Suspense shifts to snap poll date
Jitters send markets up and down
Blame hunt leads CPM to Somnath
Boy found dead in car, father missing
Sonia learns tricky tongue of the trade
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, April 26 
The Election Commission tonight refused to promise early polls after President K.R. Narayanan dissolved the fractured 12th Lok Sabha. The outgoing government wants to cash in on perceived ?sympathy for Vajpayee? and has demanded elections as soon as possible, preferably in June.

Chief election commissioner M.S. Gill, who returned from abroad last night, cited logistical problems in holding elections at short notice, but did not spell out whether June or September would be the poll month.

Narayanan today made it clear that he did not feel there was any option before him other than mid-term polls. A four-page Rashtrapati Bhavan communique issued this evening spelt out in 21 paragraphs how the President had reached his conclusion.

The communique said: ?The President could not but observe that the ruling alliance had lost its majority because of a lack of cohesion within its ranks and those who voted out the alliance showed the same lack of cohesion when trying to form an alternative government.?

After this morning?s Cabinet meeting, the government?s spokesman, Pramod Mahajan, said ?in deference? to the President?s wishes, the Cabinet has decided to recommend dissolution of the House. He specified that the government wanted early polls.

After a meeting with the President, Gill indicated that he, too, was under substantial pressure to hold early polls. But he said the monsoon, the academic calendar and the lack of budgetary allocation would have to be taken into account before deciding on the dates.

Asked repeatedly if it would be June or September (July and August are being ruled out for monsoon), he said he could decide after discussion with his colleagues and political parties, whose views he would solicit from tomorrow.

Gill said the revision of electoral rolls will begin on May 20. This will allow citizens who have not been registered to get themselves enrolled. ?It will be completed around July 20,? Gill said. He did not, however, say if the elaborate exercise could be called off to allow early polls.

What Gill promised was that the 13th Lok Sabha would be in place before October 21 ? the constitutional deadline for the next House session. This assertion was a strong indication that Gill preferred polls in September.

He said it was time for sweeping electoral reforms. He hoped that to avoid expenses and other organisational difficulties, nine states ? which are scheduled to go to the polls later this year and early next year ? would agree to bring forward Assembly elections. It remains to be seen how many states agree to this suggestion. For example, Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu wants the national and state polls delinked.

From the communique, it appeared that the President had told Jaswant Singh ? when he went to meet Narayanan with Murasoli Maran and Vaiko ? that he would hold consultations with the ruling alliance only ?if they could show accretion of strength?.

This justifies why the President did not offer any additional time to Vajpayee because the BJP?s strength stood at 270 (including the Speaker) eight days after the government lost the confidence vote and there was no guarantee that the minority government would not be defeated on the floor of the House again.    

April 26 
Stocks floundered and the rupee rallied after an early battering today as the financial markets and industry braced for a turbulent period ahead of another general election ? the second in as many years ? which they hope will throw up a more stable and reform-minded regime.

On Monday, the Bombay Stock Exchange sensitive index fell 161.32 points, or 4.7 per cent, to 3245.27 points, slicing Rs 21,351 crore off the aggregate value of all stocks listed on the bourse which plummeted to Rs 476,243 crore.

The rupee was roiled in a nervous market plunging to an intra-day low of 42.96/98 per dollar as exporters and banks scrambled to scoop up dollars. However, the rupee regained its composure later in the day and closed at 42.83/85 per dollar, slightly lower from the weekend finish of Rs.42.82/83 per dollar.

The rupee had fallen to 43.10 to the dollar on April 19, the first day of trading after the defeat of the BJP-led coalition in the trust vote.

?The economy is on a rebound,? said finance minister Yashwant Sinha after the Cabinet meeting. He blamed the political shenanigans in Delhi for the fall in the value of stocks and the rupee.

Sinha tried to soothe the frayed nerves of the market makers by saying the fundamentals of the economy were robust enough to bolster both the currency and equity markets. ?We have a situation where industrial demand is picking up, there is a bumper rabi crop and inflation is down to a 71-week low of 4.17 per cent,? he said.

Analysts predicted that the markets could fall further before the jitters abated and saw an opportunity for some bottom-fishing ? buying blue-chip stocks at very low prices.

Industry saw the mid-term poll as the only way to break the political gridlock of the 12th Lok Sabha.

CII chief Rajesh Shah said polls should be held early. ?Any delay will short circuit the process of economic recovery,? he added.

Market players were equally spooked by the prospect of a delayed election and a prolonged lame-duck government. ?We need to find a quick solution to break the impasse,? said Tushar Shah, director at KBS Securities.

The unanimous verdict was that it would be a disaster if the caretaker government lingered on till September ? a prospect that drew its legitimacy from the growing speculation that the chances of holding an early election could be confounded by the monsoon.

