Sonia keeps party guessing on CWC
Atal rushes to calm seething Sena
Naidu pound of flesh over dinner
Veerappan hunt fanfare irks Advani
Uma scans Sydney �scam�
BJP rebel meet put off
Patna women find foothold in mosques
Khurana growl on master plan
UP violence alarms BJP
Mulayam stalls House

New Delhi, Nov. 24: 
A recharged Sonia Gandhi is keeping the party guessing about her future moves.

No one, including leaders who are supposedly members of the coterie, has a clue about the composition of the new Congress Working Committee (CWC).

Sonia now is a changed person. When a senior leader asked about the CWC vetting policy matters, she said matter-of-factly: �What CWC? I think now it has been converted into a steering committee.�

There is confusion about how the leadership will draft eight women in the CWC. Following an amendment in the party constitution, one-third of the seats have been reserved for women.

It is not known whether they will be elected or nominated. Will there be separate votes to elect women representatives? In the absence of any clear-cut guidelines, there are as many views as there are voices. Some partymen say Sonia will ask women contestants to try their luck through secret and general ballot and if they fail to get elected, she will nominate them.

According to the Congress constitution, 12 of the 24 CWC members are elected. The rest are nominated by the party president.

As the Assembly polls are round the corner in West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Punjab, there is a move to delink the CWC polls from the AICC plenary session.

However, there is stiff opposition to holding the CWC polls in the month of Ramzan when Muslim delegates will be observing a fast. With Ramzan ending on December 27, there will hardly be time for the elaborate exercise of organising a plenary.

Many CWC members see merit in delinking the CWC polls from the plenary, though it will be a departure from the Congress tradition. According to Ghulam Nabi Azad, if CWC polls are held during the plenary, the focus will shift to party polls and important deliberations on organisational matters, economic and foreign policies will fail to get due attention.

Picking the new CWC will be a big headache for Sonia. Virtually every section of the party is hoping to be accommodated in the apex decision making body. But the younger lot wants her to select persons who will qualify as shadow ministers.

�It will be a mirror reflecting the quality of persons the leadership intends to project,� an AICC functionary said. �She will have to strike a balance among ancient, medieval and modern India,� he said adding, seniors, middle-aged leaders and juniors will figure in the new CWC.

The young turks are getting restless as Sonia has given no indication if she wants them to contest the CWC polls or wait for her to nominate them. The old guard is confident that she will renominate them for their loyalty which ensured a humiliating defeat for Jitendra Prasada.

Amid suspense over the composition of the new CWC, hectic lobbying has begun for the post of the PCC president in different states.    

New Delhi, Nov. 24: 
Taking the initiative to soothe ruffled feathers, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee today assured the Shiv Sena that he had not intended to �snub� the party by quashing its demand for withdrawal of the Ramzan ceasefire in Kashmir.

Vajpayee also spoke up on behalf of foreign minister Jaswant Singh, insisting he had not meant to hurt anybody�s sentiment either. Jaswant had added sting to Vajpayee�s Rajya Sabha speech by saying that even �barking mongrels� would not be able to halt the �caravan of peace�.

The Prime Minister�s twin assurances came after the Sena today took its withdraw-ceasefire battle to the streets, burning Vajpayee�s effigy near Parliament and raising anti-government slogans. Soon after, a five-member Sena team, led by heavy industries minister Manohar Joshi, was summoned to the Prime Minister�s residence.

Top government sources said Vajpayee assured the delegation in a 20-minute session that newspapers had �misinterpreted� his impromptu speech and given wrong headlines suggesting he had snubbed the party. He is believed to have said that his speech was �not meant against the Shiv Sena as a party but against sections and groups who misunderstood his Kashmir policy�.

Jaswant also went out of his way to calm frayed tempers, saying during a Rajya Sabha debate on nationalism that �we are all together�. Reiterating that Vajpayee�s speech had not been a broadside against the Sena, Jaswant urged that too much should not be read into it.

