Sushma surprise to Sonia suspense
Poll panel poops PM press party
Basu looks to Delhi in explosive tug-of-war
Double date bungle in army citations
Calcutta weather

Bangalore, Aug. 18 
After a cat-and-mouse game through much of last night and till noon today, Sonia Gandhi took the electoral plunge from Bellary, the ?hottest? place in Karnataka, and the BJP pulled Sushma Swaraj out of its sleeve to spring on the Congress president.

Accompanied by Ghulam Nabi Azad, Sonia Gandhi reached Bellary by helicopter from Hyderabad. She had lunch at the house of K.C. Kondaiah ?the original Congress nominee from Bellary ? and waited for the rahu kalam (inauspicious period) to pass before filing her nomination at 2.15 pm.

Soon after Sonia Gandhi left the deputy commissioner?s office after filing the papers, Sushma arrived to file hers. The BJP was alerted late last night that the Congress president could contest from Bellary, where her party has never lost an election. Venkaiah Naidu and Ramakrishna Hegde held emergency discussions and zeroed in on Sushma Swaraj as the BJP?s candidate.

Telephone lines between Bangalore and Delhi crackled all night. After consultations with Kushabhau Thakre, L.K. Advani and finally, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, Sushma was rushed to Bangalore by the morning flight.

Naidu and Ananth Kumar accompanied her by helicopter to Bellary, which is 450 km away. They reached at 1.15 pm and put up at Pola Paradise, the only star hotel in the town.

On his return to Bangalore, Venkaiah Naidu said Sushma, who had earlier declined to contest these elections, agreed to take on Sonia Gandhi as a ?political mission?. He claimed Sushma would create history in Bellary by becoming a ?giant-killer?. The BJP has already launched its campaign against the Congress president, billing the Bellary battle as one between a ?videshi? naari and a swadeshi naari.

If Sonia Gandhi withdraws her nomination, Sushma will also take back her papers, Naidu said. So will Rajashekhar Murthy, who has been fielded as a dummy candidate. The seat will then go to the Lok Shakti, which had contested it in 1998, he added.

Naidu said the fact that Sonia Gandhi?s candidature was kept a secret made it clear that the Congress was nervous. Till before Sonia Gandhi left for Bellary, there was no confirmation from the Congress that she would contest from Karnataka. Since she arrived in Hyderabad last night, there was speculation that the Congress president would file her nomination from either Bellary or Cuddapah, in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

Azad today tried to throw reporters off the track by indicating she would file from Cuddapah. ?Why should we come to Hyderabad if we have to go to Bellary?? he asked.

In the evening, Congress spokesman Pranab Mukherjee told reporters in New Delhi: ?There is no question of secrecy. We kept you in a little bit of suspense.? He indicated that Sonia Gandhi would also contest from Amethi, saying: ?She has not left the constituency. Wait for two-three days.?

Explaining why Sonia Gandhi chose Bellary over Cuddapah, Azad said: ?We gave both seats a lot of thought. In view of the overwhelming demand from Bellary, we decided to go that way.? He claimed a crowd of 30,000 had gathered to greet Sonia Gandhi at Bellary within minutes of her unannounced arrival.

Ridiculing the BJP, Azad said: ?Their candidate had been airlifted overnight and placed in a neighbouring district, exposing the frustration in the BJP and its partners. They are scared of Sonia Gandhi.?

Congressmen believe Sonia Gandhi?s candidature from Bellary will have a cascading effect on neighbouring constituencies and bolster the party?s prospects in both Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, which together account for 70 seats.

Known for its hot chillis and high-quality cotton, Bellary has recently emerged as a steel city with three big steel plants coming up in the private sector. It has been a happy hunting ground for the Congress. Basavarajeshwari, who was a minister in the Narasimha Rao Cabinet, represented the constituency thrice, before making way for K.C. Kondaiah in 1996.

Kondaiah, a liquor baron from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, won comfortably by 63,000 votes in the last elections. But in 1996, he was given a scare by Janata Dal?s N. Thippanna, scraping through with a margin of only 4,100 votes.

Sonia Gandhi can take comfort from the fact that Karnataka has always been hospitable to the Nehru-Gandhi family. Her mother-in-law had won a historic battle from Chikmagalur in 1978 after being routed in the aftermath of Emergency. When the Congress faced decimation in the north in the 1977 elections, Karnataka had returned 27 of the 28 Congress candidates to the Lok Sabha.

