US nudges India to Pak talks table
Moscow warms to strategic pact
Sonia loads House price gun
BJP sees rollback face-saver in drought
Heat on Naidu for silencing summer siren
Christian consensus at divorce meet
Pay-up time for high-fliers

Washington, April 28 
Notwithstanding the spate of statements from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and other ministers pouring cold water on the idea of a resumption of Indo-Pak dialogue, the US has asked India to respond to Pakistan�s chief executive Pervez Musharraf�s offer of talks with New Delhi.

Answering questions at the end of a speech at the Johns Hopkins University�s School Of Advanced International Studies here, US under secretary of state for political affairs Thomas Pickering, even expressed guarded optimism that both sides may be moving towards ending a deadlock in the Indo-Pak dialogue which has caused concern around the world.

Pickering said India had taken the right step towards progress in the bilateral talks by releasing some leaders of the All-Party Hurriyat Conference. He said release of more APHC leaders was likely and the US wanted more political groups in Kashmir to be brought into the mainstream.

Pickering said progress towards resuming Indo-Pak talks could be made without public declarations, comments or fanfare. What is important is that conditions must be created in Kashmir which will meet the minimum demands both sides have made for resuming the dialogue.

India wants cross-border terrorism by Pakistan to be ended before it can return to the negotiating table while Islamabad has said New Delhi must show greater respect for human rights in Kashmir and end what it calls oppression by security forces.

Thursday�s statement by Pickering, who is expected to visit India next month, suggests that the road map prepared during President Bill Clinton�s visit to South Asia last month for easing Indo-Pak tensions is being followed, notwithstanding the outward pessimism in official statements emanating from New Delhi and Islamabad.

Pickering injected a degree of realism into Indo-US relations, expectations from which have soared in India following Clinton�s visit and his public statements in both New Delhi and Islamabad.

Warning that the full potential of Indo-US relations cannot be realised without �further progress on non-proliferation�, Pickering said �no issue is more important to American security than our efforts to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons and their means of delivery�.

He said Washington had four objectives in the �near term�: accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by India and Pakistan, strengthened export controls, a multilateral moratorium on the production of fissile material pending the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty and, finally, restraint in missile development, including non-deployment and prudence in defence postures.

The under-secretary, who is equivalent in the American system to India�s foreign secretary, said there cannot be any military relationship with New Delhi until there is �substantial progress� on non-proliferation.

Pickering said the US-Pak nuclear dialogue would be resumed and �reinvigorated� through a meeting soon between US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott and Pakistan�s foreign minister Abdul Sattar.

At the same time, he said Pakistan will lose international sympathy if it persists with the notion that a wider conflict in Kashmir will persuade the US and other countries to get involved the Indo-Pak dispute.

Pickering also cautioned against undue optimism in New Delhi about American support for India�s permanent seat in the UN Security Council. His statement comes amid encouragement from Britain and France for India�s efforts for a seat at the world body�s high table. It also puts into context statements by US ambassador to India Richard Celeste and US permanent representative to the UN Richard Holbrooke, which have been interpreted in New Delhi as signs that the America may be moving towards supporting India�s case.    

New Delhi, April 28 
A new �dynamism� has been infused into Indo-Russian relations with the two countries today deciding to sign a joint declaration on strategic partnership in October this year.

The decision followed a detailed meeting between Indian national security adviser Brajesh Mishra and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Ivanov, over the past two days.

The newly-elected Russian President, Vladimir Putin, will be arriving in India in the first week of October and the partnership declaration will be signed between the chief executives of the two nations. This morning, Mishra and Ivanov signed a protocol on cooperation between the National Security Council of India and the Security Council of the Russian Federation.

Putin�s taking over the helm of affairs is expected to lend a new thrust to Indo-Russian relations. Since the early nineties, after Boris Yeltsin�s assumption of office, the relationship between the two countries had remained the same, if not, stagnated a little.

