Pak loads Clinton flashpoint gun
Hillary skirts funds booby trap
Cabinet nod for uniform VRS in public sector
Sinha changes rollback tune
Bar & bench on collision course
Calcutta weather

March 16 
Turning up the heat in South Asia in an effort to force President Bill Clinton to armtwist India, Pakistan has stationed nuclear-tipped missiles within range of targets across the border. But Delhi deflected the threat and put the onus back on Islamabad by focusing on Washington’s call to respect the Line of Control.

US scientists yesterday released satellite photographs showing a Pakistani plutonium reactor at Khushab, near Lahore, and a dozen garages for missile launchers at a nearby airbase in Sargodha.

“Pakistan has laid the ground for a force of dozens of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of striking Indian cities and military bases,” said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists.

Up to 84 Chinese-made M-11 missiles were loaded on trucks at Sargodha and positioned across the country. Pakistan can also arm its Ghauri missiles with uranium bombs, the agency added.

“But Pakistan is in danger of having most of its nuclear eggs in one basket, which would be a tempting target for a pre-emptive Indian attack in a time of crisis,” Pike said.

India, however, brushed aside the missile threat. “Don’t be alarmed. We are studying the photographs,” foreign minister Jaswant Singh said in Delhi.

Observers said Pakistan’s effort to escalate the tension days before Clinton begins his trip is aimed at getting the President to nudge India towards the talks table. Clinton has said he wants to restore peace in the subcontinent, which he believes is the “most dangerous place in the world” because of Kashmir. Delhi has ruled out resuming the stalled dialogue unless Pakistan stops terror export to Kashmir.

India’s effort to keep Pakistan on the backfoot on Kashmir received a fillip with US secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s call yesterday to “respect the LoC” to restore normality in Kashmir.

The remarks by Albright, considered a hawk on US foreign policy, are perceived to be directed towards Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf, credited with masterminding the Kargil intrusions.

“After the Kargil conflict, we asked for vacation of intrusion and respect and restoration of the LoC,” Singh said. “The US stand is a re-affirmation of the validity of the LoC.” India feels the gathering world opinion on respect for the LoC weakens Pakistan’s effort to play the Kashmir card.

Singh did not spell out whether Indo-Pak relations would be discussed during Clinton’s visit as there were no fixed items on the agenda. But indications suggest that the issue, especially Kashmir, is likely to be taken up.

Laying the ground for Delhi’s argument, foreign ministry spokesman R.S. Jassal said: “For peace and tranquillity, Pakistan should respect the sanctity of the LoC. This advice has been given to Pakistan by the international community, including Russia, the European Union and the US.”

Albright’s statement was echoed by China as well. Beijing’s ambassador in Delhi Zhou Gang said “peace and tranquillity should be maintained along the LoC” and the Kashmir dispute should be resolved in the spirit of the agreements signed at Shimla and Lahore.

Highlighting the LoC’s sanctity helps India in two ways. First, it gives Delhi the chance to rally world support that adhering to the LoC is the only way to maintain peace in South Asia. Second, it helps India point to cross-border terrorism and weaken the Pakistani argument on Kashmir and its support to militants there.

India is bound by a parliamentary resolution which calls for getting even those parts of Jammu and Kashmir under “illegal Pakistani-occupation”. But it cannot ignore world opinion that the only way to solve the problem is by converting the LoC into an international border. The government does not want to articulate this publicly since it does not want to surrender its “maximalist” position on Kashmir.    

Washington, March 16 
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped in on Wednesday to salvage President Bill Clinton’s trip to Pakistan and prevent the scandal over a $50,000 contribution by Pakistani-Americans to her election campaign, from overshadowing the presidential stopover in Islamabad.

Campaigning in Albany in New York state for the Senate, the First Lady said: “If anybody thinks they can influence the President by making a contribution to me, they are dead wrong and I think there is no evidence of that.”

She was immediately asked if she had spoken to her husband about stopping over in Pakistan after Pakistani-Americans contributed $50,000 to her election campaign at a dinner.

Hillary Clinton refused a direct answer by merely saying: “I don’t talk about what I talked to the President about on any issue.”

The First Lady’s decision to personally intervene in the controversy after leaving it for 24 hours to her spokesman and that of the White House, suggests anxiety at the top about it getting out of hand and becoming an albatross round the President’s neck during Clinton’s visit to South Asia with nearly 200 American reporters in tow.

