Jaswant, Talbott in nuke debate finals
Sonia faces CWC fire on arts centre
Digvijay caught in tomato rain
Thakre illness holds up talks
Congress wakes up to Gujarat RSS connection
Maneka seeks bar on PF loans
CPM nominees for bypolls

New Delhi, Jan. 17 
The two-day Indo-US talks set to begin in London tomorrow are seen by many here as the finals of the year-and-a-half-long discussions on nuclear non-proliferation and test ban.

While the CTBT and the NPT are the most important issues on the agenda of talks between foreign minister Jaswant Singh and US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, a successful culmination of the negotiations would lead to a �qualitatively different and better relationship� overall between the two nations.

Moreover, New Delhi�s signature on the CTBT or, as the Americans put it, �the early solution to nuclear issues� will help decide the date of US President Bill Clinton�s visit here.

But the problem is, how will the two sides articulate in public what they agree to in private? Will Singh have enough to show the country in return for a sign-up pledge? And how much can Talbott give away? He, too, has his own cares, especially the countries forced to give up the nuclear option. Can the US send any signal which will be seen as rewarding India while denying others?

On its part, Washington has shown some movement to help the Indian government overcome the resistance to the treaty. It has indicated that the Indian nuclear programme cannot be undone and that Delhi has the right to define its own nuclear force requirements.

However, there has been no word on India getting access to dual-use and sophisticated technology in the West.

For Jaswant, it may be difficult to give a date by which Delhi would sign the CTBT � though the BJP government realises this is the ideal time to do so.

The US Senate�s refusal to ratify the treaty has removed what little pressure there was from Washington. Even countries like Japan which were earlier dictating terms now ask India to sign the treaty so that bilateral relations can be restored.

But for Jaswant, the problem in fixing a date arises not only from the failure to build a national consensus but also from some latest developments in the country.

The first is the division within the BJP on the handling of the recent Airbus hijack. Hardliners in the party and the RSS are seething that three Kashmiri militants had to be released to save the hostages.

Many are questioning why the foriegn minister had to personally escort the terrorists to Kandahar. Any attempt to sign the treaty at this moment may be seen by these sections as another cave-in.

Another point concerns the US� plans on Pakistan. Delhi has long been talking about Islamabad-sponsored terrorism. The hijack led Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to demand that Pakistan be labelled a rogue state by the US. But so far, Washington has done very little to satisfy Delhi.

However, there are signs that the proposed visit to Pakistan by US assistant secretary of state Karl Inderfurth and American co-ordinator for counter-terrorism, Michael Sheehan will convey some blunt messages to Pervez Musharraf.    

New Delhi, Jan. 17 
The coterie was the pretext and Sonia Gandhi was the target.

As the AICC chief heard Jitendra Prasada and others in stoic silence raising queries about her ongoing feud with the government over control of Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) in Saturday�s Congress Working Committee meeting, Sonia could sense that she was no longer the most revered and unquestionable leader of the party.

The former vice-president of the Congress, Prasada, raised the IGNCA issue, asserting that the apex body had a right to know what was going on. Taking a dig at his arch rival Madhavrao Scindia, the Congress MP from Shajahanpur wondered how actions taken by a Congress government had boomeranged and got the party president into an embarrassing situation.

Taken by surprise, Scindia, who was the Union human resources development minister when Sonia was made IGNCA life president, could not react. He looked towards Manmohan Singh, who in turn gave a cue to Pranab Mukherjee to furnish an explanation. Giving a blow-by-blow account, Pranab said that he, along with Manmohan, had met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to settle the IGNCA issue. He had also written a letter to the Prime Minister. Pranab said that though Vajpayee had hinted at a rapprochement, the deal fell through as some �overzealous� ministers in the government wanted to �politicise� the issue.

Dissatisfied with the reply, some CWC members asked why the dispute was being dragged to courts as it would give the BJP and its allies a chance to malign the Congress leadership, particularly during the Assembly polls.

The political message from the CWC was loud and clear. Besides questioning Sonia�s authority, the dissidents also targeted her coterie, consisting of K. Natwar Singh, Arjun Singh, R.D. Pradhan, V. George and loyalist Ram Niwas Mirdha, who want Sonia to convert the IGNCA controversy into a political battle.

