CMs swallow Vajpayee subsidy pill
PM ready for ‘any step’ in Lanka
BJP climbdown on seat-share
Race hots up for saffron top job
Battles for chairs make Sonia feel safe in throne

New Delhi, May 20 
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee today suggested to the chief ministers that they could reduce subsidies and implement electricity board reforms to strengthen their financial position.

No chief minister attending the Inter-state Council meeting squabbled with the Centre on subsidies. Almost all participants appreciated the Centre’s onward journey to a second generation of reforms. They suggested that they be allowed to hand over some of their government functioning to private contractors.

The states failed to arrive at a consensus on the removal of restrictions on inter-state movement on essential commodities. Several chief ministers said this subject needed a closer look.

Home minister L.K. Advanisaid the Centre wanted this measure to be implemented because in a crisis, such as the recent drought, essentials had to be despatched speedily.

Several chief ministers wanted the Centre to give them 29 per cent of the gross receipts of Central taxes and not calculate the state share on the basis of net receipts. Finance minister Yashwant Sinha said this could not be done because of constitutional barriers.

He, also, turned down another demand for the increase of the period of overdraft from the Reserve Bank India from seven to 10 days.

The Prime Minister told the meeting that it was impossible to sustain a rising deficit for long, and the debt burden always mounted as a result of interest being compounded on it.

He warned the states that if they did not practise thrift, the targeted GDP figures would never be achieved. Arguing that the path of economic reforms was the only option, he said that in the long run this would reduce poverty as well as generate employment.

He pointed out that the combined fiscal deficit of the Centre and the states had surpassed the dangerous levels of 1990.

Vajpayee called for efficient running of state electricity boards. He said that these badly managed boards accounted for over half of the total revenue deficits of the states.

The Prime Minister added that the condition of the state-managed transport and service sectors had to improve. He felt that electricity tariffs needed to be rationalised without delay and cross-subsidy brought to a halt.

The Prime Minister wanted the scope of imposing user charges on utility services to be expanded. He said the current rate of user charges covered only a fraction of operation costs. “Our existing irrigation systems are being allowed to deteriorate for want of funds,” he warned.

Vajpayee urged state governments to downsize and adopt a realistic approach regarding sick public sector undertakings. He said the Centre’s recent tough measures on subsidies could be pursued by the states as well.    

New Delhi, May 20 
India may not go for a military intervention in Sri Lanka, but is not averse to rescuing Lankan soldiers held hostage by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Jaffna, provided the request comes from the Chandrika Kumaratunga government.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has said India is ready to take steps, if necessary, in Sri Lanka where the situation is “rapidly changing”. “If we have to take any steps, we are ready for it, if necessary,” Vajpayee told reporters this afternoon. He said Delhi was keeping a close watch on Sri Lanka.

The Prime Minister’s remarks sparked off speculation on whether this meant India was considering military intervention in Jaffna. But defence minister George Fernandes said there was “no question” of such intervention.

Vajpayee’s remarks come a day after Sri Lanka foreign minister Lakshman Khadirgamar told an Indian magazine: “India is gearing itself up for assuming a role, one that might even be thrust upon it by events.” Khadirgamar had added that in “Sri Lanka there is a mood in favour of India coming in and doing something.” However, he was quick to add: “I don’t think we should expect the impossible from India.”

But Fernandes categorically ruled out any such possibility, saying nobody could compel India in playing a role in the Sri Lanka ethnic strife. “I don’t see who can compel us,” the defence minister told PTI.

Addressing a conference on South Asian human development here this afternoon, the defence minister told the news agency that Delhi has already made its position clear about its willingness to provide “humanitarian and other aid including evacuation that be sought by anyone”. But he ruled out providing any military assistance to the Lankan government to fight the LTTE.

On India extending humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka, the Prime Minister said Delhi had already promised Colombo that it will extend every help in this regard. Fernandes had said yesterday that such assistance would also mean rescuing the besieged Lankan troops from Jaffna. He said if the Lankan government made a request, India was willing to consider it.

India has so far maintained that it will not mediate in the Sri Lankan crisis unless both the Kumaratunga government and the LTTE asked it do so. In diplomatic circles this is being seen as treading the middle path without committing anything.

