Chanakya alone on judgment day
Doubts over escape claim
Rabri to cut jumbo flab
Red carpet for Nitish
BJP cool to Soren after JMM verdict
Sleuths draw proof blank on Manoj charges
Religious ripples from Atal trip
Veerappan posers for SC in new tape

New Delhi, Sept. 29: 
It was a lonely afternoon for P.V. Narasimha Rao, once described as the reluctant revolutionary and Chanakya rolled into one.

The man who tried to don the mantle of Mr Clean by unleashing the hawala probe during his last months in power lay trapped in his own little scam, convicted of grievous wrongdoing in the JMM bribery case. And except for a handful of old friends like Chandra Shekhar, Devendra Nath Dwivedi, Maninderjit Singh Bitta and Bhuvnesh Chaturvedi, there was nobody by his side in the numbing hours following his conviction in the JMM bribery case this afternoon.

The hundreds of Congressmen who had beaten his drum and enjoyed the fruits of power courtesy him during Rao�s tenure at the helm were nowhere in evidence. 9 Motilal Nehru Marg was left alone to grieve.

It was only late in the evening that Congress president Sonia Gandhi drove the furlong from her house at 10 Janpath to �console� the man who had earned the dubious distinction of becoming India�s first public servant-politician to be convicted on corruption charges.

But Sonia�s aides made it clear the Congress boss was not shedding any tears for what had happened to Rao. Nor was her party prepared to go any distance to defend him. �She is just going to console a senior partyman, nothing more,� a senior party leader said, making it clear the Congress had distance itself from what Rao had done and wanted no part of it.

Officially the Congress refused to comment on the verdict. Unofficially, the word was that the party is set to wash its hands off the �sordid behind the scene drama that took place in July 1993�.

Two hours before Judge Ajit Bharihoke�s landmark judgment, Dwivedi, a former solicitor general, had boasted that Rao will be acquitted. Perhaps Dwivedi�s overconfidence had lulled Rao into believing that he indeed stood in the clear. Judge Bharihoke�s words left him completely shattered.

In the Congress, the news of Rao�s conviction led to a mixed response: there was glee in some quarters, distress in others. Sonia loyalists were pleased even though they would not admit it openly.

The dissidents thought it was a blow to their drive against Sonia. This, after all, was the last case against Rao in the courts and if he had been cleared, he may well have become a rallying point for the old guard.

But with the conviction, there was no support for Rao or any possibility of the party backing him. Senior party leaders made it clear that Rao will have to clear his name clear as an �individual�. The Congress, they argued, had unofficially disowned him by denying him a Lok Sabha ticket, and dropping him from all party panels including the CWC.

Sonia consulted Pranab Mukherjee, Arjun Singh, Ambika Soni and Madhavrao Scindia before going to see Rao. Scindia underlined the need for a �dignified response� from the party in view of far-reaching impact of today�s judgment.

In fact, the leadership decided not to respond officially till it goes through the entire verdict. As the Congress party polls are underway, Sonia�s managers plan to assess the mood of partymen and public opinion before taking a formal stand. There was also a section of opinion that the leadership must be graceful to Rao at this hour even though it may not defend him.

The BJP responded cautiously with spokesman Venkaiah Naidu restricting his comments to: �The law taken its own course.� Terming it as a �historic development,� he pointed out that it was for the first time a prime minister has been convicted for an offence during his tenure.    

Chennai, Sept. 29: 
Nagappa Maradagi�s �escape� from Veerappan�s clutches seems to have raised more questions than he himself is willing to answer convincingly.

Nagappa claims to have escaped in the night when the others were asleep, running through dense forests he was not familiar with. Whether he was freed by Veerappan himself as part of some plan or he escaped on his own, both states are now concerned about the safety of the remaining hostages and of the official emissary R. R. Gopal.

Nakkeeran executive editor A. Kamaraj is believed to have air-dashed to Bangalore to talk to Nagappa and find out what exactly happened. The Tamil Nadu government which is interacting closely with the Nakkeeran team also seems to have been caught off guard. Till this afternoon, chief minister M. Karunanidhi kept parrying all queries on the Nagappa episode.

