Atal at Sangh door to tame hijack hawks
Spy on plane kept Delhi grounded
Tax bite begins with petrol price

New Delhi, Jan. 2: 
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has been in touch with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for the past two days to ensure that hardliners realise the government had few options other than releasing the three militants in exchange for the hostages on the hijacked plane.

Parivar hawks, including its more zealous frontal organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, have been unusually quiet over the past few days, though they are upset over the government�s �soft handling� of the hijack crisis.

A possible meeting between a peeved L.K. Advani, who reportedly threatened to resign a couple of days ago, and Vajpayee was not possible today because the home minister had gone on a holiday with his family. Vajpayee, too, left for Pune in the afternoon to address the inaugural session of the Indian Science Congress.

Nevertheless, to placate the RSS leadership, Vajpayee, according to sources, has spoken to its chief, Rajju Bhaiya, and tried to explain in detail the circumstances under which the government had to release the militants.

The Prime Minister has said that a tougher line would have kept not just the affected families but the entire nation on tenterhooks, especially as the hijackers had revealed their unpredictable streak through the cold-blooded murder of Rupin Katyal.

The hardliners are also peeved at the way Vajpayee�s �coterie� had taken over the management of the crisis and operated from within the precincts of either South Block or Race Course Road.

The main players who set the policy of negotiations and struck the final bargain were foreign minister Jaswant Singh and national security adviser Brajesh Mishra. Ministers like Pramod Mahajan also appeared to be playing a role that was outside their jurisdiction.

Advani was sidelined from the crisis management to such an extent that the decision that some militants would have to be released was taken on December 29 when he was away.

Advani missed the Cabinet meeting and the even more vital parleys among members of the Cabinet Committee on Security as he had to be in Chennai for the BJP�s national executive.

On December 30, the day the government took a final decision to release Masood Azhar and two others, Advani spoke out his mind at the Cabinet meeting.

The very fact that Advani left for a holiday on January 1 suggests all is not well within the Cabinet at a time when the government should be focusing on efforts to contain the fallout of the militants� release in Kashmir. The hardliners, who would rather trust Advani than Vajpayee, have noted these developments with a degree of outrage.

Observers feel that if the mood is not defused, it could build up into a bruising confrontation between the Vajpayee camp and hardliners within the party and the rest of the parivar.

Since the days of Christian-bashing at the behest of Vishwa Hindu Parishad supporters, Vajpayee has managed to carry the party with himself. During the poll campaign, he was able to project a larger-than-life image, the party basking in reflected glory.

The way the hijack drama was concluded and the consequent rebuff to hardliners are now being viewed as the final insult which can only be followed by a backlash from those sidelined.

For Vajpayee�s own good and for the moderate face of the BJP to be in ascendance, the party cannot be strengthened. This is why the Prime Minister�s close associates will be happy if a weak Kushabhau Thakre continues to be the party president.

There are now several functionaries in the BJP, who, for sheer revival of the BJP�s long-avowed but now marginalised policies, would like Advani to take over the party mantle.

But if Advani moves to the helm, it can only lead to a confrontation between the two pillars of the BJP. Race Course Road would like to avoid this at all costs.

Besides, it is Advani�s home ministry which will have to lead the fightback against terrorism. The Prime Minister�s office knows that if Vajpayee fails to remove these misunderstandings at the earliest, a new Kashmir policy will have to wait. The government will then be viewed as weak-kneed which buckles readily under pressure.    

New Delhi, Jan. 2: 
The presence of an Indian intelligence official, monitoring ISI activities in Kathmandu, on Flight IC 814 was one of the main reasons India could not drive a hard bargain with the hijackers and was forced to release three Kashmiri militants to resolve the eight-day crisis.

Indian officials are also verifying reports that the hijacking was originally planned for December 27, but was brought forward when the terrorists got wind that the intelligence official would be taking the flight on Christmas eve.

The New Delhi-Kathmandu flight is used frequently by officials and staff members of the Indian embassy in Nepal.

India had few options once the hijacked aircraft was taken to Kandahar. The Taliban shura � the highest policy-making body of the ruling militia in Afghanistan � made it clear that it would not allow armed action by foreign troops on its soil, cutting short any plans Delhi might have had of storming the aircraft. The presence of 45 women and two children among the passengers also weighed heavy on the government�s mind.

But insiders say that one of the main bargaining chips the hijackers used to secure the release of the three militants � Mohammed Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Ahmed Omar Sayed Sheikh � was the secret agent.

