Bill to bypass poll clean-up
Rush on Naxalites leads to suicide
Airlines sneeze, railway catches fare-cut fever
Naidu, not Mamata, matters
Mystery ship with guns throws up theories
Shabir poll nod raises govt hopes
Mulayam flock sounds BJP on crossover
South Block sets up credibility test for Straw
Tendulkar gets Ferrari
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, July 8: 
Political parties today set aside their usual differences and joined hands to water down a Supreme Court directive regarding disclosure of criminal records, educational qualifications and assets and liabilities of candidates contesting polls.

The all-party meeting, instead, decided to move a Bill in the forthcoming monsoon session of Parliament to “circumvent” the apex court’s directive.

Sources said the parties were of the opinion that electoral reforms must come from within the legislature and not imposed by either the apex court or the Election Commission.

“The Supreme Court has surpassed itself. There will be no democracy in this country if we accept its stricture,” said CPM general secretary H.S. Surjeet.

The proposal for bringing the Bill was based on grounds that Parliament alone could enact a law and that even the apex court cannot direct the government to scrap, amend or pass a legislation. Union law minister K. Jana Krishnamurthi had said as much yesterday.

In its May 2 judgment, the Supreme Court had directed that all candidates should declare, among other things, their educational background, criminal cases against them, if any, and assets and liabilities. The information disclosed by candidates only would have had no bearing on their right to contest, provided they cleared the other provisions.

But most parties felt that the government of the day could trump up charges and embarrass rival candidates since voters of the respective constituencies would have had access to the information.

On June 29, the poll panel incorporated these changes in nomination filing rules as the court had set a deadline on July 1 and the government did not take any decision.

The poll panel’s contention is that almost all the guidelines are already in practise and the only additions are the three issues.

Krishnamurthi said law making was the domain of Parliament and neither the court nor the poll panel could “encroach on the domain of Parliament”.

He pointed to a legal doctrine, the Doctrine of Unoccupied Field, to explain that this “field of election law has hitherto been unoccupied and hence the Election Commission has been issuing guidelines from time to time. Once the field is occupied (by Parliament), then the law would be in effect and the guidelines by the court and the commission would be redundant.”


July 8: 
The son-in-law of a senior police officer involved in the crackdown on the People’s War threw himself in front of a running train yesterday, apparently traumatised by his interrogation on unsubstantiated links with the Naxalite outfit.

Bengal’s political establishment convulsed after Abhijit Sinha’s family said shame and pain caused by mental torture in police custody drove the 32-year-old Central excise inspector to kill himself.

“They (the police) are behind my innocent husband’s death,” said his widow, Manasi, the daughter of Moloy Sinha, deputy superintendent of police (crime), CID. He is in charge of the crackdown on the People’s War in Paschim Midnapore.

“My son could not take the insult and pain,” Abhijit’s father, Ashok Sinha, said. “So he killed himself.”

At Writers’, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said Abhijit did not have any direct link with the Naxalites. “There was only a telephone call that connected him with the investigation. One of his friends (a suspected sympathiser) had used his telephone… His suicide is unfortunate,” he said.

Bhattacharjee asked the special secretary (home), Arun Mishra, to probe the circumstances that led to Abhijit’s interrogation. He would also look into complaints of police excesses on Abhijit and Kaushik Ganguly, a lecturer, who were picked up on Thursday for alleged links with the People’s War.

Abhijit was pulled out of bed, dragged down the stairs and taken to Baguiati police station, family members said. His wife contacted her father and the two rushed to Baguiati to convince senior officials to release him on condition that the police officer would produce his son-in-law when needed.

On Saturday, Moloy Sinha accompanied Abhijit to Midnapore town. He was interrogated there by officers. The shrill cries of several other suspects being grilled in the next room haunted Abhijit for quite some time, his family said.

“Abhijit was disturbed,” Moloy Sinha said. “There were several calls from Paschim Midnapore police. He told me one caller had rebuked him for keeping the phone off the hook, which he had not done.” The officer said he did not think his son-in-law was tortured. “But, of course, he was mentally upset.”

The chief minister made it clear there would be no let-up in the raids. “Outfits like the People’s War and the MCC believe in the politics of murder and annihilation. Raids will continue.”


New Delhi, July 8: 
The railway is planning to cut second class air-conditioned fares by over 5 per cent for trains that run between metros and mini-metros.