At a news conference here, he expressed surprise over Nagappa�s escape, especially at a time �when the official emissary R. R. Gopal is holding negotiations with the bandit for the release of Raj Kumar and the others�.

Karunanidhi said: �I do not know what compelled him to do so. After waiting for so long, Nagappa could have waited for some more days � Probably his mental condition drove him to take such a risk ��

Asked whether the Special Task Force of Tamil Nadu and the Karnataka police would enter the woods to rescue Raj Kumar taking advantage of the clues provided by Nagappa, Karunanidhi said, �What is the guarantee that the brigand would not have changed his hide-out by now?�

He hoped Nagappa�s escape would not affect the talks between Gopal and Veerappan. �I only hope the negotiations will not suffer a setback,� he said. On whether the escape could endanger Gopal�s own life, he said, �Let us think only of good things��

Tamil extremist �Radio� Venkatesan termed the escape a �release�. A key Tamil National Liberation Army figure, Venkatesan�s release has been demanded by Veerappan. Replying to questions posed by reporters after appearing in the TADA court in connection with Villupuram and Kullanchavadi police station attack cases, Venkatesan said Nagappa�s release could calm frayed tempers in Karnataka.

Venkatesan shouted slogans in support of the LTTE and its leader Prabhakaran, while denouncing the Tamil Nadu government for its �inaction� on the Cauvery issue.    

Patna, Sept. 29: 
Seven months after setting up a jumbo ministry in Bihar, Rabri Devi today decided to downsize, setting off alarm bells among her ministers.

Twenty-one departments will be created out of 44 existing ones for �administrative advantage� and to cut costs of governance. Besides, several districts are due to go off to Jharkhand

Many of Rabri�s Cabinet colleagues �- 84 ministers were inducted to balance the demands of the RJD-Congress coalition �- are already whining about lack of facilities and absence of secretaries to carry out routine chores.

In the newly-streamlined government, the departments of higher education, secondary education, primary education and kalasanskriti will be clubbed into the human resource development ministry.

The rajbhasha and administrative reforms departments will become one ministry; civil aviation, excise and commerce will come under finance; and the jail ministry will be clubbed with home.

State Cabinet secretary Giri Shankar said the exercise would make for better governance. But he refused to comment if there would be more than 21 ministers.

Immediately after the decision was announced, a sense of panic set in, with many ministers fearing their heads would roll.

Some ministers, who recently joined a revolt led by Monazir Hussain and Samrat Chowdhury against Laloo Prasad Yadav, were especially worried.

RJD sources said after Jharkhand is formed, at least 12 Bihar ministers would have to resign. �The RJD was thinking of not filling in vacancies after bifurcation,� said a senior leader.

Even then, some ministers would have to be removed as Bihar would still be having 51, sources added.

Government sources said Jharkhand would also have few ministries.

The number has tentatively been fixed at 19.    

Sept. 29: 
A five-member Central agriculture ministry team, led by its joint secretary Anil Sinha, made an extensive aerial survey of flood-hit areas in North 24 Parganas, Nadia, Murshidabad, Birbhum, Burdwan and Hooghly districts today.

The team reached Calcutta from Delhi in the morning. They left the city by an M-8 army helicopter to visit the affected areas and returned to Dum Dum airport around 4 p.m.

Union agriculture minister Nitish Kumar, who is coming to the city on Sunday, will take another aerial view of the flood-hit districts. Later, he will hold a meeting with chief minister Jyoti Basu at his Salt Lake residence.

Deputy chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya and finance minister Asim Dasgupta will also be present in the meeting alongwith senior officers.

�Nitish Kumar is the right person in the Union ministry who will provide funds for relief and rehabilitation. I shall hold a meeting with him and place our demands,�� Basu said.

Later, the team members attended a meeting with officials of various state government departments convened by the chief secretary, Manish Gupta, at the Great Eastern Hotel at 5 p.m.

State agriculture secretary Sumantra Chowdhury, in his report to the Central team claimed that crop worth nearly Rs 3,000 crore was destroyed by the flood while 1,745 hectares of crop area was damaged.

Dasgupta today rubbished the Centre�s claim that it had released Rs 864 crore to the state for flood relief.