The rumblings in the Congress are likely to sharpen after the Assembly polls in four states, with the party having the daunting task of retaining Orissa or forming governments in Bihar, Manipur and Haryana.

10 Janpath loyalists sought to play down the rebellious mood in a section of the CWC. They said that Prasada�s remarks should be seen in the context of his isolation in Uttar Pradesh as Salman Khursheed has been reappointed PCC chief. With organisational polls round the corner, Prasada is desperate to retain his hold over the UPCC.    

Bhopal, Jan. 17 
Tomatoes took wing above the streets of Gwalior as angry BJP workers used the ammo to ambush chief minister Digvijay Singh�s convoy last evening.

Protesting against the Bhopal police�s alleged attack on BJP councillors, demonstrators targeted Digvijay�s car with stones and tomatoes while he was going from Gwalior airport to the VIP guest-house. However, the police moved in swiftly to control the crowd, which also showed black flags to the chief minister.

He had also been attacked in Indore last Saturday where the BJP used the same missiles. The party has vowed to pelt him with tomatoes wherever he goes.

During Saturday�s assault, BJP legislator and new Indore mayor Kailash Vijavargiya had led the charge. Yesterday�s operation in Gwalior was headed by former Bharatiya Yuva Morcha chief Narendra Singh Tomar.

Tomar is a loyalist of Uma Bharti, who put in her papers as Union minister so she could take her protest over the alleged police atrocity to the streets.

Bharti warned the chief minister today that �he should take the BJP�s movement seriously�, talking to reporters at the polytechnic square where her party is staging a dharna. Apart from physically targeting Digvijay, the BJP also burnt his effigies all over the state today.

Party leader Shivraj Sanjay Singh said more effigies would be hanged on Wednesday and the next day, the effigies would be thrashed with shoes as a symbolic protest.

To counter the BJP offensive, the Congress has started its own movement. The party has organised a dharna against Governor Bhai Mahavir, who has an RSS background and has passed some comments that have irked the Congress.

The Governor reportedly said after the alleged police action on the councillors that �the government should have gone for wrestling rather than elections�.

During a visit to Indore, he also expressed �deep worry over the law and order situation� in the state. �It is not a sudden development but the reflection of an administration which has long been inefficient,� he is said to have told an English daily.

The Congress� dharna against Bhai Mahavir is an indefinite one. The party�s MLA from Bhopal said: �We have sought an appointment from the Governor. The newly-elected Congress mayor and councillors want to meet him to ensure all 34 councillors are with the party, but the Governor�s office has not yet replied. We are also agitated over some remarks made by him.�    

New Delhi, Jan. 17 
The �tripartite� talks between the BJP, Samata Party and Janata Dal (U) on seat-sharing in Bihar, scheduled for today, failed to take off as BJP president Kushabhau Thakre was suddenly hospitalised.

Thakre, who was expected to bring the estranged Samata and JD(U) back to the talks table, was taken to Apollo Hospital because of post-operative complications arising from a recent angiography.

But BJP sources said Thakre�s illness was not the only problem. �God only knows when the JD(U) and Samata will agree to come together. They have become terribly suspicious of each other and think each is out to poach on the other�s territory,� said a BJP MP from Bihar.

With less than a month to go before the Assembly polls, the BJP has stepped up efforts to bring the Janata parivar parties out of their sulk.

A three-member team led by Bihar BJP chief Nand Kishore Yadav spoke with JD(U) leader and Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan for over two hours. Later, the BJP delegation met Samata leaders Digvijay Singh and Vashisht Narain Singh. The meeting with a third ally, Anand Mohan, took place yesterday.

It is learnt that Samata has stuck to its demand for 130 of the 324 Assembly seats, while the JD(U) has claimed around 90. Anand Mohan Singh wants 41 seats. This leaves the BJP with 163.

The BJP leader in charge of Bihar, Kailashpati Mishra, also attended a meeting this evening with Samata chief George Fernandes at the residence of finance minister Yashwant Sinha.

The Samata contingent of Fernandes, Jaya Jaitley, Nitish Kumar and Digvijay Singh today met at the defence ministry office to finalise their claim before letting the BJP know.