The sudden plan to roll back rail ticket prices — fares were raised by about 10-25 per cent for mail and express trains in February — has been prompted by last week’s drastic cut in air fares by Indian Airlines and Jet Airways during the silly season between August 1 and October 31.

The railway is expected to make the announcement later this week. The ministry is also exploring the possibility of slashing fares on Rajdhani and Shatabdi train routes, which were not raised in February.

Officials were tight-lipped about the proposed cut in ticket prices for second class two-tier air-conditioned travel.

Sources in the Railway Board said: “We are examining various options. The focus will be on the highest revenue earning lines like Mumbai-Delhi or small but important lines like Delhi-Indore or Pune. We have completed the framework for the proposed cut, but it will have to be discussed with the chairman of the board and the minister. We will hold the discussion during the week.”

The board could not meet today formally because its chairman I.I.M.S. Rana was on tour, but informal discussions were held among the other members.

“The whole exercise has been carried out after an instruction from the railway minister was sent to the board to examine the issue (reduction in airfare) and hammer out a package that will offset the loss because of the fare cuts through a surge in passenger volumes,” a source said.

Even if the fares are brought down by 5 per cent, the railways will only be partially rolling back February’s fare hike.

It seems that the board has managed to balance the hike announced in the budget to improve the revenue flow and, at the same time, retain its market share.

According to a board member: “Whatever the final package, it will be designed to not only retain the existing passengers but attract more passengers, particularly on the Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains.”

“This is not a knee-jerk reaction to the cuts announced by airlines. It is a strategic move by the railways to retain its market share in passenger traffic.

“We do not want to face a situation like the one we experienced in freight traffic where we have lost out to roadways. At one point, we handled 80 per cent of all the freight movement in the country; that is now down to less than 40 per cent,” the officials said.

The railway’s total earnings from passenger traffic stood at about Rs 13,450 crore during 2001-2002.

The two-tier air-conditioned passengers contributed about Rs 1,000 crore to the kitty followed by three-tier AC passengers with Rs 800 crore; the air-conditioned chair car passengers contributed Rs 300 crore while Rs 175 crore came from first class passengers. The Rajdhani and Shatabdi Express trains contributed Rs 160 crore to the railway.


New Delhi, July 8: 
Chandrababu Naidu has done what Mamata Banerjee could not.

Railway minister Nitish Kumar, busy fighting a high-decibel battle with Mamata on carving up railway zones in Bengal, has yielded to pressure from the Telugu Desam Party chief.

Nitish dropped plans to create a new division that would have brought Guntakal, a traffic-heavy stretch, in Andhra Pradesh to South-Western Railway under Hubli in Karnataka. Instead, South-Central Railway, the home base of Guntakal, will get two new divisions — one of them headquartered in Andhra’s Guntur and another in Maharashtra’s Nanded.

The changes were prompted by Naidu’s stiff opposition to the prospects of losing Guntakal to Karnataka and Visakhapatnam to Orissa. The Visakhapatnam wing will go to Orissa, ruled by another BJP ally Naveen Patnaik, but the Centre has decided to spare Guntakal as a face-saver for Naidu.

Nitish stands to gain by obliging Naidu. The Andhra Pradesh chief minister appears to have ditched Mamata, at least for the time being. Trinamul had sought Naidu’s support in its fight to stop the bifurcation of Eastern Railway, but contrary to expectations, the Desam chief has been silent on the issue.

With Nitish deftly managing support from deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and about 10 chief ministers, including those from the Congress, for his proposal to carve up new railway zones, Mamata’s only hope for a bailout rests with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Nitish has said he would abide by whatever decision Vajpayee or the Union Cabinet takes.

Sources said the proposal to create new zones and divisions has been welcomed by all chief ministers except Bengal’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

Tomorrow, an all-party delegation from the state is expected to meet the railway minister. At a Barasat rally today, Mamata today launched a campaign against the division of Bengal zones.

Among those Nitish has spoken to are the chief ministers of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Jharkhand and Orissa, besides Andhra. Sources said Naidu wanted a quid pro quo and Nitish readily agreed to his demand that Guntakal should not go to the Hubli division.


New Delhi, July 8: 
A ship that came in from the blue has the Coast Guard, Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analysis Wing in a tizzy five days after it was spotted in the Arabian Sea.