Reacting to media reports on this issue he said: �Nothing is farther from the truth. Yes, we have received the amount, but not a pie pertains to flood relief.�

He clarified that the amount comprised funds for a loan relating to small savings amounting to Rs 409 crore. An amount of Rs 360 crore was the Centre�s contribution to the state from its tax revenue.

Dasgupta said even the Eleventh Finance Commission�s provision on the Centre�s contribution of Rs 75 crore towards flood relief last year had not been fulfilled. �They have paid us Rs 32 crore while the state has paid up its portion of Rs 25 crores.�

He said he would personally point out the facts to Nitish Kumar when he arrives in Calcutta.

He said as per the norms the Centre should have released Rs 962 crore as additional relief funds considering the Rs 3,000-crore-plus loss caused by the flood.

Dasgupta also reacted to railway minister Mamata Banerjee�s observation about West Bengal�s failure to send the flood reports in time. He said: �We sent the first report to the agriculture ministry on September 18 and then a detailed report on September 24; copies have been sent to the PMO as well.�

�We are grateful in a way on hearing the Prime Minister calling the current floods here a national loss. He should have used the term calamity. However, as the loss is national the centre should bear the burden in restoring normalcy,� he added.

State relief secretary P.S. Ingty said that the state would require Rs 280 crore to repair damaged houses in the flood-hit districts.

However, in its earlier report, the state had assessed the crop damage to the extent of Rs 1,500 crore and the total loss of property at a little over Rs 3,000 crore, on the basis which it demanded Rs 962 crore assistance from the Centre.

It is learnt that Union agriculture ministry officials advised the state government to put more stress on growing oil seeds and vegetables instead of wheat in the affected areas after the flood water receded.

They said the Centre already had enough stock of wheat and Bengal farmers would not get a good return from their crop. Strangely, the state agriculture department has drawn an elaborate plan to bring major areas in the affected districts under wheat cultivation.

The overall flood situation in the state is slowly improving except in the North 24 Parganas.

Dasgupta said vast areas of Bagda, Bongaon and Gaighata in North 24 Parganas were still inaccessible. He said one army helicopter had airdropped relief materials and nine speed boats had been deployed for rescue operations. Many people are still marooned.

He said the situation in Murshidabad, Birbhum, Burdwan, and Nadia was improving with the water receding from all rivers. The death toll has already crossed 600 and 265 are still missing.    

Patna, Sept. 29: 
The BJP today said it would rather form the government in the new Jharkhand state with help from Rashtriya Janata Dal rebels and Independents than try and placate JMM chief Shibu Soren to stay on with the NDA.

The decision came after the special court trying the 1993 JMM bribery scandal convicted former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and his then Cabinet colleague Buta Singh. The court found them guilty of bribing JMM MPs to save the minority Congress government against a no-confidence motion. �We don�t want any semblance of the murky politics which the Congress had indulged in to save a government,� said a senior BJP leader in Patna. �The judgment is a wake-up call.�

Sarau Rai, in charge of the BJP�s Jharkhand affairs, said that even if Soren joins the government, he wouldn�t stay for more than six months. �So we would rather see him in the Opposition.�

The BJP-Soren relationship had soured long before judge Ajit Bharihoke gave his verdict in the payoff scandal. The Jharkhand leader, with tacit support from the Samata Party, had been openly critical of the BJP. But now, after the judgment, even the Samata has decided not to stand by him any more. Aware of the current drift of things, Soren tried to put pressure on the NDA telling reporters in Dhanbad yesterday that he would prefer being in the Opposition if he wasn�t made chief minister.

�My party would perform the job of an Opposition,� he said. �That was the intention of the voters when they voted for us.�

Soren�s disenchantment with the BJP deepened in August when the party�s thinktank at a core group meeting announced that the chief minister of the new state would be chosen from the BJP

Later, BJP leaders tried mollifying Soren by offering JMM MLAs a number of berths. Without JMM�s support the NDA falls three seats short of a majority.

NDA sources, however, pointed out that it wouldn�t be a cakewalk for the BJP either if Soren is ultimately forced to leave the alliance. With the taut political equations in the region, the BJP, they said, might have to face a major handicap � the loss of Santhal votes.