During the premiership of Yevgeny Primakov, efforts were made to strengthen ties and the agreement on sharing military technology was signed. Russia and India have propped up each other�s diplomatic interests at different international fora but there was little else besides to carry the relationship forward.

Putin�s election is being viewed in India as one of immense significance and there are expectations that the new President will try to take the relationship close to where it was in the seventies. However, neither India nor Russia are in any position to alienate the US and there is no prospect of the relationship being given the significance it had during the Cold War days. Putin is regarded in the Indian diplomatic establishment as an Indophile. One of his first statements after taking over in Kremlin was that he would visit India soon if his government had any money to spare.

Ivanov and Mishra, who jointly addressed the media this morning, felt that the strategic partnership between the two countries �will give concrete substance to the relationship and make it truly a relationship of partners and allies�. Ivanov had come as the head of a very high-level delegation. Others in this team included Ilya Klebanov, deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, and other senior officials. During his stay, Ivanov met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, defence minister George Fernandes and external affairs minister Jaswant Singh.

The security protocol signed between national security advisers �formalises� institutionalised cooperation between the NSCs of two countries. Apart from strengthening the national security of the two countries through politico-legal means, it calls for improvement in cooperation in international, economic, defence, information, ecological and other fields of security.

Some key areas where the two nations share similar concerns, will also be part of this protocol. That is why the protocol underlines the need to enhance mutual cooperation in areas relating to �suppression of crime, international terrorism, religious and political extremism, illegal trafficking of arms, drug trafficking and separatism, which undermines national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Both countries have been encountering Islamic terrorism in Chechnya and Kashmir. Afghanistan was also a key aspect of the meeting, given the fact that a lot of these mercenaries who fan out to different parts of the world to pursue their agenda of jehad, are trained in camps in and around Kandahar. The two countries had been exchanging notes on these subjects earlier as well.

However, now that the protocol has been signed, there will be a greater degree of cooperation between India and Russia.    

New Delhi, April 28 
To consolidate her hold over the party, Congress president Sonia Gandhi has embarked on a series of measures which includes moving cut motions in the Lok Sabha, deferring the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) polls and undertaking a minor reshuffle in the AICC.

Keen to lead from the front, Sonia has decided to move the cut motions herself on the public distribution and petroleum ministries during the passage of the Union budget. The two-pronged strategy is aimed at projecting her as someone concerned with the price-rise identifying with the lower-middle class and the poorer sections of society as well as increasing the discomfiture of some BJP allies. The Trinamul Congress, the Telugu Desam, the Samata Party, the DMK, the Indian National Lok Dal and the Janata Dal(U) are all opposed to the price-hike.

Sonia�s managers are hoping that if the A.B. Vajpayee government is forced to roll back prices of petroleum items or those distributed through PDS during the finance minister�s reply, the credit would go to the leader of the Opposition.

But if the Centre refuses to budge, she would be seen as someone who led a combined Opposition, which includes such bitter critics as Mulayam Singh Yadav�s Samajwadi Party and the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party.

To counter intra-party feuds, Congress sources said the election of CPP office-bearers and executive panel members will not be held during the budget session of Parliament. CPP elections are usually held in the first session of the new Parliament. This time, however, three sessions have already passed. The Sonia camp, according to them, is avoiding the polls as it could intensify the power-struggle in the party�s parliamentary wing.

Sonia has also deferred organisational polls, which were to have concluded in July. According to AICC poll panel chairman Ram Niwas Mirdha, the elections cannot be held before October. Justifying the postponement, a Sonia loyalist said: �How can you hold party polls with Barkat Ghani Khan Chowdhury in Bengal and Janki Ballabh Patnaik in Orissa as heads of state party units?�

To gloss over these failures, Sonia is also planning a minor reshuffle in the AICC which could see Arjun Singh as a new general secretary.

Arjun � who heads a near-defunct minorities department � is likely to be given charge of Uttar Pradesh, which is going to polls next year. According to the sources, Sushil Kumar Shinde would then be given charge of some of the states being handled by another general secretary, Prabha Rau.