The MV Al-Murtada, a smallish 50-tonner, “drifted” into Indian waters in a region that is teeming with Indian and foreign naval vessels and surveillance aircraft, and was reported by a passing merchant vessel, the Meridien Navigator, to the the Coast Guard last week. It was 84 nautical miles (155 km) west of Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri coast.

The Coast Guard director-general, Vice-Admiral O.P. Bansal, said the vessel had been abandoned some time ago. He said it might have taken two months to reach the spot where it was found. It could have come from waters closer to Africa’s east coast.

“At the moment, everything is conjecture. There is no report of a missing vessel matching the Al-Murtada’s description. Since the owner and agent is known, however, we expect to learn more about a ship shortly,” Bansal said.

It is of some concern in the security establishment that the ship was found after it had clearly been in Indian waters for weeks. The sea lanes in the Arabian Sea are particularly busy now with the traffic of not only merchant vessels but also the navies of several nations engaged in the US’ Operation Enduring Freedom. Bansal said there was also a high degree of air surveillance in the area.

Conjecture on the possible use of the ship has ranged from “simple” piracy (with the crew possibly being killed and dumped) and abandonment after an act of crime (gun or drug-running) or, even, possibly smuggling in or smuggling out a criminal (Osama bin Laden?).

Intelligence agencies have periodically warned of stretches on the west coast that might be used to land contraband. Dubai-based don Dawood Ibrahim was alleged to have reached RDX used in the 1993 Bombay blasts to his accomplices in the Ratnagiri coast.

After an aerial surveillance, the Coast Guard ship, Vijaya, intercepted the Al-Murtada and its men boarded the ship in a midnight operation made all the more difficult in the rough monsoon seas. A search of the ship has so far yielded two AK-47 rifles. (Merchant vessels are not always unarmed. Sailors do carry weapons to ward of possible piracy attempts.) The Al-Murtada is now anchored just off Devgiri.

The ship’s last known owner, presumably a Lebanese based in Khadeh, by the name of Assem Nidal Beaini, has refused to answer repeated telephone calls made by the Indian Coast Guard. The ship’s agent, Talal Abdul, also based in Lebanon, was contacted over the weekend. He told the Coast Guard he had no idea about the vessel but said he would pass on the information to the owner. The Al-Murtada is registered in Sao Tome, an island off west Africa.

The Coast Guard director-general said details of the vessel have been sent to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Neighbouring countries have also been informed. The only thing the Coast Guard has learnt till now is that the ship’s last recorded port of call was Dubai in September last year.

The Coast Guard has also passed on all it has learnt about the vessel to its fraternal security agencies, including the IB and RAW. Sources said it was unlikely the vessel had actually touched the Indian coast before it was spotted. They said the southwest monsoon would have made it drift towards India and when the Coast Guard Dornier recced it, it was “drifting” at a speed of about 1.5 miles a day.

When Coast Guard personnel boarded the ship, they found that there was nothing in it to sustain a crew. But the bridge was equipped with navigational systems and the ship was still seaworthy. The ship’s single 1,500 horsepower engine and the anchor were functional. The Al-Murtada, built in a German shipyard in 1974, had no lifeboats on board. Its fuel gauge showed 1,200 gallons in two tanks.

The ship was still being “rummaged” by officials of the Customs, Intelligence Bureau, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and the Navy apart from the Coast Guard. The two AK-47s that were found had “Allah” and “Yusuf” inscribed on them.

Ships are not easily abandoned on the high seas because of the huge amount in insurance that their owners can claim. They are either sent for breaking or deliberately sunk to mimic an accident.

In 1999, the Coast Guard had intercepted a Japanese ship that was alleged to have been “hijacked” on the east coast. Since then, the Japanese navy has been carrying out joint exercises with its Indian counterpart.


New Delhi, July 8: 
Democratic Freedom Party leader Shabir Shah’s decision to contest the elections in Jammu and Kashmir had been in the pipeline for some time and did not surprise the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s policy planners on Kashmir.

There is a sense of satisfaction that perhaps the governments plans for Kashmir are gradually falling into place, despite the setback to the scheme after the assassination of moderate Hurriyat leader Abdul Gani Lone. New Delhi is bent on holding credible elections in Kashmir and wants as many political opinions represented as possible.