Tiger shelling

The LTTE said artillery shelling had crippled the government’s airbase and sea port in Jaffna, sealing off crucial supply routes to the 30,000 soldiers penned in Jaffna, as the Lankan army repulsed an attack close to northern Jaffna city, report agencies. A pro-LTTE website yesterday called on the Lankan soldiers to surrender “to avoid the continuing bloodbath”.

The Sri Lankan president today said she would not withdraw the troops, even if the Tigers attempted to kill her again. She added that she was ready for talks with the LTTE provided they laid down arms.


May 20 
After days of haggling, the BJP and the Trinamul Congress today struck a bargain over seat-sharing in the Calcutta civic polls. According to the deal brokered by the Prime Minister’s Office, the BJP will contest 23 seats, leaving 118 seats to the Trinamul.

There is still a hitch, however, over identification of “winnable” seats. Before leaving for Calcutta, BJP state general secretary Rahul Sinha said of the 23, the party has not been able to identify the seats where its candidates had a better prospect.

Mamata Banerjee, who refused to attend office yesterday protesting the BJP’s stand, today resumed her work as railway minister. A pleased Mamata left for New Jalpaiguri later in the day to attend a railway function which had been scheduled earlier.

Mamata told reporters that she was grateful to the Prime Minister for the understanding. She said she would not quit the NDA as long as she continued to have his love and affection. The Prime Minister is learnt to have prevailed upon the BJP leadership to scale down their claim over seats as he was worried about the mercurial Mamata’s utterances to the press.

The Trinamul chief said of the 118 seats being contested by her party, roughly 109 will be earmarked for the Trinamul members and the remaining ones will be kept for CPM rebels. Of the 109, more than 50 seats would be given to women and 20 to minorities, Mamata said.

The seat-sharing talks between Mamata and West Bengal BJP leaders Sinha, P.D. Chitlangia and Shanti Lal Jain, in the presence of the Prime Minister’s OSD Sudheendra Kulkarni, went on till 4 am today. This morning, Vajpayee made a phone call to Mamata and asked her if she was happy with the deal.

Following Mamata’s threat to quit as railway minister and from the NDA, BJP president Kushabhau Thakre had summoned the West Bengal unit leaders to Delhi for talks. Much to the Trinamul leader’s chagrin, the state BJP leaders had unilaterally announced that the BJP would contest 45 out of the 141 seats.

Mamata had offered the BJP only 19 seats, saying it had only two members in the corporation and did not even have an MP from the city. Irked by the saffron party’s “audacity” to claim 45 seats, she threatened to quit the NDA.

Earlier in Calcutta, BJP leader Muzaffar Khan had confirmed that a deal was about to be reached. “But we want the Trinamul to make sure that the additional seats offered by it have winning prospects,” he said.

The additional wards offered to the BJP are 1, 27, 46, 98 and 104. Ward number 35, earlier set aside for the BJP, will go to the Trinamul. Trinamul chairman Pankaj Banerjee hoped the new formula will remove misunderstandings.

The party has taken serious exception to Union minister of state for telecommunication Tapan Sikdar’s outburst against Mamata yesterday. Sikdar had described Mamata as a “dictator who often resorts to political blackmailing to serve her party’s interests”.

“The BJP leaders must not cross limits of decency while making any critical statement. If they fail to reciprocate our goodwill gesture and restraint, we will have to rethink the entire issue,” Mamata warned.

The Sikdar faction apparently had to swallow the bitter pill on seat-sharing with the central leadership keen on not rubbing the Trinamul chief the wrong way.    

New Delhi, May 20 
With just four weeks left to elect a new party president, the race for the top job in the BJP is hotting up.

A new name, that of Gujarat Governor Sunder Singh Bhandari, was added to the list of probables.

The party is worried about the addition of Bhandari’s name. Party circles suspect the hand of a leader close to the Prime Minister in dragging Bhandari’s name into the contest to sabotage the prospects of Kushabhau Thakre and Jana Krishnamurthy.

The RSS top brass, whose concurrence is crucial for the selection, is tight-lipped.

Apart from 75-year old Thakre, others in the reckoning are senior vice president Jana Krishnamurthy, 70, Sunder Singh Bhandari,79, and Murli Manohar Joshi, 65. Among the younger lot are party ideologue K. N. Govindacharya, spokesperson M. Venkaiah Naidu, Rajya Sabha MP Sushma Swaraj and information technology minister Pramod Mahajan.