Yesterday, both Fernandes and JD(U) chief Sharad Yadav had one-to-one meetings with Thakre.

The BJP was, however, confident it could persuade its Bihar allies to agree on a joint manifesto and campaign, although initially the BJP itself had been against a common programme.    

Ahmedabad, Jan. 17 
The Congress has suddenly woken up to the fact that action is needed against the licence given to Gujarat government officials� association with the RSS.

The Opposition party had been licking its wounds after its elections losses and could offer only muted resistance when the Keshubhai Patel government lifted the ban on state officials fraternising with the Sangh parivar.

The move had caused a flutter everywhere else, but the Congress, decimated in the general elections as well as the municipal polls here, took time to find its voice.

Now, after discussions, the party has decided to lay siege to the Assembly on the first day of the budget session on February 21.

The strategy was adopted on Sunday after district presidents of the Youth Congress, Mahila Congress, Seva Dal and the National Students Union of India met with state party chief C.D. Patel.

Even before the Patel administration �officially� lifted the ban on January 3, prior to the huge shankalp shibir held here, many state officers had been openly attending RSS shakhas. In fact, some were not even aware of the ban.

Though the planned siege is more than a month away, Congress leaders were unanimous in their �concern� at the rapid �saffronisation� of the state.

The Gujarat unit�s communiqu� pointed out that lifting the ban was a government conspiracy to �penetrate the services with RSS ideology�.

The party also decided to submit a memorandum to Governor Sundar Singh Bhandari and all the district collectors. They would also hold demonstrations at district and taluka levels.

Expressing concern that the �apolitical character of the services� would be affected, C.D. Patel claimed that organisations belonging to the sangh parivar were vitiating law and order in the state.

The party communiqu� added that the All-India Congress Committee would be requested to take up the issue with the President.    

New Delhi, Jan. 17 
Maneka Gandhi today stressed the need for a new pension scheme for the unorganised workforce and added that pre-retirement withdrawal of provident fund in the organised sector should be allowed only in case of death or permanent disability.

In a report to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the social justice and empowerment minister painted a grim picture of India�s aging population in the coming decades.

The report, Old Age Social and Income Security (OASIS), says the country is going through a phase of �rapid demographic transition� and argues that �today�s workers can be expected to live at least 17 years after they retire at age 60�. According to the report�s demographic projections, the number of aged will rise to 179 million by 2026 which is 13.3 per cent of the population.

Gandhi says that of the �estimated working population of 314 million in the country, barely 34 million are eligible to participate in formal provisions meant to provide old age income security�.

According to her, those who had been above the poverty line during their working life, might suddenly sink after superannuation.

�This problem is compounded since they will have to incur heavier expenditure on health during old age, neglect of which will only worsen their quality of life,� she said.

Maneka acknowledges that it is impossible for the government to meet this huge demand of funds. For instance, she says, a monthly pension of Rs 100 to the projected 175 million elderly in 2025 would mean an annual outflow of over Rs 21,000 crore.

The problem, she said, would have to be solved through thrift and self-help. Apart from blocking premature policy withdrawal, Maneka suggested better management of the employees� pension scheme as �the fund management that is presently being practised with EPS 1995 is inefficient�.    

Calcutta, Jan. 17 
The CPM on Monday announced its candidates for the February 17 byelections in Suri, Nabagram and Binpur.

Former Birbhum zilla parishad sabhadhipati Brojo Mukherjee will contest from Suri, while freshers, Nripen Chowdhury and Dibakar Hansda are the party candidates for Nabagram and Binpur respectively.

The Trinamul Congress will field former Congress MLA from Suri, Suniti Chattoraj.

Trinamul Congress spokesman Jayanta Bhattacharya said the party might concede Nabagram to the BJP as part of its electoral tie-up at the Centre. However, the party will contest in Binpur.

�A final decision will be taken after Mamata Banerjee returns next week,� Bhattacharya said.

The Congress is yet to announce its candidates for the three seats.

Nabagram and Suri seats fell vacant after sitting Congress MLAs, Adhir Chowdhury and Suniti Chattoraj, resigned to contest the Lok Sabha polls. The death of sitting Jharkhand Party MLA Naren Hansda at Binpur necessitated a bypoll there.    


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