Senior leader P. Shiv Shankar is also set to take over as head of the AICC�s department for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes, earlier chaired by Meira Kumar.    

New Delhi, April 28 
In an attempt to provide a fig-leaf to the Centre if it decides to partially revoke its decision on the price rise, the BJP has decided to despatch two teams of its MPs to drought-hit Rajasthan and Gujarat to assess the �actual� situation on the ground work and relief activities.

The teams� findings will be conveyed to the government, BJP spokesman M Venkaiah Naidu told reporters today.

The teams are expected to release their reports at a parliamentary party meeting on May 2, two days before finance minister Yashwant Sinha replies to the debate on the finance Bill in the Lok Sabha. Any rollback � complete or marginal � is expected to be announced in Sinha�s reply.

While the BJP officially maintained that the MPs� visit to Gujarat and Rajasthan was to �apprise the government about the gravity of the situation�, sources said it was to provide a �credible ruse� to take back or mitigate the impact of the decisions to lower the subsidies on PDS foodgrains, kerosene and LPG.

So far, neither Sinha nor other senior ministers have hinted at any kind of a rollback, despite being badgered by the BJP MPs in parliamentary party meetings and other fora. BJP members were also annoyed with Sinha for reportedly ticking off some of them who suggested he should reconsider his move, saying it would be done only over his dead body. The disgruntled MPs, who have been receiving negative feedback from their constituencies, felt Sinha ought not to make the rollback a �prestige� issue.

The intensity of the drought and its impact, BJP sources opined, would provide the Centre with a face-saver to review its decision and help Sinha counter the charge of being a �rollback finance minister�.

Each team has six MPs including prominent ones like Sahib Singh Verma, S.S. Ahluwalia, T.N. Chaturvedi, S.P. Gautam and Anadi Charan Sahu.

Naidu continued to defend the Centre and accused the Opposition of �misleading� the people on the state of the economy. He said the government had inherited a �messy� economy from the previous governments. He claimed that the difficult decisions it had taken after the budget were �necessitated by the mess that the Congress and Congress-supported governments had pushed the economy into�.

He argued that the �difficult� measures taken by the Vajpayee government were �fully in line with the corrective policies initiated by the previous governments�.

�The Congress, which has perfected the art of doublespeak, seems to think that these corrective measures are anti-poor when taken by our government but pro-poor when they take it,� Naidu alleged.

On the all-party meeting convened by the Election Commission tomorrow, Naidu said the BJP would formulate its responses tonight on various issues like women�s reservation, delimitation of constituencies and discipline the EC�s jurisdiction.    

Kalwakurthy (Mahboobnagar), April 28 
This drought is about endless sighs on what might have been.

As Mahboobnagar struggles with the third drought in as many years, the parched stretches are littered with tales of apathy and how the government muzzled all alarm signals with utter disdain.

The indifference began at the top. At a political meeting here, chief minister Chandrababu Naidu snatched away the mike from the local Congress legislator, Chinna Reddy, who was trying to speak out on the farmers� travails, and asked him to leave the dais.

Food minister Janardhan Reddy, who is from Mahboobnagar, went a step further in turning a blind eye. When told of the increasing suicides by farmers in Gangapur village, he dismissed the deaths as �psychic� and sought to turn the gun on the Congress by accusing them of exaggerating the �routine drought situation in the district as a desperate action of farmers�.

The attempts to hush-up the magnitude of the disaster boomeranged with Opposition parties like Congress and CPI publishing the names of the farmers who killed themselves.

Foresight could have prevented the farmers from hurtling down the abyss. The last two droughts had emptied their homes and silos of stocks. Adding to their woes, the third crop of 1999 was a disaster.

Barely 15 per cent of the tillable land was utilised for sowing kharif and rabi crops following the unusually scant rainfall of less than 500 mm as against the average of 750 mm.