Barring Govindacharya, they do not appear to be serious contenders. He may emerge a dark horse, provided there is no opposition from the Prime Minister’s camp.

Sushma Swaraj’s disqualification is that she is from a socialist background and her husband Swaraj Kaushal belongs to the Haryana Vikas Party, which the BJP had dumped last year. He had also criticised Vajpayee in a write-up. But “she is a mass leader. After Atal and Advani, she draws the maximum crowd,” pointed out a senior leader.

Asked whether Bhandari is a candidate, Krishnamurthy, officiating as party president because of Thakre’s ill-health, said: “The president’s election can be held only in the third month of June. Under the circumstances projecting the names X, Y, Z does not carry much weight. The top leaders are yet to finalise who should be the president”. He added that he was not aware if Bhandari’s had been discussed.

Commenting on a possible extension for Thakre, Krishnamurthy said it was for him to decide whether to seek a second term. But “more than that, it is for the top leadership.” He added that there was no bar on a Governor being recalled to take up a party post.

Another BJP vice president J. P. Mathur rubbished the report that Bhandari was lobbying for the post and human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi was backing him. “False, humbug, 200 per cent concocted. It is derogatory to Bhandari. He is not the type of person who will lobby. It is an attempt to malign the party,” he said.

A leader close to Advani said: “At 79, how could he, suffering from arthritis, be a candidate? Bhandari’s famed temperament also goes against him.”

As of now, it appears the party has to choose between Thakre and Krishnamurthy.

Sources said Venkaiah Naidu and Mahajan prefer an extension to an ailing Thakre, as a powerful president could dent their clout both in the party as well as in the government.

Thakre supporters are lobbying for an extension citing the Chennai national executive delcaration permitting persons with only one-term, of two years, to contest election for another term.    

New Delhi, May 20 
Congress president Sonia Gandhi is not “unduly worried” over the ongoing whisper campaign and the occasional outbursts against her leadership. She feels Vasant Sathe, V.N. Gadgil, Jairam Ramesh, K. Karunakaran and others have not violated the “laxman rekha” of party discipline.

The sharp division within the Congress on economic issues is bothering the Congress chief either. Sonia wants to encourage debate within the party so that it can pursue “pro-poor” policies. Sources close to her said Sonia had full faith in Manmohan Singh but, at the same time, she did not want to throttle debate or difference of opinion within the party.

The Congress chief is of the view that some leaders genuinely concerned about the party. In her assessment, while some of her critics are unhappy over the Congress staying out of power for too long, another set of partymen are giving vent to their anger after being denied party posts and Rajya Sabha berths.

Sonia perceives little or no threat to herself. Her confidence is based on the premise that disgruntled elements have a limited agenda of ousting those holding key positions in the AICC secretariat. A source close to Sonia said: “The fight is about chairs in 24 Akbar Road and not the big chair in 10 Janpath.”

Sonia has directed party managers not to crack the whip or even dissuade the vocal band from raising its voice. She has deputed senior leaders Ahmad Patel, Ambika Soni, Pranab Mukherjee and Arjun Singh to individually speak to dissident leaders and sort out their grievances. She also expressed willingness to personally speak to these leaders.

Sonia’s managers are busy telling disgruntled partymen that if they have serious reservations about the party’s functioning, they should run for offices during the organisational polls due later this year. But the party polls bait has few takers as the Congress organisational polls are loaded in favour of the establishment.

For the time being, Sonia wants to clear the confusion over her party’s stand on the nuclear issue, economic thinking and other related matters.

The Congress Working Committee will meet shortly to discuss a working paper, prepared by the party’s foreign affairs department, on the need for minimum nuclear deterrent, signing of CTBT and other related subjects. Though a move to set up a party panel to review the economic policy has been shelved temporarily, Sonia will appoint a committee to take into account the feelings of the party rank and file.

Sonia today appointed Satyanarain Rao as the state unit chief of Andhra Pradesh replacing Y.S. Rajshekhar Reddy, who is the leader of the party’s legislative wing. A similar change of guard is expected in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in a couple of days.    


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