Already the US media is going to town about the fund-raising with detailed accounts of the dinner. It was revealed on Wednesday that each of the 50 Pakistani-Americans, who attended the dinner, paid $1000 to be let in and allowed to rub shoulders with the First Lady for two hours.

In a country where Indian cuisine is the rising flavour, what with Clinton and his family occasionally dropping in at Indian restaurants here, the media has printed graphic details of the menu for the Staten Island meal: Spicy goat curry, kebabs, barbecued chicken, rice.

Privately, administration officials here are expressing relief that there will be no joint news conference by Clinton and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in New Delhi. Officials feared that the Pakistani-American fund-raising could have been raised either by American correspondents travelling with Clinton or by their Indian colleagues at any such news conference.

An old India hand at the US State department compared the growing scandal to allegations in India during P V Narasimha Rao’s prime ministership, that stockbroker Harshad Mehta had paid Rs 1 crore to the then Prime Minister. The official recalled, by way of comparison, that when Rao was signing landmark accords with Sultan Qaboos of Oman in Muscat in 1993, Mehta was holding a news conference in Mumbai, giving details of his alleged contribution to Rao. The suitcase scandal cast a long shadow over Rao’s otherwise successful visit to Oman.

Officials here are also concerned that the fund-raising is now being questioned by consumer activists and others, thus taking the issue beyond one of mere media concern.

Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, was quoted by Associated Press on Wednesday as saying: “What we find troubling is that a group of Americans are being told that the price of admission is $50,000 to have access to a future US Senator.”

Harshbarger said the controversy has strengthened the perception that access to the Clinton White House can be bought.

What is also worrying the Clintons is the cautious but calculated reaction to the issue by Hillary Clinton’s opponent in the Senate race in New York, the city’s Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani.

Keen not to write off Pakistani-American voters in New York, yet anxious to gain maximum mileage from the developing scandal, Giuliani said about the dinner: “Whatever happened with Pakistan —- or did not happen —- I don’t know. Somebody else can figure that out.”

Clearly, Giuliani has not exonerated Hillary Clinton; nor has he criticised her directly. He is leaving the scandal aside as ammunition for future use as the Senate race hots up.

For the Democratic Party nominee in this year’s presidential election, Vice President Al Gore, the Pakistani-American contribution to Hillary Clinton could not have come at a worse time.

As he steps up his campaign after sewing up the party’s choice, the Staten Island dinner is threatening to revive ghosts of questionable fund-raising in the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. On Wednesday, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd scoffed at Hillary Clinton’s denial that the President could be influenced through a contribution to her by Pakistani-Americans.

“Come again?” Dowd wrote. “If big spenders did not think they could influence the President by currying favour with the First Lady, then why did Johnny Chung spend hours in the east wing (of the White House) gazing at pictures of Hillary and waiting for brief audiences with her?” Dowd was referring to an earlier case of questionable fund-raising.

Dowd continued: “Mr Chung who gave Mrs Clinton’s aide, Maggie Williams, a cheque for $ 50,000, compared the White House to a subway (metro). “You have to put in the coins to open the gates. No blarney there.”

The comparison she is making to the Pakistani American effort is obvious.    

New Delhi, March 16 
The Cabinet today cleared a uniform voluntary retirement scheme for all public sector employees, a decision that could invite a fresh round of labour strife.

Under the retirement scheme, public sector units will be divided into three categories: financially sound, marginally profit- or loss-making and sick and unviable.

In sick units, an employee who has completed 10 years of service or 40 years of age may seek retirement. In addition to retirement benefits, an ex gratia payment equivalent to one-and-a-half months’ pay and DA for each completed year of service will be given. The alternative is monthly pay and DA at the time of retirement multiplied by the balance months of service left. Whichever amount is less in the two options will be offered.

For marginally profit/loss- making units, the government will offer the Gujarat pattern of VRS. In addition to all technical benefits, the employee will get: (a) 35 days of salary for every one completed year of service; and (b) 25 days of salary, or Rs 2,500, whichever is higher, for every year of service left. The salary includes basic, DA, personal pay and HRA. If the basic pay is less than Rs 350, then Rs 350 will be taken as the base for calculation.

Financially-sound units can implement their own VRS. The scheme has been made more attractive by offering 60 months’ salary to employees who have completed not less than 30 years of service.    

New Delhi, March 16 
Finance minister Yashwant Sinha has said the government would consider the “sentiments expressed” by allies and the Opposition in favour of a rollback in the food and fertiliser price increase.

The hint of a rethink came a few hours after he slammed industry for demanding a rollback of the hike in dividend tax. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had also told the allies that it would be difficult to go back on the price revision.

