Government to sell 60% in Air-India
12-hour Tiger ceasefire
Nitish plus 2 in Atal shake-up
All the PM�s men on US odyssey
Nothing to worry, the peaks are ours
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, May 26 
The Cabinet today approved 60 per cent divestment in Air-India, the fully state-owned airline. This will be done in two ways: 40 per cent of the government�s stake will be sold to a strategic investor or a consortium of investors with the foreign holding being capped at 26 per cent; second, another 20 per cent will be offloaded to employees through a stock option scheme, and a public offer to financial institutions and other domestic investors.

The selloff stratagem, which was approved by the Cabinet committee on divestment at a meeting today, reflects a compromise between conflicting stands of disinvestment minister Arun Jaitley and civil aviation minister Sharad Yadav.

Under the formula, up to 26 per cent can be sold to a foreign airline while the remaining 14 per cent will have to go to an Indian or an NRI partner of the consortium that the foreign airline forms. Alternatively, an Indian or an NRI company or companies could be allowed to pick up the entire 40 per cent. Jaitley said: �Another 20 per cent will be offloaded � divided equally between employees through an appropriate stock option, and an offering to domestic financial institutions and other investors.�

A global advisor will be appointed to draw up a shareholders� agreement on how the airline will be managed. It will also decide on the timing and mode of the selloff.

Yadav had earlier crossed swords with Jaitley over the percentage level of the stake that the government should offload in Air-India. While Yadav wanted to restrict the selloff to a strategic partner to just 25 per cent, Jaitley wanted it to be 51 per cent.

Today�s compromise goes half-way to accommodate both views. While Yadav can claim victory by restricting foreign ownership to levels considered acceptable to Swadeshi protagonists, Jaitley can claim credit for convincing Yadav to stretch the percentage being sold to a strategic buyer or buyers from 25 to 40 per cent.

Several foreign airlines have been keenly watching the developments and will be ready with their bids as soon as the selloff is announced. The frontrunners are expected to be Singapore Airlines, which had earlier tried to establish an airline in India in collaboration with the Tatas, British Airways and Air France. Last month, Singapore Airlines chairman Cheong Choong Kong had said his airline was keen to pick up a stake in Air-India if the government decided to divest.

Another dark horse in the race is Jet Air, but analysts feel the airline does not have the deep pockets needed to buy up and turn around Air-India. Industry is also agog with rumours that Reliance Industries may put in a bid in collaboration with an airline.

Air-India, which has a fleet of 26 ageing planes, suffered a loss of Rs 75 crore in the last financial year and Rs 174 crore in 1998-99. Profitable till 1994-95, it has been steadily turning sick as competition shaved its share of traffic.

The meeting also decided to increase the stake to be sold in Hindustan Teleprinters Ltd from 50 per cent to 74 per cent.

It discussed the selloff plans for 16 other companies, including Maruti Udyog and Vizag Steel. But Jaitley refused to say whether any decisions were taken.    

May 26 
The LTTE tonight declared a 12-hour ceasefire from 10 am tomorrow to enable the civilians to move to safer places raising fears of intensified assault on soldiers defending Jaffna.

The announcement came hours after the Tigers� deadline for soldiers to surrender to avoid a bloodbath expired at 6 pm. The rebels have given the soldiers another 24 hours to lay down arms.

The conditions laid down by Sri Lanka for agreeing to a ceasefire are being vetted by India before they are being passed on to Norway, which is trying to get the LTTE and the island�s government to sit at the table.

India, which favours a political solution to the ethnic conflict, has agreed to play the role of a �low-profile mediator�. The US, too, has made it clear it will agree to any proposal that India believes could end the war.

Lanka President Chandrika Kumaratunga admitted in television interviews that Colombo has �started the process� of diplomatic intervention by India, a euphemism for mediation.

She also offered to talk herself to Tiger chief V. Prabhakaran , if that helped bring peace. She said she was willing to accept Prabhakaran as Jaffna chief minister.

Although Lanka, especially its foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, is in touch with the Norwegians, Oslo has insisted that Delhi should be involved in some way in the efforts to get the two sides to talk.

The Indian government today described as �routine� the US decision to send warships to the southern Arabian Sea. Foreign ministry officials argued that US ships stationed in the Persian Gulf are redeployed at Hawaii every two months. The ships take the shortest route along the Indian Ocean which takes them close to Sri Lanka.

But navy sources said the move cannot be dismissed as a routine exercise as the US ships have not moved away towards Hawaii and have been stationed at a distance from where they can move in within 24 hours.

The US had told India of its decision to move the ships, but they are unlikely to venture closer unless the situation demands cutting off LTTE�s supply lines.