But party leaders argued the damage could be offset by propping up the Santhal leadership in the party � one reason why Babulal Marandi�s choice as chief minister could get the high command�s nod.

In the absence of the JMM, the NDA is banking on the support of two Independents � Sudesh Mahato and Joba Majhi � besides roping in at least three RJD rebel MLAs.

BJP sources said the party has decided not to try and split the Congress, the second important party in the new state, so that it could play the role of the Opposition in the Assembly.    

New Delhi, Sept. 29: 
The CBI has found no hard evidence to proceed against any well-known Indian cricketer on the basis of allegations made by former all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar.

In other words, the agency�s interim report on the preliminary enquiry on the match-fix scandal has indicated that no criminal case can be made out against any cricketer.

The nearly 1000-page report, to be soon submitted to the sports ministry through the personnel ministry, will be tabled in Parliament during the winter session.

The bureau had begun investigations on May 2 after Delhi police came up with startling revelations on sacked South African captain Hansie Cronje�s links with London-based bookie Sanjeev Chawla.

Investigators also took into account findings of the King Commission of Inquiry which probed the role of South African cricketers in tanking matches.

For all practical purposes, the CBI�s findings trash Prabhakar�s allegations that Kapil Dev had offered him a Rs 25-lakh bribe to underperform in a 1994 One-Day International in Sri Lanka.

The report, however, doesn�t give a clean chit to some cricketers.

CBI sources admitted in private that most cricketers examined by the agency either concealed their links with bookies and match-fixers or denied outright any knowledge of match-fixing.

�There is enough in the report to suggest that not everything is clean in Indian cricket,� the sources said.

The CBI has questioned about 200 people, including cricketers, cricket administrators and scores of bookies. CBI sources said the bulk of information was collated during interrogation of bookies and match-fixers.

Though Indian cricketers have been practically absolved, the report points out that the game is no longer clean and that bookies, in connivance with cricket administrators, tampered with pitches to manipulate match results.

It also said elections to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) are routinely influenced. Though it doesn�t say it in as many words, the CBI suspects a lot of money is at stake for individual posts, vindicating somewhat the charges made by former BCCI chief Inderjit Singh Bindra.

The report also names five foreign players who had, at various points of time, been approached by bookies to tank matches. Though they can�t be named for legal reasons, agency sources said three of them belonged to Pakistan and at least one played for England.

Two of the Pakistani players captained the national side and maintained close links with Indian bookies, the report added.    

Washington, Sept. 29: 
New Delhi may have put Atal Behari Vajpayee�s Washington trip behind it and moved on to Vladimir Putin, but on Capitol Hill, the Prime Minister�s visit is continuing to cause ripples. The decision of the Chaplain of the US House of Representatives to invite a Hindu priest to give the opening prayer in the House on the day Vajpayee addressed a joint meeting of the US Congress has provoked an angry outburst from a powerful Judeo-Christian group.

Two weeks after Vajpayee spoke in the Congress, its members are battling it out on Capitol Hill in defence of the House Chaplain. Adding to the ire of right wing groups which supported demonstrations by Christian groups on the day Vajpayee addressed the Congress are reports from New York that the UN is about to give non-governmental organisation (NGO) status to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).

One Christian group here is urging Americans to bombard the UN with protest letters, blaming the world body�s acknowledgement of the VHP on alleged lobbying by Vajpayee on behalf of the Hindu group.

Referring to the opening invocation in the House of Representatives by the chief priest of Shiva Vishnu temple in Ohio on September 14, the Family Research Council (FRC) said: �what is wrong (with this) is that it is one more indication that our nation is drifting from its Judeo-Christian roots, which nonetheless remain enshrined in the Biblical symbolism that abounds in the hallowed halls and rotunda of the Capitol building itself�.

Echoing statements often heard in India against �pseudo-secularism�, the FRC said: �Alas, in our day when �tolerance� and �diversity� have replaced the Ten Commandments as the only remaining absolute dictums, it has become necessary to �celebrate� non-Christian religions � even in the Halls of Congress�.

