Atal forced to toe BJP line on Sonia
Murder trail leads to VIP homes
Squall turns killer, raises false hopes in city
Nepal wakes up to dhoti power
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, May 2 
The BJP?s national executive today forced Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to give up his ?moderate? posture and go along with the party line on Congress president Sonia Gandhi?s foreign origin.

The BJP?s stand on Sonia Gandhi was expounded by L.K. Advani, who told reporters today: ?Her foreign origin has become an election issue, though we had no intention of making it one.? Vajpayee had said in interviews last week that a debate on Sonia Gandhi?s Italian antecedents was ?unhealthy? and he was not in favour of it.

Well-placed BJP sources, however, said that during a debate on the political resolution today, the last day of the national executive, Vajpayee?s opinion was repudiated by the members, who seemed to agree with Advani?s line that the common Indian was ?deeply? concerned about her Italian origin, especially after the Congress decided to project her as prime ministerial candidate.

A BJP leader said that after taking the majority opinion into account, ?Vajpayeeji agreed to abide by the party?s line on Sonia Gandhi?.

That the Sangh parivar was upset by Vajpayee?s remarks on Sonia Gandhi was evident from Advani?s prompt reaction to Vajpayee?s interviews. A day after they appeared, he spoke to a daily, stressing that Sonia Gandhi?s origin would be a major election plank. He obliquely justified the ?questions? raised on the issue and argued: ?Why do constitutions of many countries have specific embargoes of that kind? Why are our diplomats barred from marrying foreign nationals? There must certainly be some rationale behind all this.?

At the press briefing, Advani, however, clarified that the BJP?s campaign would not be entirely Sonia Gandhi-centred. ?There is no need to give too much emphasis on this issue,? he said. BJP sources indicated that the approach adopted on Sonia Gandhi would be the same as it was with ?emotive? issues in the past: the party?s campaign would be low-key, but other Sangh offshoots, like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal, would raise the pitch on the ?videshi? theme.

In his concluding speech, Vajpayee claimed that the situation now was ?eminently? in the BJP?s favour ?not only because of the manner in which our government was toppled and the Opposition failed to provide an alternative, but also because of the positive achievements of our government in the past 13 months?.

He said the campaign should not be overly ?personality-centred?, but ?focus on issues and our achievements?.

Vajpayee asserted that whether elections were held in June or September, the BJP?s principal adversary, the Congress, was faced with defeat. ?We prefer elections in June. But whatever decision the Election Commission takes suits us equally well. The Congress has only one choice: face defeat in June or face defeat in September.?

Vajpayee also waxed eloquent on the virtues of coalition politics, with the BJP having decided to contest the polls as part of a larger coalition front, without its own manifesto.

?Coalition politics is here to stay. One of our major achievements has been the way we have conducted coalition politics. The BJP has successfully passed the agnipareeksha of coalition politics,? he claimed.

Describing his allies as ?valuable partners?, Vajpayee said: ?Our relationship with them is not only for political gains. It has a wider socio-cultural significance. By sharing power and collectively conducting the affairs of governance with a national outlook, our alliance has contributed to the strengthening of India?s unity and integrity.?

He said the Congress failed to cobble an alternative because of its ?unwillingness to share power with other parties?.    

New Delhi, May 2 
Model Jessica Lal?s murder case is taking Delhi policemen to the doors of senior politicians.

Investigations have revealed that the man who fired the shots is Vashisht, alias Manu, son of Venod Sharma, minister of state in the Narasimha Rao government and former Congress Rajya Sabha MP.

Venod Sharma, who is now president of the party?s Chandigarh unit, has been asked to step down by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.

A late-night PTI report quoted Venod Sharma as saying he had no knowledge of his son?s whereabouts. He told the news agency that whenever he establishes contact with Manu, he would ask him to ?explain? his position and let the law take its course.

The former minister said he was fully co-operating with the police and denied that he had gone into hiding.

Delhi police had put up notices outside the Sharmas? residence and factory, asking family members to get in touch with them. ?I was busy taking care of my wife who is unwell. I met the Delhi police team this evening,? Venod Sharma said.

Police sources said he has been asked to reach Delhi tomorrow for questioning.

The police said they were pursuing leads that all three persons suspected to be involved in the murder at socialite Bina Ramani?s Tamarind Court restaurant could be related to politicians.

Eyewitnesses said they had seen, besides Manu, a Sikh youth quarrelling with Jessica and Ramani?s daughter, Malini. His name was initially reported as Siddharth, but Delhi police now believe that they might have been misled about the name. The police sources said he could be the son of a veteran Punjab politician.

A homeguard, who noted the Chandigarh registration number of the suspects? vehicle, and a few others present at the restaurant have referred to a third man. Preliminary reports indicated that this man, too, is related to a politician, this time from Uttar Pradesh. But it has not been conclusively proved whether he was involved in the incident at all.

Manu?s father, the police sources said, had acquired his Rs 2-lakh Webley Scott revolver at a throwaway price of Rs 9,000 from Customs. His short-tempered son, who, the police say, has a history of drunken brawls, was seen brandishing the gun on at least one occasion at a Delhi discotheque.

Webley Scotts are available in .22-bore make. Jessica, the post-mortem report said, was shot with a .22 revolver. The police today found the suspects? Tata Safari in Noida and recovered a .22 cartridge from the vehicle.    

Calcutta, May 2 
The season?s first thundersquall burst over parched Bengal, but fizzled out late tonight as it crawled towards the city.

The thundersquall, which brought short-lived relief to parts of the state sweltering in the heat, spelt disaster elsewhere, killing five persons in south Bengal.

Three persons were struck by lightning in Bankura. Among the two others who died, one fell into a well after being blinded by dust when a storm ripped through Asansol last night.