Top sources said Jaswant had been specifically asked by the Prime Minister to issue the clarification. Jaswant is also expected to clear the air on his own speech. He had said in the Rajya Sabha yesterday that the �caravan of peace carrying the message of humanity and peace will roll on and nobody can stop its onward march. Even the barking mongrels in villages will not be able to halt it�.

Government sources claimed that after today�s meeting with Vajpayee, a �satisfied� Sena vowed to continue support to the government and distanced itself from the violence. The MPs are believed to have said that the effigy-burning was an independent endeavour of the Delhi unit.

The meeting apparently had a salutary effect on Sena boss Bal Thackeray as well. There was no hard-hitting editorial in party mouthpiece Saamna, leave alone criticism of Vajpayee�s speech. Only agency reports on the address were carried without comment or criticism.

But Sena sources stressed they conveyed their viewpoint �forcefully� to the Prime Minister. Joshi is reported to have told him that he was �mistaken� if he thought Hindus were happy with his ceasefire initiative.

Joshi also questioned that if the government could enforce a ceasefire during Ramzan for the �benefit� of Muslims, why had a similar step not been taken to �protect� Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir during Diwali.    

New Delhi, Nov. 24: 
Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu, who had a dinner meeting with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee yesterday, extracted a bagful of promises before somersaulting on his demand for a rollback on the diesel price hike.

His demands included restraining BJP leaders of Andhra Pradesh from sniping at him or raking up the issue of a separate Telengana state and ending discrimination of IAS officers of Andhra cadre by the Centre in transfer, posting and promotion.

Naidu also demanded that �anomalies� in the Eleventh Finance Commission recommendations, which punish �performing� states, and those of Lakadwala Commission report on below poverty line criteria be rectified. He wanted foodgrain of northern states stored in Andhra godowns to be shifted to create space for local produce.

He demanded that Food Corporation of India buy more foodgrain from the state which is reeling under a glut. Naidu also sought an increase in customs duty on groundnuts as farmers are forced to resort to distress sale.

Though Naidu left for Hyderabad today, Vajpayee, agreed to look into all his demands. Andhra finance minister Y. Ramakrishnadu and agriculture minister P. Shobhanadeeswara have been asked by the Prime Minister to stay back in Delhi for a couple of days to work out a financial package for the state.

Sources said Naidu told the Prime Minister that for the last two-and-a-half years, his party has given unstinted support to the Centre but justice has not been done to the state.

�Though we are giving support, we are not getting anything in return, only problems. This has to end,� he said.

The chief minister was particularly peeved at state BJP leaders criticising him publicly and campaigning for a Telengana state.

Though home minister L.K. Advani, during his visit to Hyderabad, rejected the demand, state BJP leaders persisted with it.    

New Delhi, Nov. 24: 
The Centre may have promised all assistance to Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to track down forest brigand Veerappan, but Union home minister L.K. Advani came down heavily on senior officials of the two states for publicising their operations.

Home ministry sources said Advani was �quite peeved� with the manner in which the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments were �publicising everything about their plans, rather than being discreet�.

Advani drove home his point yesterday when he met the Tamil Nadu chief secretary, home secretary and director-general of police who assured the Centre that their government would resume operations against Veerappan.

Senior home ministry officials today conveyed the same message to Karnataka chief secretary B.K. Bhattacharya during a meeting with a three-member team of officials from Bangalore. The team had come to North Block to discuss details of their plans to move into the forests to apprehend Veerappan.

�The very purpose of a joint operation would be lost if the state government officials disclose details of the kind of operation they are planning,� a senior North Block bureaucrat said. He added: �The home minister is extremely unhappy with the way statements about the operations are being made openly. It gives away the plans and only helps Veerappan.�

It is understood that Advani urged the senior officials from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to �observe restraint� and first prepare a foolproof plan to nab the sandalwood smuggler. The home minister is also believed to have indicated to the Tamil Nadu officials that unless there is a clamp on publicity, the ADMK would take political mileage.