The war continued to rage with Lankan air force jets bombing LTTE positions, ignoring the the Tigers� deadline set for the surrender of soldiers in Jaffna.    

New Delhi, May 26 
Tomorrow�s Cabinet reshuffle is likely to be a short affair with three ministers being sworn in.

Nitish Kumar, who fought a losing battle against Laloo Yadav, will be back. Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik is pitching for his prot�g�s Arjun Sethi and Brij Kishore Tripathi, which signals the exit of coal minister Dilip Ray. Apart from inducting these three alliance leaders, there is a possibility of a reallocation of economic portfolios. But the decision on whether to make these changes or not will be made tomorrow. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee is believed to be unhappy with the functioning of health minister N. Shanmugham of the PMK and wants a qualified doctor to take charge of the portfolio. He is insisting on replacing Shanmugham with C.P. Thakur as a full-fledged Cabinet minister. Thakur, who is in charge of water resources, is considered a kala-azar expert. Vajpayee has informed PMK chief S. Ramadoss of the move to replace Shamugham.

However, Thakur is not a certainty as the name of BJP Rajya Sabha MP H.A. Patel is also doing the rounds.

Home minister L.K. Advani had first raised objections over Ray, a BJD nominee, soon after the government was sworn in last October. Patnaik had then explained that leaving out Ray would create problems for the party in Orissa. But since then, Ray has been sidelined. The BJD chief met Vajpayee today and said he could sacrifice Ray.

Decks were cleared for Nitish�s return to the Cabinet after defence minister George Fernandes met Vajpayee in the morning and conveyed the Samata Party�s decision that the former agriculture minister would have to be taken back. Fernandes felt that Nitish was the best candidate for the fragmented Samata. Any other nominee would have caused too many squabbles.

Apart from consulting Advani, Vajpayee also spoke to BJP president Kushabhau Thakre. The Prime Minister was told yesterday that the volatile Uma Bharti was fed up with Madhya Pradesh politics and wanted to return to the Centre. But Vajpayee, still cut up with Bharti for quitting in a huff, decided against taking her back.

Sushma Swaraj, too, was left out as Vajpayee did not want to meddle in Delhi politics with its many BJP heavyweights.    

Washington, May 26 
If Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee was to fly to the US after expanding his Cabinet this weekend, it may well be possible for him to preside over a meeting of his council of ministers here. There are enough ministers flying away to North America from Delhi�s searing heat for Vajpayee to have the quorum for a Cabinet meeting in the US.

Ministers in the National Democratic Alliance government are missing no opportunity to cash in on the euphoria created by President Bill Clinton�s trip to South Asia to visit the US to �follow up on the new goodwill� for India.

Pramod Mahajan, the minister for information technology, has been criss-crossing the US throughout this week to expose India�s IT potential to the Americans. On Monday, finance minister Yashwant Sinha will arrive in Chicago and later go to the West Coast to build on the �Vision Statement�.

The minister of state for external affairs, Ajit Panja, is also arriving in Chicago this weekend from where he will go to Los Angeles, New Jersey and Washington. But unlike Sinha and Mahajan, Panja is only promoting himself. He will play the lead role in the play about Ramakrishna Paramahansa, a theatrical effort for which Panja has already been widely acclaimed in India. The play will be staged in all three American cities during the next few days.

Arun Shourie, the minister for administrative reforms has already been in the US earlier this month. Shourie was in America to receive an award for journalism.

Other Indian ministers who are arriving in the US between this weekend and mid-June are Ram Jethmalani, Sharad Yadav, Suresh Prabhu and N.T. Shanmugham.

The flurry of visits at a time when the US is caught up in campaigns for the White House and the Senate is making Americans realise that dealing with India is not an unmixed blessing. In this country where ministerial meetings are often fixed up months in advance, the Americans are shocked by Indian ministers who simply land up and ask for appointments. What is worse, the visiting ministers often talk only in generalities about issues their counterparts here are familiar with, thanks to years of preparation for the Clinton trip. A case in point was the recent visit by Gujarat chief minister Keshubhai Patel. Patel�s visit was an example of the kind of bad planning which could evaporate the goodwill created by Clinton�s visit. Patel went to Pennsylvania, for instance, where his hosts badgered the local government for appointments for the chief minister. But Patel had to return without meeting not only the Governor but even the Lieutenant Governor.