�The rainfall failure for the first crop before October 1999 drove over three lakh farmers out of the district. Now the failure of the rabi crop has led to migration of the small and marginal farmers as well,� says K. Balayya of Appannapalli village.

Some farmers in Gadwal, Kolhapur, Kulwakurthy and Nagarkurnool were forced to kill their cattle for want of fodder. But the government was unmoved, with Naidu making impractical suggestions like replacing the goat with sheep because �they do not destroy vegetation�.

But what he forgot was that sheep, like goat, need fodder and water to survive, neither of which is available in the dried-up district.

The farmers are gripped by the Catch-22 syndrome. The district administration�s announcement that it would reschedule crop loans was immediately followed by moneylenders� demands that the labourers first settle their dues.

Lakshmi, wife of farmer Shivaiah who committed suicide after accumulating debts of Rs 45,000, wailed: �The moneylenders have come thrice to take away their dues from the compensation of Rs 10,000 given by the government.�

It is ironical that a district once represented by high-profile leaders like former Union ministers Mallikarjunnaiah and Jaipal Reddy has little to show for. Work on the Priyadarshini irrigation project in Jurala, whose foundation was laid by Indira Gandhi, is progressing at a snail�s pace for the past two decades.

�If the project had been completed on time, it could have irrigated around 10 lakh acres,� says a Congress legislator.


New Delhi, April 28 
Christian organisations are unanimous that the community�s marriage and divorce laws are �obsolete� and in urgent need of change.

At a meeting called by the Centre to discuss changes in the Christian Divorce Act, about 15 all-India organisations today agreed with law minister Ram Jethmalani that the laws were outdated and needed to be upgraded.

Jethmalani placed before the meeting the draft Bill prepared by the law commission on changes to be made in the 1869 Act. Modifications would be introduced to simplify divorce procedures and ensure gender justice, he said.

District courts would henceforth be empowered to give an absolute ruling in a divorce case, the minister said. At present, the district court ruling has to be upheld by the high court.

Jethmalani said the new law would make a divorce case like any other civil case, and persons unhappy with the district court verdict could move the high court.

Also a woman would no longer have to establish the three grounds of adultery, cruelty and insanity to get a divorce, he said. Like a man, she would have to prove any one.

This would ensure gender justice as laid down in Article 14 of the Constitution, which stipulates �equality before law and equal application of law� for all citizens.

Jethmalani, however, clarified that �our BJP government� should not be seen as �interfering with personal law�. The secular authority in a welfare state had the mandate to regulate certain procedures, he said.    

New Delhi, April 28 
The Prime Minister�s Office (PMO) has given green signals to file recovery suits against former Prime Ministers Chandra Sekhar, P.V. Narasimha Rao and H.D. Deve Gowda, who had allegedly �misused� defence aircraft during their tenures as prime ministers.

The Union government counsel, additional solicitor general J.B.Jaisinghani, told Delhi High Court that suits would be filed against the trio to recover about Rs 12 crore.

�Legal notices are ready. They have been sent for expert opinion� Jaisinghani said during a resumed hearings on a public interest litigation filed by advocate B.L.Wadhera.

Wadhera has sought a direction from the court to the government to recover the money from the former prime ministers and in default file recovery suits against them.

In an affidavit, the Centre said more than Rs 13 crore were due from four former prime ministers, including late Rajiv Gandhi. However, the Congress had paid the money due from Rajiv Gandhi and sought time till March 31, 2000 to pay up Rao�s dues.

Wadhera said the Union of India would now send recovery notices, giving 15 days time, to the three former premiers and would start the proceedings within six weeks.

The Congress had paid about Rs 1.86 crore for Rajiv Gandhi. The party had agreed to pay Rs 5.52 crore due against Rao in instalments.

The division bench of Justice Arun Kumar and Justice D.K. Jain asked the government to file further status report and the action taken thereof by the next date of hearing fixed for July.

Chandra Sekhar�s and Gowda�s parties have raised objections on payments, the court was told.    


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