The initial signs of the thundersquall, better known as nor?wester, set off a wave of panic among farmers in Midnapore. Just seven days away from the harvest of the boro crop, the farmers have threatened to commit suicide in the event of nor?westers. Rains at this juncture could ruin the crop.

In Calcutta, a drizzle breezed through at dusk, shrouding the streets in a film of wet dust. The occasional flashes and booms sent hopes soaring in the city for a cooling shower, but the met office said at 1 am that the shell of the thundersquall had dissipated.

At 8.40 pm, the met office had said the nor?wester was lying 150 km northwest of the city and was being driven by a wind force estimated at 70 kmph.

?The dry spell is over, and yes, you may hope to have rain almost every day,? said Rajendra Nath Goldar, director of Alipore Meteorological Office, this evening.

Goldar, who has been swamped with calls from the public as well as agriculture, research and media organisations anxious at the absence of nor?westers ? a regular visitor at this time of the year ? said the chances of rain had brightened from Saturday.

?That was when the scalding westerly wind got replaced with the rain-making southerly wind,? Goldar said.

Though it did not reach Calcutta, the thunderstorm had cut a wide swathe in the past 24 hours, rolling across Bankura, Purulia, Birbhum and Burdwan, where the heat had claimed several lives and destroyed crops in the past two months.

North and South 24-Parganas, Howrah, Hooghly, Nadia and Midnapore districts, too, are expected to have rains.

A dust storm roared across Malda, Bengal?s mango orchard, last night, wreaking havoc in the groves. With an estimated 10 per cent of the fruit blown off the trees, there was distress selling of green mangoes at 50 paise to one rupee a kilo.

?We must have lost mangoes ? either by way of damage or distress sale ? worth a few crores,? said a district agriculture department officer.

The met office said the chances of rain in the days ahead had brightened owing to the accumulation of moisture in the upper and lower levels of the troposphere.

?It (the accumulation) was below 30 per cent in the lower level just two days ago, but rose to more than 45 per cent since Saturday,? Goldar said.

Heat alert in Delhi

As the thundersquall hit Bengal, northern India continued to be trapped in a blazing oven. After dragging Delhi through the hottest May Day in decades, the mercury today dropped a mere 0.2 degree Celsius from yesterday?s 44.4, five degrees above normal.

As a result, all government schools have been advised to advance their summer vacation by a week to 10 days and shut down from Monday.    

Kathmandu, May 2 
The ubiquitous Indian dhoti, worn the way it is in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, may determine the shape of the next government in Nepal as the country gets ready to vote in the first phase of parliamentary elections tomorrow.

The dhoti is not the poll symbol of any major party contesting Nepal?s 205-seat Parliament. Yet it has become a symbol of pride for Nepal?s 8.5 million settlers of Indian origin, of whom 5.2 million are registered voters and may have a say in the formation of the next government here.

The credit for converting the dhoti from a garment of daily use into an instrument of political power goes to Gajendra Narayan Singh, the 68-year-old founder-chairman of Nepal Sadbhavana Party (NSP), which is contesting 68 seats in Nepal?s Terai region, almost wholly populated by Nepalis of Indian origin.

Last year, when President K.R. Narayanan was in Nepal on a state visit, Singh refused to go to the royal palace to meet him because palace officials insisted he should wear Nepali dress and not a Bihari-style dhoti.

Indeed, for years, Singh and other NSP leaders have refused to visit King Birendra?s palace because Nepali dress is mandatory for such visits. In the process, they have boycotted all ceremonial occasions.

But last December, the palace gave in. After the coalition government headed by Girija Prasad Koirala lost its majority and Koirala recommended polls, the palace started a round of consultations with various parties on its course of action.

The crown prince who was acting as head of state ? King Birendra was in London for treatment after a heart attack ? invited Singh for talks. Palace officials, who knew Singh would refuse to wear Nepali dress, discreetly told the NSP chief that dhoti was no longer taboo in the palace.

It was the first time that a Nepali citizen wearing a dhoti had an audience with the royalty. To be fair, in the interest of Nepal?s ethnic unity and composite polity, Singh played down the incident, at least in conversations with foreign journalists. But, the import has not been lost on this country?s voters of Indian origin.

In the last elections, the NSP fielded 86 candidates, but only three won. This time, the party is expected to double the figure, optimists predicting even a three-fold increase. The importance of this increase lies in a fractured verdict most likely in the elections.

If the Nepali Congress (NC) is marginally short of a majority, as is widely expected, NSP, with six or nine seats, will have a decisive voice in the formation of Nepal?s next government.

As it is, NSP with three seats is part of the ruling coalition and has one minister in the 11-member Cabinet.

Of course, the dhoti is only part of NSP?s appeal to voters of Indian origin. The party, for instance, has demanded Hindi should be given the status of second official language in Nepal.

The party is also fighting for citizenship papers for all the 5.2 million voters of Indian origin. At present, 3.4 million of them are technically stateless, notwithstanding the curious fact that they have voting rights in Nepal.

But, for all his ethnic appeal, Singh resented any reference to his supporters as Nepali Indians.

?We are Madeshis,? he said, arguing that they were originally people of the central or middle kingdom between Nepal and India, and not Indians.

Semantics, which may have few takers in India, seem to be necessary for the NSP to be in the mainstream of Nepal?s fractious politics.    

Today?s forecast: Generally cloudy sky with possibility of showers or thunder shower towards afternoon or evening. Not much change in day and night temperature.

Temperature: Maximum 34.7 (1?C below normal)
Minimum 28.8?C (3?C above normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 84%
Minimum 61%

Rainfall: Trace

Sunset: 6 pm
Sunrise: 5.06 am

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