The statement asserted that although the US was founded on the �sacred principle� of religious freedom for all, �this liberty was never intended to exalt other religions to the level that Christianity holds in our country�s heritage�. The controversial statement concluded : �As for our Hindu priest friend, the US is a nation that has historically honoured the One True God. Woe be to us on that day when we relegate Him to being merely one among countless other deities in the pantheon of theologies�.

Responding to the FRC statement, Democratic Congressman from Ohio, Sherrod Brown, launched a blistering attack on the ultra-conservative Judeo-Christian organisation. �I am disappointed the FRC doesn�t understand what this country is all about. This country was founded on freedom of religion and religious diversity. Religious intolerance has no place in this country. This is bigotry, plain and simple�.

Pointing out that 1.4 million Indian Americans live in the US and that the First Amendment to the US constitution protects their right to religious beliefs, Brown, a co-founder of the India Caucus, said: �The word �Christianity� is nowhere to be found in the First Amendment. It is unfortunate the FRC interprets the constitution to say that religious freedom means religious supremacy...I applaud the effort to welcome a Hindu priest�.

Sensing the mood on Capitol Hill, the FRC belatedly withdrew its statement, but the Hindu influence in America�s body politic is likely to remain an issue for some time to come.

The world religious summit at the UN in August attended by 108 sadhus and other religious leaders from India, Vajpayee�s presence at a function organised by VHP and Overseas Friends of the BJP on Staaten Island this month and the influence wielded by rich Indian Americans, many of them Hindus, on the current American electoral process will keep the issue very much in focus. And if the UN, in its wisdom, decides to confer NGO status on the VHP, the controversy will certainly boil over.

Prakash Waghmare, spokesman for the VHP here, said the organisation had sought NGO status in the UN many years ago. �It is a long process. there is a need for somebody who can speak for millions of Hindus in the world body when there is similar representation for other religions�, he pointed out.

Waghmare said Pakistan had opposed the move to make VHP an NGO in the UN while India, Nepal and Mauritius had supported the organisation�s application. He said the effort had also received support from Buddhists around the world.    

Chennai, Sept. 29: 
Veerappan has fired yet another salvo in his battle of attrition against the governments of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

In an audio-cassette sent to Tamil extremist leader Pazha Nedumaran, the bandit has indicated that he remains adamant on his demand that all cases against more than 130 of his supporters who are being prosecuted under Tada will have to be withdrawn if the states want Raj Kumar released.

Veerappan has apparently made it clear that unless his demands are met, he will not free his star hostage.

Nedumaran, known as a champion of the LTTE, heads an organisation called Tamil National Movement. Though he is known to back Veerappan, this is the first time that the brigand has directly addressed Nedumaran. This, observers said, is a fall-out of the growing proximity between the forest fiend and Tamil nationalist outfits such as the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army and the Tamil Nadu Retrieval Troops.

Late tonight, Nedumaran�s outfit issued a press release containing what it says is the transcript of an audio-cassette sent to him by Veerappan. But the statement is silent on when he received the cassette and who handed it over to him.

However, inquiries revealed that Nedumaran received the tape five days ago. This explains why there is no mention of Nagappa, one of the hostages who claims he escaped from the bandit�s clutches.

In the transcript, Veerappan lashes out at the Supreme Court for its indefinite stay on the withdrawal of cases against the Tada detainees and the Tamil extremists. The bandit says the court has failed to force Karnataka to implement the interim award of the Cauvery Tribunal and neither has it pulled up the state for detaining nine innocent Tamils for over nine years. The nine were set free recently by the Karnataka High Court.

Veerappan then hurls a series of posers to the apex court: Were those behind the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 ever brought to book? Has it punished corrupt politicians? Did the court come to the rescue of the millions of victims of the exploitative system?

Veerappan warns that his patience is running out and it is up to the two governments to ensure a happy ending to the hostage crisis.

The Supreme Court is to take up the case in the second week of October. Raj Kumar�s release could be further delayed if it refuses to vacate the stay.

Veerappan�s hardened stance is a blow to the two governments� claim that Nakkeeran editor R. Gopal�s mission has been a success. Karnataka home minister Mallikarjun Kharge is arriving here tomorrow for yet another round of discussions with M. Karunanidhi.    


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