The Congress votebank has shrunk since the 1994 Assembly polls, touching 24.85 per cent in 1996. There was a revival of sorts in 1998 as it climbed back to 36.22 per cent, but the party won only nine seats. The split in the Janata Dal and the differences between the BJP and the Janata Dal(U) over seat-sharing have boosted the Congress? morale.    

New Delhi, Aug. 18 
The Election Commission and the Prime Minister?s Office (PMO) are on the warpath again.

Three weeks after criticising the government for hurrying through the telecom package, the panel ? after a meeting of the three election commissioners ? has turned down a request from the PMO to include journalists in the Prime Minister?s campaign tours.

Only a Doordarshan camera team with a single correspondent has been allowed to board the Prime Minister?s ?special official aircraft?.

A furious PMO today insisted that this was an ?unfair? decision. The PMO is willing to have the Prime Minister?s party fund his election tours. In fact, said a PMO spokesman, the BJP had set aside money for the tours. ?We cannot help it if security concerns make it compulsory for the Prime Minister to travel only on special Air Force planes?, he added.

Last week, the PMO got in touch with the panel, requesting Chief Election Commissioner M.S. Gill to permit Vajpayee to take a team of reporters with him. Expecting that clearance would not be a problem, the PMO even told a group of journalists to accompany Vajpayee on a campaign tour of Varanasi and Kanpur.

But no response came from the panel. At the last moment, the journalists had to be called up at home yesterday and informed that Vajpayee?s entourage would leave without them.

After a meeting of the three commissioners, the panel sent a note to the PMO this morning. ?The matter has been considered in a full commission meeting on August 17, 1999. The commission is to inform you that only one camera team of Doordarshan with a correspondent can accompany the Prime Minister in the special official aircraft used by the Prime Minister for his election campaign,? the note said.

PMO sources said security considerations did not permit the Prime Minister to charter an ordinary plane even if he wanted to.

The sources said that the BJP lost money because it had to pay much more for the 35-seater Air Force aircraft.

Congress chief Sonia Gandhi could always hire a cheaper 20-seater aircraft and carry 10 journalists on board if she so desired, the sources said.

The PMO said though the panel has been clamouring for a level playing field for all politicians, ?this is far from a level playing field because Sonia Gandhi stands to gain from such a decision?.

PMO sources said they had made it clear to the panel that if it insisted, reporters accompanying Vajpayee would pay for themselves.

The PMO insisted that this was ?discrimination? because in previous elections, Prime Ministers in their caretaker capacities had been allowed the privilege. The panel was virtually banning journalists on board the Prime Minister?s aircraft, the PMO said.

The commission has not explained why the Doordarshan team should be allowed.

In the past, one of the criticisms levelled against any government facing elections had been that it was ?misusing official machinery? by ensuring more footage on Doordarshan. The panel has also not said why Doordarshan?s presence on the aircraft does not upset the level playing field.    

Aug. 18 
Breaking his silence on the unfolding explosives seizure drama, chief minister Jyoti Basu admitted tonight to a joint raid by West Bengal and Assam Police last Saturday somewhere along the Indo-Bangla border.

Basu said he would appeal to New Delhi to arbitrate on the matter of handing over the seized explosives to Assam, as demanded by the police there in a letter to Bengal.

Basu told The Telegraph this evening: ?I know that there was a joint operation by the Assam and Bengal police somewhere along the border. The policemen were inside Indian territory, but I don?t know the exact place. Buddhadev (Bhattacharya) knows. This is a very serious thing and we will have to take up the issue with the Centre.??

But home (police) minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya denied having received any requisition from Assam. ?I have no knowledge of this letter and as only a humble home minister of this state, I do not know what the Assam government is talking about,?? he said.

Although Basu admitted to a joint raid along the border, Bhattacharya refused comment even today.

According to senior officials, the Bengal government decided to bring the Centre into the picture as it realised that Assam chief minister Prafulla Mahanta?s inadvertent admission in his Independence Day speech to an unauthorised joint raid on foreign soil could spark a diplomatic row between India and Bangladesh.

Mahanta yesterday spoke to Basu and asked him to let the case proceed according to law. He also requested Basu to ensure that the seized 30 kg of explosives are handed back to them.