Ficci chief Sudhir Jalan said the apex chamber had distilled a common economic agenda after talks with industry experts and government representatives. ?We will now sensitise the parties to the need to adopt a consensual approach,? he added.

The first step will be to persuade them to work in the key elements of the agenda into the election manifestos.    

New Delhi, April 26 
Having failed to instal Jyoti Basu as Prime Minister, CPM leaders have started sniping at each other for embarrassing the party and its sole mascot.

The man drawing the most flak is MP and central committee member Somnath Chatterjee, who publicly let the cat out of the bag, admitting the Politburo had already endorsed Basu?s prime ministership and it was the Congress which played spoilsport.

Chatterjee?s remark ? made on television last evening ? came even as CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet was struggling to keep the Politburo?s decision under wraps. The CPM is red-faced at Chatterjee?s statement, particularly now that its bid to foist Basu as Prime Minister has failed.

Chatterjee had been working in the backdrop during last 48 hours when the CPM suddenly moved into high gear to enthrone Basu in Delhi. He was one of the prime pushers of the move and was in touch with the West Bengal chief minister all through yesterday?s political bustle. He openly showed his disappointment after the Congress punctured the possibility of a Basu-led third force government.

Surjeet today was emphatic in denying Chatterjee?s remark and distancing himself from it. ?What Chatterjee said was not true. I know nothing about it. Why don?t you ask him?? snapped Surjeet, when asked whether the party Politburo had officially cleared Basu?s name for Prime Minister.

Chatterjee?s revelations were embarrassing especially after Surjeet had been at pains to deny that the Politburo had endorsed Basu?s candidature as Prime Minister.

The CPM now wants to quickly pull a blanket on the events that led to Basu?s sudden bid for power at the Centre. Even before Chatterjee spoke on television, his party colleagues had started grumbling, blaming him for instigating one last move to make Basu Prime Minister. Five years ago, Chatterjee and his former parliamentary colleague Saifuddin Choudhury were censored by the party?s central committee for hobnobbing with the Congress.

The CPM?s tussle with the Congress is still far from over. The leadership is not only wrestling with its failure to cobble together an alternative government, but also trying to save face over the Basu fiasco. Now that the move has backfired, the CPM leadership attacked the Congress with vengeance.

Surjeet said the Congress has refused to learn lessons from the past, and Basu hinted that it had assured support to a third force government. ?Before the working committee meeting, Sonia Gandhi asked me to decide the party?s course of action,? Basu said before leaving for Calcutta.

Tempers are now frayed, but the CPM still may have no option other than supporting a Congress-led government in case of a fractured mandate after mid-term elections. Asked about his party?s post-electoral support to the Congress, Basu said: ?That is future scenario.?    

Calcutta, April 26 
Out on a regular Sunday fun trip with their father, Mudit Sharma, 8, and his brother Sumit, 6, became pawns in a tragedy: one was found strangulated in the abandoned family car late at night, while the other was traced wandering aimlessly in faraway Kharagpur.

Their father Manoj Sharma, a businessman who lives in CF block in Salt Lake, is missing.

At 10 pm today, the detectives began questioning a traumatised Sumit and mounted a state-wide search for Manoj Sharma.

On Sunday, Manoj had planned to take the children to Nicco Park, Victoria Memorial and dinner at their favourite restaurant on Shakespeare Sarani.

According to preliminary findings, Manoj went missing after the visit to Victoria. Ajoy Agarwal, a friend of Manoj, said the three went out around 4.30 pm.

Manoj Sharma?s wife, Kusum, spoke to him on the cellphone around 5.50 pm. He told her he would call again, but did not do so, another friend said.

?When they did not return his wife became panicky. Around 11.30 pm she informed relatives and friends,? he said. A missing diary was then lodged with the north Bidhannagar police station.

Later, Agarwal and friends fanned out to the areas adjoining Victoria Memorial and Shakespeare Sarani. Around 1.30 am, at the crossing of Park Street and Camac Street, they found the abandoned blue Maruti.

?The car was locked from inside with Mudit sitting on the front seat,? Agarwal said. They opened the doors after smashing the windscreen. Mudit was brought out of the vehicle motionless and rushed to SSKM hospital, where he was declared dead. A strangulation mark was seen around his neck.

The Park Street police station was informed and a murder case registered.

Equally intriguing was the discovery of Mudit?s brother. Deputy commissioner of police, detective department, Narayan Ghosh, said he was informed by the Kharagpur police station around 6 am that Sumit was found near the Debra More at 11.30 pm by some villagers.

Sumit was in the custody of the Midnapore police superintendent. ?He told the police that pappa chhorke chala gaya,? Ghosh added. Sumit also had strangulation marks on his neck, the police said. He was brought to the city tonight.