Adding to the discomfiture of Americans are reports in Canada about the etiquette of visiting Indian ministers. A few weeks ago, environment minister T.R. Balu ran out of a restaurant in Vancouver where a function was organised to honour him. Balu�s aides later told the organisers that the minister ran out of the eatery because he wanted to throw up. They said Balu cannot stand the smell of hotel food. British Columbia Prime Minister Ujjal Dosanjh, the only provincial premier in Canada of Indian origin, was among the guests at Samosa Garden, the restaurant Balu abandoned.

At another extreme was Tapan Sikdar, junior communications minister, who simply cancelled a visit to Canada last month at the eleventh hour. The cancellation upset the Canadians because it was to have been the first visit by an Indian minister since Ottawa imposed post-Pokhran sanctions.    

Drass, May 26 
It was a dream run. I slept all the way from Kargil to Drass and when I woke up I woke up to the heartening sounds of a town full of people. It was a lovely afternoon, a touch heady with the seductions of nature � a mild sun piggybacking on crystal air and eddies of yellow roses on the flanks of surfing streams � and I collapsed into reverie rather tamely at the back of the car.

The elements were quite as alluring last summer too but you couldn�t go to sleep on the road between Kargil and Drass even if you were on an overdose of valiums; insecurity, if not the high-decibel of artillery pounding, would have kept you on the edge. But today you could have done Kargil to Drass lolled carelessly on donkey-back.

�Ab kuchh nahin saab,� said the soldier at the dropgate of the Drass brigade, �pahar hamare hain, aish karo.� (There is nothing to worry about now, the peaks are ours, have fun.) He was having his own bit of �aish�, flipping through a well-worn, handed-down back issue of a fashion magazine with Elizabeth Hurley on the cover; the picture had been torn midriff downwards, probably as adornment for some bunker wall.

Drass was abuzz, its old self, the busiest snack stop on the busy Srinagar-Leh road, National Highway 1A, the link last summer�s invasion of the Kargil hills had aimed to snap. Downtown Drass is a series of shopfronts that cater exclusively to the passing caravans. The traffic was dead last year as was Drass, flattened out by weeks of sustained shelling from across the high mountains. But the town is now back on its feet, the people are back in its homes and fields. The women are labouring, carting water and stoking hearth fires, the men are accosting highway passengers with their wares, the children are playing cricket and volleyball on a mudflat where last year stood a Bofors gun position.

The guns have all been pulled back, though not �wound down�. As an army officer pointedly underlines: �The guns are all around although you may not see as many as last year, they are all close by and ready for rapid deployment in case there is need, although there won�t be this year. Our men are up there and they have kept the gaps tightly closed this year.� As in Batalik, there is hectic digging and building underway in and around Drass too � new units and formations, new gun areas, more permanent housing for men and machines of war.

India earned a victory in Kargil last summer but it also earned a Siachen, 300 miles long. From Gumri, where the high mountains open to the Pakistani side, all the way up to Turtuk in Ladakh, it is a frontier that must now be permanently and massively manned. From one-man pickets at heights above 20,000 feet to entire brigades lodged in narrow gorges and on snow-laden hillsides, through rain and sleet and snow and through conditions that can rout the chemistry of the human mind and body, the vigil must be kept. The cost? There are no estimates yet of the price of maintaining a Siachen 300 miles long.

But perhaps there is an adjective for it: Extraordinary. �We are not just building, we are rebuilding too,� says a senior army officer currently engaged in recasting the defence lines in Drass, �most things in Drass had been destroyed last year. The costs are very high and we are not even beginning to talk of new military hardware, which we desperately need.�

�It is not just surveillance equipment like remotely-piloted vehicles and infrared night vision devices that the army is clamouring for (that none of this has arrived in soldiers� hands despite Kargil and despite promises is another story), it also wants its basic technologies upgraded if it has to be prepared for a future confrontation. Artillery commanders tell you, for instance, that the Bofors gun, the spine of India�s gunpowder is verily outdated now; newer guns are needed.

�You want to keep your borders safe, then spend, nothing comes for free, least of all the life of a soldier,� an artillery officer said.

For the moment, though, last year�s graveyard is humming with human voices again. The guns are silent. The peaks are quiet, each one of last summer�s celebrity columns: Tiger Hill, Tololing, Point 5140, Point 4950, serried across the Drass sky, sparkling with a fresh season�s snow.

By nightfall, the only sounds in Drass are the sounds of aazaan, lifting in the air with the smoke from kitchens where people have returned. This could be last summer�s dream.    

Max: 35�C (Normal), Min: 25.6�C (-1)
Relative Humidity:
Maximum: 91% Minimum: 69%
8.5 mm
Partly cloudy sky. Possibility of thundershowers in some parts towards afternoon or evening. Maximum temperature likely to be 35�C.
6.12 pm,
4.55 am    

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