Cronje queers pitch for South Africa�s anti-nuclea
MPs� price fire shakes up BJP
Bengal mahajot through backdoor
Australia raises boycott spectre
Atal acts after Naidu nudge

Washington, April 21 
The Hansie Cronje scandal will spill over into the United Nations next week. No, the UN is not about to intervene to restore peace in the cricket world. For that matter, the majority of UN ambassadors in New York do not even have the faintest idea about cricket.

But, curiously enough, the match-fixing scandal will cast a long shadow over a key conference opening in New York on Monday to review the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The month-long NPT review conference was to have focused almost entirely on the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests.

A large number of countries opposed to the Pokhran-II and Chagai tests had already ganged up to pillory India. In this effort, South Africa was to have led the charge, speaking with high moral authority as a country which walked away from nuclear weapons, as a nation which restored equality among human beings by ending apartheid and as Africa�s shining example of democracy.

UN diplomats working on the NPT conference are suddenly finding, on virtually the eve of the meeting, that this moral sheen has been considerably dimmed by the Cronje scandal.

Nuclear evangelists, all of whom are not only signatories to the NPT but also its hardline proponents, had more or less agreed at preparatory sessions in New York that South Africa would chair the review conference.

On Friday, there were doubts if this plan would work even though Pretoria�s diplomats were still hopeful that the honour would go to them. There were murmurs, though, that the post should now go to some country whose uprightness cannot be questioned. There will be no Indian presence at the month-long conference to challenge or rebut what the South African chairman will allow participants in the meeting to say about Pokhran-II. As a non-signatory to the NPT, India is not allowed to take part in the meeting. And in its wisdom, the Atal Behari Vajpayee government has decided that it would not be advisable even for non-governmental organisations from India to be present at the conference.

At the last review conference in 1995 also, when NPT was extended in perpetuity, there was no Indian presence � either official or non-official. But between 1995 and the current review, the South Asian nuclear tests showed that NPT, even with its serpentine list of signatories, was incapable of checking nuclear proliferation.

Naturally, therefore, most of the month-long meeting would have been devoted to India and Pakistan.

South Africa had gratuitously accepted the role of being the battering ram against India. For South Africans, smarting under what they see as Indian imperiousness in fora like the Non-Aligned Movement and Commonwealth � both, ironically, headed by Pretoria � the NPT review would also have been a rare opportunity to get even with New Delhi.

But the damage caused by Cronje has put paid to these hopes. In New York, even diplomats who have only vaguely heard about the scandal � the Scandinavians, for instance � are aware that something has gone seriously wrong and that a review of their strategy is necessary at the eleventh hour.

Those who know better, from Australia or New Zealand, on the other hand, are contrite because of the role South Africa�s foreign office has played in the unfolding scandal. They make no bones about the fact that South Africa�s high commissioner to India, for example, was not entirely above board in handling the Cronje episode.

All of which raises the question: did New Delhi, which all along knew of the plotting and planning in New York, do its bit to erode Pretoria�s moral high ground in the weeks before the NPT review?    

New Delhi, April 21 
Alarmed by its MPs� reactions to the price rise and subsidy cuts, the BJP leadership is likely to urge the government to consider �partial relief� if a complete rollback is not possible.

After the MPs fired questions at finance minister Yashwant Sinha in a parliamentary party meeting yesterday, the central leadership has woken up to the fact that all is not well on the ground.

BJP president Kushabhau Thakre has so far supported the price rise and subsidy cut and the party�s national executive last week adopted a resolution endorsing the decisions.

Now, however, party general secretary K.N. Govindacharya is likely to meet Sinha and recommend the announcement of some conciliatory measures. �The feedback from the ground is that the decisions have not gone down well with the people and are seen as anti-poor. To control the damage, the government will have to make some gesture, even if it is a token one,� a BJP source said.

But the BJP, which had not even attempted a critical assessment of the price rise and its impact on the poor, appeared clueless on the relief it expected. It was not sure whether it wanted the original prices of foodgrain to be restored or the prices of fertilisers, kerosene and cooking gas to be reduced.

Sources said the leadership was �taken aback� by the questions fired at Sinha despite the constant assertions by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and other senior leaders that the government had to take �hard� decisions to keep the economy afloat.

