After Atal, BJP sees only Advani
Mamata fare freeze
Killer MiGs collide in mid-air
Relative, not star, freed
Bullet & ballad regimen for boy guerrillas
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Oct. 16: 
Trying to set at rest the succession speculation, the BJP today made it clear that only L.K. Advani, and not Jaswant Singh or alliance leaders such as George Fernandes or Chandrababu Naidu, could take over from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee if the need arose.

Without mincing words, the BJP said that in case its partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) refused to agree on Advani�s leadership, it would break out of the coalition and �sacrifice� the government as in 1979. The Jan Sangh, the BJP�s earlier avatar, had then pulled out of the Janata Party regime over the dual membership controversy.

�For the BJP, if there is any person next to Atal Behari Vajpayee, it is L.K. Advani. He has a unique position in the NDA and a very high position in the BJP. There can be no doubt in the minds of NDA allies that Advani is number two,� senior leader J.P. Mathur said.

The succession speculation gained strength after the results of two opinion surveys, commissioned by a Delhi daily and a news channel on DD Metro on the NDA government�s first anniversary, showed that an overwhelming majority of respondents had voted for the home minister as Vajpayee�s replacement if he were to step down.

Jaswant, a favourite among non-BJP circles, trailed way behind.

BJP sources said the foreign minister, who remained close to Vajpayee even when he went through a lean patch after 1984, was his �personal choice� as number two though the party felt differently. The sources added that it is because of this difference that Vajpayee refused to name a number two to officiate during his absence from the capital.

Asserting that the BJP will not �allow� Vajpayee to �foist� Jaswant on the party, the sources said: �He can become the US President but he is not fit to be the Prime Minister of India.�

But there was no confirmation from the party on the rumour that the foreign minister had threatened to resign after Advani�s public swipe at him for the deal with the Indian Airlines hijackers.

Officially, the BJP brushed aside the succession issue as �pure speculation� and �irrelevant� at the moment. �The time of succession has not come. Vajpayee is there, he will continue to lead us and we hope he will also lead us in the 2004 elections,� BJP spokesman Jana Krishnamurthy said.

But the sources admitted that the speculation had a �basis� �the persistent reports that Vajpayee may take �longer� than believed to recover from his knee surgery.

Even if he resumed office, the sources added, he may not be able to put in as much time as in the past and would, therefore, delegate much of his responsibilities to a deputy without giving the person an official designation.

The BJP was given to understand that Jaswant was being considered for the job, something it is not happy about.

The RSS also shares the BJP�s antipathy. Sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarshan had scuttled Jaswant�s chances of becoming the finance minister in 1998 and is reportedly unhappy with the pro-US tilt in India�s foreign policy.

BJP hardliners, who are uncomfortable with Vajpayee�s and party president Bangaru Laxman�s �secular� approach,� said they were happy with Advani�s presence in the RSS camp in Agra yesterday, not as a �mere observer� but as a �dedicated swayamsevak�. �His presence did a lot to correct the equation between the RSS and the BJP which was slightly upset after the criticism of the Centre�s economic policies. It gave the signal that the BJP is deferential to the RSS because even the second most important minister in the Cabinet was willing to be just a swayamsevak on the occasion,� sources said.    

New Delhi, Oct. 16: 
The promise of a rollback is not the only price Atal Behari Vajpayee may have to pay for Mamata Banerjee continuing to be a part of his government.

The railway minister today made it clear she would not raise passenger fare and freight rates to absorb the diesel price increase. On her own admission, the rise will push up the railways� expenses by Rs 275 crore.

�We are facing a difficult situation,� she said, but rejected rate revision as an alternative, expecting to cushion some of the impact through higher railway earnings and possibly a cutback in the diesel price increase.

A review of the petroleum price rise already done for the Prime Minister does not show scope for a substantial rollback. But sources say once Vajpayee makes good his promise, on the basis of which the railway minister withdrew her resignation, Mamata will not precipitate a fresh crisis even if the cutback does not come up to her expectations.

That the Prime Minister will not fail Mamata was evident from rural development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu�s statement in Calcutta today. �Vajpayeeji will definitely give the issue a relook, as he has promised my ministerial colleague Mamata Banerjee.�

Vajpayee will explain to her the economic compulsions for the price rise and then offer a marginal reduction in kerosense and cooking gas. The expectation is that Vajpayee will offer a Rs 5 cut in the price of cooking gas and 50 paise in kerosene. Official sources do not see the possibility of a cutback in diesel prices.

That will mean the railways having to absorb all of the Rs 275-crore burden. �Our freight earnings are higher by Rs 41 crore and passenger earnings by Rs 109 crore during September,� Mamata said, indicating she expected the railways to be able to meet the additional cost by raising income.

Despite the September surge, there is a shortfall of Rs 128 crore in fare and freight earnings from the target set for the month.

By refusing to raise fare and freight, the railway minister risks a wider gap between expenditure and revenue than what is projected in the budget. Deficits have to be met by either borrowings or higher financial support from the Central budget unless, of course, there is a dramatic improvement in income.

From her speech at the economic editors� conference today, Mamata appears to be driving at more funds from the government. �The large investments needed for the development of the railway system have not materialised because of the declining plan support from 75 per cent in the fifth plan to about 30 per cent in 1999-2000,� she said.

She also sought compensation for the railways similar to that proposed by communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan for shouldering public service obligations. Paswan has promised that Bharat Sanchar Nigam will be compensated for offering telecom services in less paying areas.