Indian negotiators could not explore other ways of resolving the crisis once they realised the sensitive material and information the operative was privy to. This, together with pressure from family members of the passengers to secure safe and early return of the hostages, forced the government to free the militants.

Now that the crisis is over, India will seek the international community�s support to force Pakistan to hand over the five hijackers and the three militants, who have reportedly reached Quetta in Baluchistan.

Indicating the government�smood, the BJP, at its national executive in Chennai, demanded that Pakistan should hand over the hijackers to India without further delay.

Anticipating this demand both from India and the international community, Pakistan has started preparing the ground to prove that it had nothing to do with the hijacking and that the criminals had not crossed over to Quetta.

Pakistan foreign ministry spokesman Tariq Altaf also denied that the hijackers were Pakistanis. Agency reports from Islamabad quoted him as saying: �Levelling of baseless and false accusations against Pakistan is a peculiar element of Indian tactics.�

When reminded that Singh had said there was a �qualitative and quantitative difference in the arms the hijackers had initially and when it (the plane) reached Kandahar�, Altaf argued that flight IC 814 had originated from New Delhi and also stopped over at Amritsar. �The arms could have been delivered to them at these places,� he said.

But mixed signals emanated from Pakistan on the action it would take if and when the hijackers were found. While a senior official said Islamabad condemns acts of terrorism and abides by international conventions, other top officials were quoted as saying Pakistan would consider the hijackers� request if they wanted to enter Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Another report, quoting security- in-charge at Khyber pass Rana Aftab, said: �We are cautiously alert. We will not allow them entry.�

However, experts and analysts have little doubt that the hijackers crossed over to Quetta. Former ISI chief Hamid Gul said the hijackers must be inside Pakistan and, within days, they were likely to be boasting about their achievements.

�The borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan are very porous. There is no way you could monitor them or exercise control over them there,� he said. He pointed out that tribes which straddle both sides of the border can give the hijackers sanctuary.

Brajesh claims proof

National security adviser Brajesh Mishra told a televison channel tonight there was �enough and clear� evidence to suggest that Pakistan was involved in the hijacking.    

Calcutta, Jan. 2: 
The West Bengal government has raised the sales tax on petrol by Rs 2.42, kicking off a sweeping recast that will revise prices of products ranging from flour to cars.

The sales tax increase has pushed up the price of a litre of petrol to Rs 26.98 in the state.

The decision, implemented from January 1 as part of a commitment by all states and Union territories to introduce uniform sales tax floor rates, has sparked resentment among Left Front partners and industry associations.

Besides petrol, the prices of several other items have gone up by varying rates. The full range of the products covered and the scale of the price revisions will be clear only in a day or two.

A conference of finance ministers in New Delhi had finalised the items and the modalities to bring them under the uniform floor rates. It was decided that the floor rates for essential and mass-use items would be kept low at 4 per cent. Items in this category include flour, unbranded bread, books and periodicals.

Cars, readymade garments, jute and glassware, oil cakes, pasteurised milk and bulbs will draw floor rates ranging from 5 to 12 per cent.

The maximum uniform floor rate of sales tax � 20 per cent � will be levied on petroleum products other than diesel, liquor, molasses, rectified spirit and narcotics.

�The sales tax on about 220-odd items was identified for uniform floor rates,� state finance secretary Ashoke Gupta added. He clarified that states were at liberty to go above these floor rates, �but they cannot go below them�.

�It had been seen that because of the differences in sales tax rates from state to state, buyers were getting products from places where the rates were low and using them in states where they were high,� Gupta pointed out.

Bihar, Orissa, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab are some of the states that are implementing the revised rates from January 1.

West Bengal�s ruling Left Front partners, like the CPI and the Forward Bloc, have not taken kindly to the price increase.

Ashok Ghosh, Bloc state secretary, said he would demand a meeting of the Front to discuss the issue. The CPI said it would seek a meeting with the other Left partners. �If the entire increase is passed on to the common man, it will prove an additional burden,� a party spokesman said.

Chambers of commerce have also condemned the move, saying that it would affect the growth of the automobile industry, which had started to look up in the state.

Circulars notifying the hikes were apparently distributed by the sales tax office in Calcutta on Saturday to trade associations.

The West Bengal Petroleum Dealers� Association received its circular late, according to its president, Kalyan Bhadra. �We could not distribute copies to our members in time,� he said, explaining why some petrol pumps were charging customers the old rates on Sunday morning.



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