding of 71 couples — 38 at Sonal camp in Juhapura, 25 at Aman Chowk in Bapunagar and eight at Dariakhan Ghummat in Shaibaug — was possible because of generous donations from these nameless benefactors who offered everything that is essential to begin life afresh.

In Shah-e-Alam, the biggest relief camp, every family which returns home is gifted a house kit worth Rs 2,000. “The kits have been donated by both Hindus and Muslims,’’ Memon said, adding that till date, 177 kits have been given as donations.

Government apathy towards those who lost their livelihood in the violence did not come in the way of the 60-odd people who had taken refuge in the Dariakhan Ghummat relief camp.

Donors, who wished to remain unidentified, stepped in to equip each of them with a lorry and Rs 2,000 so that they could again start their vegetable and fruit business.

The donations have not stopped there. In the next few days, each of the camp’s inmates will be given the same largesse — a total of 100 lorries. “The money for this purpose was given by four individuals who do not want to be identified,” said camp in-charge Ataullahkhan.

The other day, a doctor from the majority community contributed eight pressure cookers to newly-wed couples in the camp, said Ataullahkhan, adding that the couples were also gifted cots, beds, clothes, crockery, cutlery, mattresses and even electric mixer-grinders.

In the last four months, several dignitaries from the political and cultural fields, including Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, visited the Shah-e-Alam camp. While the politicians promised financial and material assistance, it was a visit by Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi that left an impression on the minds of the camp residents. She not only distributed clothes, but also took the trouble to establish a rapport with both children and adults during her visit that lasted for more than four hours.


Lucknow, June 7: 
The acceptance of Uttar Pradesh Congress chief Sriprakash Jaiswal’s resignation has brought a spring in the steps of state party leaders.

“They (the leaders) have started coming even before the locks are opened in the morning and remain here till late night,” said a party worker who lives on the sprawling state Congress office premises on Mall Avenue.

Expecting an overhaul after the arrival of AICC treasurer and in charge of Uttar Pradesh Motilal Vora on Monday, the Congress leaders are keen to prove their worth by spending as much time in office as possible — an unusual thing for the state’s Congressmen who prefer staying in the cool confines of their homes than “wasting” time at the party office.

The AICC treasurer is expected to stay in Lucknow for two days and seek a frank assessment of the party from leaders of various factions before the high command “revamps” the state unit.

“The speed with which Jaiswal’s resignation was accepted has given a warning to everybody who holds a post in the party organisation. Each one of us has to now demonstrate that we are active,” said party spokesman Akhilesh Pratap Singh.

The work bug has bitten party workers in the districts, too.

Though more than two dozen committees at the district level are operating on an ad hoc basis, Congress workers there are jostling with each other for party posts in anticipation of the revamp.

There is a fight on for the prime post, too, with over a dozen names doing the rounds in Congress circles.

But topping the list are former state Congress chief Salman Khurshid and party MP from Rampur Begum Noor Bano.

The high command has to make sure that Jaiswal’s successor is not of lesser stature than the main players of rival political parties.

The Congress is functioning without a head for the first time.

In Congress tradition, the outgoing chief is relieved only when the new incumbent assumes charge.

There are indications that the new president will not be announced soon and a meeting of state leaders has been called in New Delhi on June 20.

The leaders will give their inputs regarding their choice of a new chief in the meeting.

Till then, a coordination committee, which is likely to be formed soon, will look after party matters in Uttar Pradesh.


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