�Unlike many foreign railways, which receive government subsidies for public service obligations, Indian Railways are not compensated for these operations,� Mamata said.    

Shillong, Oct. 16: 
Barely 72 hours after a MiG-21 crashed in Rajasthan, the air force today lost two more fighter jets and a pilot in a mid-air collision near the central Assam town of Tezpur.

Senior air staff officer of the Eastern Air Command, Air Marshal M. MacMohan, said the two MiG-21s collided during a training session.

�It was a bad day for us. We lost two fighter jets and a skilled pilot. The other pilot sustained multiple injuries,� MacMohan added.

The pilot killed in the crash was Squadron Leader Jodh Singh. �He was from Chandigarh. We have informed his family about the tragedy. The other pilot is undergoing treatment at the military hospital in Tezpur,� MacMohan said.

The collision took place 40 km west of Tezpur at 11 am, minutes after the two combat planes took off from the Salonibari airbase.

MacMohan said it was yet to be ascertained whether pilot error or snags in either of the MiG-21 aircraft caused the mid-air mishap.

�We do not know what happened. The cause of the collision will be known only after experts conduct an inquiry,� he said.

Air officer commanding-in-chief, Air Marshal K.N. Nair, was unavailable for comment. Sources said he was out of station.

Today�s crash was the 61st involving MiG aircraft since 1997. Some MiG-21 planes in the air force fleet are no less than 37 years old.

Though referred to as �flying coffins� in air force circles, there is no proposal to ground the ageing fleet of Russian fighter aircraft.

Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis had said here recently that the fighter jets would be �upgraded� for use till the end of this decade.    

Chennai, Oct. 16: 
Veerappan tonight sent back Raj Kumar�s relative instead of the actor.

The release of Govindaraj capped a day of hope and confusion as the wait for Raj Kumar stretched to another day. Earlier, the Tamil Nadu government said a �positive development� is expected either tonight or tomorrow morning.

Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi said �there are expectations� that Veerappan might release Raj Kumar soon, scotching unconfirmed reports in the morning that the actor had already been released.

But the representatives of neither the new emissary and Tamil nationalist leader, P. Nedumaran, nor his predecessor and editor of Nakkeeran, R. Gopal, could explain the delay in the expected breakthrough.

Nedumaran�s aides, who had issued a statement yesterday morning promising �positive news� last night or this morning, were evasive on the lack of further communication from the forest, where the negotiations are taking place. �We�re still awaiting,� one of them said.

The Nakkeeran camp, reportedly unhappy with the way Gopal was marginalised, issued a statement in the morning, saying �the team led by our editor will be successful in its mission and some concrete word could be expected in the night.� Till 10.30 pm, there was no such word.

But the Karnataka government also insisted that the talks were �progressing well� and it was expecting a �good message�. The state home minister, however, declined to set a timeframe for getting the �good message� from the forest.

Despite Karunanidhi�s denial, reports persisted through the day that the hostages were released yesterday night but had been asked to stay put in a house near the forests till Veerappan and his associates were able to withdraw deep into the forests. The special task force, lying in wait to launch an offensive, is expected to swing into action once Raj Kumar is back home.

Speculation was rife that Raj Kumar would be brought to Chennai to enable the state government to showcase him.

Asked whether Raj Kumar would be brought to Chennai when he is released, the chief minister said: �I do not know.� Reports from Karnataka had said Tamil Nadu was making transport arrangements for the hostages.    

Chandwa (Palamou), Oct. 16: 
In the wee hours of the morning, three boys leave a village about four km from the point where the North Koel River splits into three streams. After riding four km on their bicycles, followed by a long walk, the boys find themselves on the banks of one of the rivulets where six men are waiting for them. There are no villages nearby and the only possible escape route is through patches of jungle and riverine terrain.

Through the morning, the boys practise using firearms in the sprawling paddy fields, often dropping their weapons as they fumble in the swirling early morning wind. Later that afternoon, the boys gather at a primary school ground. When darkness envelopes the hamlet, under the flickering light of an oil lamp, they join in a chorus of songs with drum beats reverberating among the houses.

This is not an isolated incident, but a typical induction programme of the baladalam (boys� cadre) being raised by the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) in Bihar, which has taken a leaf out of the guerrilla handbook of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam and the United Liberation Front of Asom.

Children from the cultural wing of the MCC are chosen three at a time for the baladalam. After taking oath, these 12-year-olds are trained in the use of firearms. In the evenings, the boys sing patriotic songs and participate in other cultural programmes. This helps in maintaining the dual role of the baladalam, which is meant to uphold village traditions as well as combat the landlords� army.

After the three-week arms� training, the boys don blue shorts and red shirts, and tie a red sash around their waists before setting out to participate in mock operations with the adults.

Stretches along the North Koel River in Palamou district, with forest patches providing safe settings, are chosen by the MCC for training the boys to keep them out of the police dragnet.

Remote villages of Palamou, Gaya, and Aurangabad districts are also used to train the young inductees. MCC elders frequently change the training venue, despite these areas being considered �free zones� of the MCC.

MCC activists said they were alarmed by the increasing attacks on children by the Ranbir Sena, which prompted the raising of the baladalam. Pragyan, a spokesman of the MCC�s zonal unit in Palamou, however, added that the boys are �not supposed to strike unless they are under attack�. This assumes importance with Ranbir Sena chief Brahmeswar Singh being quoted as saying: �It is a war. Don�t women and children get killed in the battlefield?�    



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