The police said Manoj Sharma passed through the second Hooghly bridge to proceed towards Howrah. A toll ticket, which was found in the pocket of Mudit, confirmed that they crossed the bridge around 5.40 pm.

His wife contacted him on the cellphone at 5.50 pm. ?We cross-checked the time of the call by his wife from a printout,? Ghosh added.

Deputy commissioner of police, south, R.K. Pachnanda, said Manoj Sharma did not disclose to his wife that he was proceeding towards Howrah when she called up.

?We have got some specific clues which suggest it was not a case of kidnapping,? Pachnanda added.    

New Delhi, April 26 
The recent political crisis, which saw the Congress president fail in her first bid for power at the Centre, has taught Politician Sonia Gandhi a few new commandments in realpolitik.

The first thing Sonia Gandhi learnt is when someone like Mulayam Singh Yadav says ?Yes?, it means ?No?. And if someone says ?No?, it could very well mean ?Yes?, as in the case of Jyoti Basu and his prime ministerial ambitions.

Sonia Gandhi has also realised that all ?secular? parties are not necessarily against the BJP and its allies. Their anti-Congressism and opposition to the Nehru-Gandhi family is so deeply ingrained that they could very well override ?secular? concerns, as in the case of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Forward Bloc, the Samajwadi Party, the DMK and Chandra Shekhar.

Though Congress MPs and senior party leaders are not keen on snap polls, they are all stoutly behind Sonia Gandhi. ?She is in the process of learning. She must have become wiser now,? a senior party leader said, admitting that the AICC chief had indeed thrown caution to the winds in her run for power, relying too much on Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Subramanian Swamy. But the party still sees Sonia Gandhi as its most effective vote-catcher and prime ministerial prospect.

?She took everything at face value even when dealing with mavericks. What we can hope is that she will be more careful next time,? an AICC functionary said.

Sonia Gandhi and many Congress Working Committee (CWC) members are still puzzled at the manner in which the CPM sought to change its stance. Congress leaders pointed out that Basu had turned down Sharad Pawar?s suggestion of being Prime Minister. Sonia Gandhi had also called on the CPM leader and he had then said nothing about correcting the ?historic blunder?.

However, on Sunday, Somnath Chatterjee confirmed that the CPM Politburo had cleared Basu?s name for the top job. ?Why was it not conveyed to Sonia Gandhi or Arjun Singh who were directly interacting with Basu and Surjeet? It is intriguing that the CPM leadership chose to inform Sharad Pawar about Basu?s willingness minutes before the CWC meeting. When Pawar informed the CWC, the unanimous view was that the party should not allow any third force formation,? a CWC member said.

Party leaders were, however, at pains to explain that it meant no disrespect to Basu. ?He is a towering leader. If he had any desire, the offer should have come straight,? a CWC member said.

Congress leaders said the CPM?s last-minute volte-face was much more surprising as a reluctant Sonia Gandhi had decided to pull the rug from under A.B. Vajpayee?s feet after the CPM had egged her on. ?The entire plan was hatched at CPM?s headquarters when Surjeet used all persuasive powers to convince the AICC chief to take the lead in the ?national interest?,? a Congress leader said.

In March, Sonia Gandhi met Surjeet thrice at his residence. The CPM leader was impressed by Sonia Gandhi?s grasp of politics and her forthright approach.

Sources close to Sonia Gandhi said the deal with Mulayam was struck by Surjeet who had promised ?unconditional support? to a Sonia Gandhi-led Congress government. Mulayam?s meeting with Sonia Gandhi went off well.

Congress sources claimed that the Mulayam-Sonia Gandhi meeting was arranged after the Samajwadi Party leader told Pawar that he was willing to back a Congress government.

Mulayam came out of 10 Janpath looking pleased as Sonia Gandhi had played the perfect host. She herself poured and served him tea. This was followed by generous compliments from Sonia Gandhi about Mulayam?s leadership qualities. She said her husband Rajiv Gandhi used to say that if the Congress had a leader like Mulayam, the party would have never lost Uttar Pradesh.

But Mulayam changed his mind after visiting Lucknow when party workers urged him not to commit harakiri. ?Let us do sangharsh (struggle) instead of committing suicide,? said Mulayam aide Azam Khan. He added that support to a Sonia Gandhi-led government would amount to political suicide.

A day after meeting President Narayanan, Sonia Gandhi today told party leaders she plans to go back to the Panchmarhi declaration, focusing on organisational matters. The Congress will not be looking for many allies except for Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar, Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu and Mayavati in Uttar Pradesh.    

Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky. Not much change in day and night temperature.

Temperature: Maximum 38?C (2?C above normal)
Minimum 28.4?C (2?C above normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 91%
Minimum 56%


Sunset: 5.58 pm
Sunrise: 5.10 am

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