The Centre had tried to persuade the Hurriyat Conference to contest the elections. Hurriyat leaders were also advised by both the US and UK to do so. So far, the Hurriyat leadership has refused to do so.

There is hope that Shah’s decision may encourage smaller parties in the Hurriyat and some of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen’s cadre to follow. Moderate elements, who are now sitting on the fence, may also be encouraged to take the plunge.

But nobody in Delhi is expecting an avalanche of willing contestants to follow. As one senior official explained, nothing can be taken for granted in the strife-torn state. The Centre is hoping to rope in Majid Dar, the India-based Hizb leader who has had major differences with Syed Salahuddin, the Hizb chief operating from Pakistan. Though it is uncertain whether Dar will contest, some of his men are expected to take the leap.

New Delhi is also hoping to persuade Lone’s son to contest the elections.

Many of the fence sitters would watch people’s response to Shah’s announcement. However, the response of the militants is expected to be more crucial than that of ordinary citizens.

Shah is aware of the risk he is taking by announcing his decision. Pro-Pakistani forces are bent on disrupting elections in the Valley. In fact, the United Jihad Council based in Pakistan and led by Salahuddin has asked Hurriyat leaders to campaign against people’s participation in the polls.

Hurriyat has said that it would not be dictated by the United Jihad Council.

There is much confusion in the Hurriyat and as also among militant outfits in Kashmir about losing Pakistan’s staunch and open support for their cause. The signals from Islamabad are mixed and there is a growing awareness that Pakistan may come under increasing international scrutiny not only to stop sending in armed infiltrators but also to stop its generous funding to militants and anti-India groups.

Under the circumstances, India hopes moderates may realise that their future lies in proving their popular credentials and waging a political and peaceful struggle for their rights.

Shah has been playing hide-and-seek with the Centre for over a year now. Some in Delhi were, at one point, hoping to project Shah as the future chief minister of the state.


New Delhi, July 8: 
At least half-a-dozen Samajwadi Party MPs had indicated to the BJP brass that they were willing to break away and “strengthen” the NDA government.

In Uttar Pradesh, too, a chunk of the party was apparently willing to “bail” out the BJP in case the coalition government was in trouble. Unhappiness with senior leaders had apparently led the Samajwadi legislators to favouritism for their main rival.

Four Samajwadi MPs had left the party before the Uttar Pradesh elections and supported the Central coalition.

The BJP was eyeing the Samajwadi MPs and MLAs as an “insurance” against instability at the Centre and Uttar Pradesh.

BJP strategists felt that in case a “maverick” NDA partner pulled put of the coalition and additional numbers were required to retain majority, the Samajwadi members could fill in.

Likewise, if Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayavati felt she had enough of the BJP alliance, the Samajwadi could bail the government out in part, or lock, stock and barrel.

The BJP was divided on whether it should start preying on the Samajwadi and split the party or keep its leader Mulayam Singh Yadav in “good humour”, just in case he had a change of heart and decided communalism was not a good-enough reason to keep the saffron forces at bay.

A section of the Samajwadi felt if “secular” parties like the Telugu Desam, the DMK and even the BSP could consort with the BJP and yet pull Muslim votes, what was wrong if it followed? “As it is, in the last Assembly elections, in 40 or 50 constituencies, Muslims voted for the BSP rather than the Samajwadi, despite the knowledge that it would again join hands with the BJP if required,” said a senior Samajwadi functionary.

The impetus for the BJP to look afresh at the Samajwadi as a potential ally arose because of several reasons. After four of its 26 MPs broke away and became part of an Independent block, which included breakaway groups from parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Kerala Congress, “it was proved that Mulayam was not as unassailable as he was made out to be”, said BJP sources.

Of the four rebels, three — Kunwar Sarvraj Singh, Ramakant Yadav and Balchand Yadav — were expelled while the fourth, Balram Singh Yadav continues to remain a Samajwadi member despite openly associating with the BJP.

With 23 MPs remaining, eight more are required to formalise a one-third split in the Samajwadi. BJP sources claimed that eight Samajwadi MPs are read y to walk out of the party.

However, persistent enquiries threw up only six names: Beni Prasad Verma, Reena Chowdhury, Deepak Kumar, Jawaharlal Jaiswal, Raghunath Singh and Girraj Singh Patel.