�It seems our MPs are still in the Opposition mould and are not in tune with the reality of being in government,� a government source said. To this, a party functionary retorted: �Are they not accountable to their voters in the final analysis?�

The feedback in the BJP�s Ashoka Road headquarters was that National Democratic Alliance constituents, �egged on� by Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu, were planning to raise the pitch on the issue in Parliament from Monday. But the BJP was not as worried about the allies� attitude as the �sullenness� among its own MPs.

�There�s no point in reassuring ourselves that none of them will be able to do anything but fall in line with the party�s stand. This latent dissatisfaction can manifest itself in any way,� a BJP source said.

The Samata Party � a key ally of the BJP � denied that the NDA partners had devised a joint strategy under the Desam�s leadership. Samata president Jaya Jaitley said: �There is no consolidated NDA strategy. We had asked for a meeting with the finance minister to clarify our doubts.�

But other NDA sources said the main opponents of the price rise � the Desam, Trinamul Congress and Janata Dal (U) � had met informally last week and were holding another meeting on Monday to plan their next move in Parliament.    

April 21 
Keeping the backdoor open for the BJP and a mahajot of Opposition parties, the West Bengal Congress today moved to accelerate talks on an alliance with Mamata Banerjee.

In a meeting with Congress Working Committee member Ghulam Nabi Azad and AICC secretary Pawan Bansal, state party president A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury reaffirmed allegiance to Sonia Gandhi and got the go-ahead for an alliance with Trinamul.

�We shall have seat-sharing only with Trinamul, but will not have any direct or indirect links with the communal BJP,� Azad said after the 30-minute meeting in Calcutta.

The Congress leaders arrived this morning at Sonia�s behest to convey the high command�s concerns as well as the directive to the state leadership not to enter into any pact with the BJP.

Azad emphasised the Congress line and asked the state party leadership to begin selecting candidates against the BJP. Chowdhury parroted the CWC member while talking to reporters.

However, indications are that the label mahajot will be replaced with that of a publicly visible alliance between the Congress and Trinamul. The BJP, firmly rooted in the background, will be the third arm of an invisible troika.

The high command can justify its agreement to such a deal for the civic polls by pointing to the precedent of the informal, but well-known, alliance with the BJP for the panchayat polls in Bengal.

The concept of a grand alliance also received a shot in the arm with a one-to-one between Chowdhury and Congress leader Saugata Roy, a Priya Ranjan Das Munshi loyalist, later in the day.

Roy, who had demanded Chowdhury�s resignation a few days ago, has promised full cooperation in ensuring the alliance�s success.

Azad said after the meeting that the high command had no differences with the Pradesh Congress over the alliance. �It is our intention to defeat both the CPM and the BJP in the coming polls,� he said.

But minutes after Azad left the city, Chowdhury met Trinamul MP Jayanta Bhattacharya to clear any misunderstanding on the mahajot. �Barkatda called me to convey his best wishes to Mamata for the proposed mahajot. He asked me not to be misled by what the AICC leaders told him,� he said.

Mamata, too, asserted that the BJP would be part of the mahajot. �In no way can the tie-up be broken,� she said.

But Azad did succeed in prevailing upon Chowdhury to call on Sonia. The Pradesh Congress chief will go to Delhi on Monday.

The Congress president sent Azad to Bengal on two counts. First, he has excellent one-to-one rapport with Chowdhury, known for his unpredictable behaviour. Moreover, Azad is in charge of Kerala where the impact of a mahajot will be the most severe.

Yesterday, Kerala leaders A.K. Antony and K. Karunakaran called on Sonia and cautioned against the mahajot. They said the party will not be able to wrest Kerala from the Left Front as it will be going to polls along with Bengal.    

When Jagmohan Dalmiya sits down with fellow members of the International Cricket Council on May 2-3 to tackle the worst crisis to hit the sport, lurking in the background will be the threat of a divide between the subcontinent and the rest of the tiny cricketing world.

On Friday, Australia gave official voice to hushed whispers in cricket�s corridors of power and public airing of opinion in the western press that maybe there should be a pause in one-day matches in the subcontinent.