However, after Sinha’s conciliatory tone in the Lok Sabha late last night, sources in the coalition claimed they had been virtually assured of a partial rollback.

However, they added that no time frame had been given. After tomorrow’s session, Parliament will be in recess till mid-April, though it will meet for 40 minutes on March 22 for Bill Clinton’s address. The House today passed the vote on account to allow the government to draw funds for April and May.

Allies such as the Trinamul Congress and the Telugu Desam have been vocal in calling for a rollback, arguing inside and outside Parliament that the move to hike prices would hit farmers and the poor.

Trinamul’s Sudip Bandopadhyay had urged the Centre on the floor of the House to roll back the urea price and had widened the attack to include the public sector disinvestment policy. Desam’s Yerran Naidu went one step further, asking for a full rollback in both fertiliser and food prices.

Trying to pacify them, Sinha told the Lok Sabha: “I would like to assure you that we shall keep these sentiments (in favour of a rollback) in mind.”

However, worried at the disunited picture the alliance was portraying, the minister added: “Let me make it clear that the National Democratic Alliance is not cracking up. It is solid like a rock.”

Sinha said he was “guilty of keeping the fiscal deficit high” but had no other option.

The minister’s statement came during the budget debate, which continued through the day and past midnight. Dissatisfied with the reply, members of the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the RJD and the CPM walked out.

Sinha targeted much of his speech at the Congress, which had launched an attack on his budget earlier.

Sinha also pointed out that he was the only post-liberalisation finance minister to be returned twice to the Lok Sabha and that too from a rural constituency, implying popular support for his economic policies.

The Cabinet today decided to increase the minimum support price of wheat by Rs 25 to Rs 575 per quintal for the rabi crop of 1999-2000. The increase is far lower than in most years and reflects the government’s bid to keep food subsidies low.

However, the BJP’s allies, especially the Akali Dal, already upset by cuts in food and fertiliser subsidies, are expected to lobby for higher prices.    

New Delhi, March 16 
The bar and the bench of the Supreme Court are headed for an unprecedented confrontation, with the court issuing contempt notices to all 20 office-bearers of the Supreme Court Bar Association for the lawyers’ strike.

The contempt notices issued to the office-bearers, including bar president and senior counsel K.K. Venugopal, ask them to appear on March 27 in person, failing which they can be arrested.

“This is the first time a major confrontation is brewing in the apex judiciary between the bar and the bench”, association executive member B. Venkateshwar Rao said. Rao, one of the contemners, added: “There had been tensions between the bench and the bar in the lower judiciary. But this is first time that the apex bar and bench have come out in the open with the contempt notices.”

The association had expelled Union law minister Ram Jethmalani and suspended former Union law minister Shanti Bhushan and advocate Kamini Jaiswal from its membership.

Against this, Jaiswal had moved the apex court, saying the action of the lawyers’ body amounted to contempt of court as the apex court had earlier in a judgment directed that no lawyer who did not participate in a strike and appeared in courts should be prevented or victimised.

The confrontation snowballed into a major row with over 400 lawyers filing petitions seeking to make them a party to the case. They said the expulsion and suspension of the members was the collective action of the entire association and no individual office-bearer should be issued contempt notices. If notices were to be issued, they should be issued to all lawyers, they said.

“By March 27, there would be 2000 lawyers moving the court and perhaps the court has to be held outside on the lawns of the apex court or in Vigyan Bhawan,” another member said.

In a resolution supporting the expulsion of Jethmalani and suspension of Bhushan and Jaiswal, the general body of the bar said: “We show our complete solidarity with the office-bearers and members of the executive committee of the association.”

Bar president Venugopal boycotted the swearing-in ceremony of two judges to the Supreme Court yesterday. “When our president is a contemner for the court, how would he attend such functions?” a member asked, adding Venugopal had even boycotted a dinner function of the bench.

Lawyers in Delhi were lathicharged, tear-gassed and hit by water cannons on February 24 when they had marched towards Parliament to protest against amendments to the Civil Procedure Code and entry of foreign law firms. Over 70 lawyers were injured.

The striking lawyers are now demanding the suspension of police officers responsible for the lathicharge.    

Temperature: Maximum: 33.2°C (-1) Minimum: 22°C (+1) RAINFALL: Nil Relative humidity: Maximum: 77%, Minimum: 26% Today: Mainly clear sky. Not much change in minimum or maximum temperature. Sunset: 5.42 pm Sunrise: 5.48 am    

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