Assam director-general of police P.V. Sumant said the requisition had been routed through the proper channels and once the formalities are completed, the consignment should reach Assam.

Unlike yesterday, Mahanta refused to get drawn into the controversy over the seized explosives. Asked to comment on returning the consignment to Assam, Basu had said earlier in the day: ?We don?t know anything about that.??

The Assam chief minister said: ?I will not speak on what you say is Basu?s remark on handing over the explosives.??

Assam chief secretary P.K. Borah affirmed that the DGPs of the two states have been in touch since yesterday on the requisition letter.

Sumant said late this evening he was still waiting for a reply to his letter from his Bengal counterpart Deepak Sanyal.

Sanyal, however, denied having received the letter. ?I will not speak on this matter any more,?? he added.    

New Delhi, Aug. 18 
Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav of the 18th Grenadiers was given a ?posthumous? Param Vir Chakra. But he is alive in an army hospital in Delhi.

This is not the only mistake in the army?s list of citations for the four soldiers awarded the Param Vir Chakra. For the family of Captain Vikram Batra, a young officer with the Jammu and Kashmir Rifles who had caught the nation?s imagination by using the Pepsi slogan Yeh Dil Mange More in the context of the front, the army?s citation must be a cruel joke.

Batra had survived the battle for Point 5140 next to Tololing in the Drass sector on June 20. He was interviewed by television crews after he came down from the peak. He had sought other daunting assignments and was killed during the capture of Peak 4875 in Mushkoh Valley around July 6-7.

The army citation for Batra reads: ?On 20 June, 1999, when 13 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles was tasked to capture Point 5140, Captain Vikram Batra prevailed upon his commanding officer to let him lead the battalion attack... Leading from the front, he rallied his men and pressed on the attack till he succumbed to his wounds.?

The citation goes on: ?For his sustained display of the most conspicuous personal bravery and junior leadership of highest order in the face of the enemy on two separate occasions, Captain Vikram Batra... Param Vir Chakra, posthumously?.

The army got it awfully wrong. Batra had survived on June 20. He died fighting at another peak at least a fortnight later. The Telegraph photographer had taken his picture, raring for another battle, as late as June 29. It was published in the newspaper in its edition of July 3.

The army acknowledged in the last sentence of the citation that Batra had displayed exemplary bravery on two ?separate occasions?. But it jumbled up the two instances and made them one while describing Batra?s courage.

In the citation to Lieutenant Manoj Kumar Pandey of the 1/11 Gorkha Rifles ? who was posthumously awarded a Param Vir Chakra ? the army made a similar mistake in date. Pandey was killed on July 2-3 during the fight for Khalubar peak after recapturing Jubar top in Batalik.

The citation, however, said: ?On the night of June 2/3... Lieutenant Pandey stepped forward to take on the mission... Bleeding, he collapsed at the final bunker and finally succumbed to his injuries, but not before the last of the enemy had been annihilated.?

After this mistake was pointed out, the army started correcting the typed sheet and is overwriting June with July.

Much the same way, Grenadier Yadav?s wife, Reena, had to bring to the army?s notice that it had awarded her living husband the Param Vir Chakra posthumously.

Army chief General V.P. Malik had to pay a visit to the hospital to compliment the wounded grenadier, from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh.

It appeared that the military establishment was desperate to have some names announced by August 15. In fact, the army reached the office of the military secretary in South Block with the recommendations as late as August 11 for scrutiny.

The army was told that the President ? the Supreme Commander of the armed forces ? will take at least 10 days to go through them. But the defence establishment finally gave way to this request from the army and the list of Param Vir Chakra and other awards, including Mahavir or Vir Chakras, were hastily made ready.

There seemed to have been political compulsions. The government wanted the announcements on Independence Day to give the ruling party some advantage in an election year.

Critics said the army ensured that at least one of the four recipients of the Param Vir Chakra was from Gomti Nagar in Lucknow, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee?s constituency.    

Today?s forecast: A few spells of light rain with one or two showers or thunder showers.

Temperature: Maximum 32.6?C (1?C above normal)
Minimum 25.4?C (1?C below normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 98%
Minimum 69%

Rainfall: 98.5 mm

Sunset: 6.04 pm
Sunrise: 5.16 am

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