The Australian Cricket Board (ACB) did not name the subcontinent, but the aftermath of the Hansie Cronje scandal has left little doubt who occupies the defendant�s stand since almost all betting trails lead to one destination. South Africa�s cricket chief Ali Bacher had said that quite bluntly.

AFP quoted ACB chief executive Malcolm Speed as saying Australia would wait to hear the outcome of the ICC meeting in London before deciding whether to pull out of overseas one-day tournaments.

The announcement clearly indicates Australia will be looking at the ICC and its president, Dalmiya, to spell out what they intend to do to clean up the sport. It carries the implied threat that if it is not satisfied, a boycott could be on the cards.

That the prospect of a boycott, which amounts to a virtual split in the cricket world, is at least being talked about has been underlined indirectly by the United Cricket Board of South Africa. Any such move will range India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh against Australia, England, South Africa, New Zealand and, possibly, West Indies, which has tended to keep company with them.

The South African board on Friday ruled out a boycott or suspension of visits to India, but the question latent in the rejection is why such a possibility should arise at all.

�South Africa is not boycotting cricket in India by any means,� the board�s communications manager Bronwyn Wilkinson told PTI from Johannesburg.

After cancellation of a benefit tournament scheduled later this month in India where Cronje was to lead a South African team, the earliest the two countries will meet in a bilateral series is by the end of next year. India is due for a visit to South Africa. The benefit matches were scrapped by the Indian board after the scandal broke.

Immediately after Delhi police�s revelations about Cronje, sections of the English media were advocating that England should not play against subcontinental teams until these countries clean up their act.

The Daily Telegraph wrote: �The ECB should consider playing no more one-day games against either side (Pakistan and India) until those who seek to corrupt players, and the guilty players themselves, have been brought to book.�    

New Delhi, April 21 
Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has called for all files and papers on the Sankhya Vahini project following Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu�s plea that the data network proposal be implemented as early as possible.

Though the Union Cabinet had approved the proposal on January 19, the government had kept the project in abeyance following strong objections from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leaders. Apart from the concerns raised on possible security threat, the Prime Minister wants to scrutinise the project.

Vajpayee, who has almost recovered from his throat infection, has sought the files from the communications and information technology ministries. He will consult his own officials who deal with these ministries. He will hold discussions with his principal secretaries, N.K. Singh and Brajesh Mishra. If necessary, he will continue the dialogue with the joint secretaries concerned with these ministries in the Prime Minister�s Office (PMO). Sudheendra Kulkarni, a political appointee in the PMO who has been specialising on the subject, will also provide his inputs.

The Sankhya Vahini project, conceptualised by a US-based NRI, Raj Reddy, is to be set up as a joint venture project between the IUNet, a Carnegie Mellon University company, and the Department of Telecommunications (DoT). The fact that the project has been strongly propped up by Naidu and initially even by IT minister Pramod Mahajan shows that the government was quite interested in its possibilities.

It was the RSS� criticism that forced the government to develop cold feet on the project. But Naidu�s request has reopened the scheme which, after the RSS reservations were made public, was being prepared for a quiet burial. Vajpayee�s summoning of the files means that the government is now going to assess the seriousness of the criticism against the project.

Since �security concerns� have been raised, Vajpayee may informally discuss the subject with Union home minister L.K. Advani and defence minister George Fernandes. They were briefed on the project when it came up for Cabinet approval on January 19.

Mahajan has been doing a flip-flop on the project, sometimes saying it was going to benefit the country substantially, and at other times backtracking and saying it may have to be reassessed.

Within the next fortnight, it will become clear whether Vajpayee has been able to make up his mind. It is likely that once he takes a fresh decision on going ahead with the implementation, he may consult the RSS. The two staunchest critics of the proposal are H.V. Seshadri and B. Thengadi. Vajpayee has been trying to develop a working relationship with the new RSS chief, K. Sudarshan, and may seek his intervention if he decides to toe the Naidu line.

Vajpayee has one strong argument to get around the RSS in accepting the scheme. There is no way the Vajpayee government can risk denying Naidu his few wishes. Given the state of the country�s economy, it was not possible to meet Naidu�s demands on re-imposition of subsidies. A green signal for Sankhya Vahini means Vajpayee would be in a better bargaining position with Naidu.    


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