But BJP sources believe half the war was “won” by securing the support of an important backward caste leader and old-time socialist like Verma, who stood by Mulayam through trying times.

When contacted on phone in Lucknow, Verma said: “What have you heard? Well, these rumours do the rounds from time to time.”


New Delhi, July 8: 
As British foreign secretary Jack Straw prepares to come here within a fortnight, South Block made it clear that the credibility of the international community will be in question if it fails to make Pervez Musharraf stick to his promise to stop infiltration.

Straw is scheduled to arrive here on a day’s visit on July 19. He will hold wide-ranging discussions with the Indian leadership, which includes foreign minister Yashwant Sinha and national security adviser Brajesh Mishra on developments in the region, particularly the military standoff and the heavy deployment of Indian and Pakistani troops along the border.

The British foreign secretary, like the Americans, wants Pakistan to stop cross-border-terrorism. But while they have been stressing on the point publicly, in private, both the UK and the US have been trying to convince the Indian leadership to find a way to break the deadlock in its relations with Pakistan.

One way to do that, according to the western powers, is to take steps towards de-escalation — both diplomatic and military — and return to the talks table at the highest political level with Islamabad.

Delhi has noticed this shift in the stands of London and Washington. And to put it mildly, is not amused.

Foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal made it clear today that the international community should sustain its pressure on Pakistan to end terrorism and infiltration permanently. He argued that any wrong interpretation of the commitment given by Musharraf would give him the alibi he needed to continue to promote infiltration across the LoC.

At a round-table conference on Indo-US relations organised by the CII this afternoon, Sibal stressed that it is important for the credibility of the international community to keep up the pressure on the Pakistan President to honour his commitment to end terrorism and take visible action in dismantling terrorist camps.

Referring to remarks made by Washington that Musharraf should tackle that part of the problem of infiltration which was under his control, the foreign secretary said: “That is not the commitment he has given.”

“If interpreted in this way, it will give Musharraf a lot of room to play with ambiguities, allow him to continue the policy pursued in the past and say that the terrorism that occurs is outside his control. This would give him the alibi he needs.”

Sibal also described the travel advisories issues by the US and some other countries asking their nationals to defer visits to India as a “total disconnect”.

“There is a total disconnection in what we see in the country and the perception created in world capitals about the imminence of nuclear threat and nuclear conflict in our region,” he said.

“While over one billion people in the country do not feel threatened, about two lakh foreigners in the country were seen as being victims of something that is going to happen which will be catastrophic in nature.”

The travel advisory was seen in South Block as another attempt by the West to create pressure on India to de-escalate and normalise relations with Pakistan. Though it has been criticised often in private over the past weeks, this is the first time that a senior Indian official has flayed it in public. Sibal said that if the West really feared a nuclear conflict, “what did they do except to move their people who were reluctant to do so?”

He made it clear that instead of putting pressure on Pakistan, the West was now rewarding it by offering loans to the tune of $8 billion from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, the European Union and the IMF.

However, Sibal maintained that there was no conflict of interest between India and the US. Delhi is not averse to the presence of American troops in Afghanistan, he said. “On the contrary, we welcome it.”


London, July 8: 
Sachin Tendulkar’s car collection is growing. To his fleet, he can add a new toy - a full-sized Ferrari.

The keys of this luxury car, which probably costs well over £150,000, was presented to Tendulkar by the Formula One racing champion, Michael Schumacher, whom the cricketer much admires.

The meeting between Tendulkar and Schumacher took place at the request of the former, “who has a big weakness for cars”, according to Rajeev Shukla, the manager of the touring Indian team.

Immediately after India had won the one-dayer against Sri Lanka at Edgbaston in Birmingham last week, Tendulkar went off to see Schumacher at Silverstone where the British Grand Prix is held.

“They talked for two hours and then had dinner together,” said Shukla.

Tendulkar stayed overnight and yesterday watched the Grand Prix which was won by his host. “The Ferrari was presented to him by Fiat which owns Ferrari,” said Shukla. “After all, he has equalled Bradman’s record.”

Now, that he has one of the fastest cars in the world, Tendulkar will be able to make Juhu from the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay in 90 minutes instead of the usual two hours.

Meanwhile, Virender Sehwag, who is being compared to Tendulkar, told British television that the two are very different.

“His bank balance,” said Sehwag, “is much bigger.”




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