Advani has said the Centre will consider requests for National Security Guard commandos.    

New Delhi, Nov. 24: 
Sports minister Uma Bharti told the Rajya Sabha that she has sought clarifications from the finance ministry on the foreign exchange violation charges against the Indian Olympic Association at the Sydney Olympics.

BJP member S.S. Ahluwalia said the minister had been informed of a �scantily clad� woman who had moved around the Olympic stadium wearing, among other things, a tricolour. Bharati said she would look into the matter.

The minister defended the Indian performance at the games. �We have improved considerably this time. Our performance is far better compared to what we have achieved in the past, going by international standards,� she said.

Before Uma could heap praise on Karnam Malleswari, the only Indian to win a medal at the games, Jayanti Natarajan asked why Malleswari had not been idolised as she should have been. Other women MPs, too, joined in. Railway minister Mamata Banerjee, sitting behind Uma, was seen nodding her head.

The sports minister agreed that it was a woman who had done India proud at the Olympics. The gender syndrome cut across party lines. Uma said she is planning a reception for Malleswari to which she would invite people like Natarajan who have appreciated her performance.

Natarajan said: �She has not really lifted weights. She has lifted the nation to exalted heights.�

But the controversy over the foreign exchange violations continued to overshadow the questions. Everybody wanted to know if the Olympic association, of which Congress Rajya Sabha MP Suresh Kalmadi is the boss, is guilty. Congress MP Pranab Mukherjee objected to naming any Rajya Sabha member. Therefore, no names were mentioned when the association and its officials were being referred to.

Association members alleged that officials had withdrawn money on behalf of the athletes but had not given them the dollars they were entitled to as daily expenses.    

Ahmedabad, Nov. 24: 
The Gujarat BJP leadership claims to have thwarted a possible revolt against chief minister Keshubhai Patel.

Dissidents had convened a meeting on November 26 but it had to be postponed, apparently under pressure from the state leadership.

Party spokesman Bharat Pandya claimed the meeting could not be held because the rebels could not muster enough support.

The dissidents, who are against the �arrogant and discriminatory attitude of the chief minister and his close ministerial colleagues�, will now meet in Gandhinagar on December 3.

But Pandya believes the dissidents will not succeed this time either. �We will ensure that no such meeting is held,� he asserted.

Dissident leader Arvind Patel claimed the �meeting is being organised to strengthen the party� in the state after its debacle in the recent civic and district panchayat election. The Patel camp feels the proposed meeting is being organised at the behest of Union textile minister Kashiram Rana and industry minister Suresh Mehta.    

Patna, Nov. 24: 
The north wind of change blowing through the Muslim community has swept to the east. Women in Delhi went to pray in mosques breaking the shackles of custom; Lucknow followed suit; and now Patna is breasting the breeze.

The city�s Muslim women are taking on the fundamentalists to demand relaxation of the prohibition on women in religious places. �We have been growing increasingly impatient with the system that kept us away from the places of worship. Our generation of educated Muslim women feels as strongly about God as our male counterparts. Why shouldn�t we have the chance to express it?� asked Begum Nur Bano, a graduate from Patna Science College married to a city businessman. She has offered namaz in mosques with other women on the same floor as the men, albeit with a curtain separating them.

However, the Muslim-dominated old city is not excited over the development. The practice of women praying in mosques which began tentatively a couple of months ago evokes a sceptical response from the elderly members of the community. �It has started now. But this may just be an experiment among a section of the minority members. This is yet to be universally practised,� said a member of an old mosque by the Ganga.

But the practice is catching on fast. In the Golakpur area, Masjid Mulla Sadman, one of the oldest Shia mosques in the city, has thrown open its doors to women devotees. The mosque, said to be over 200 years old, was repaired recently. Since then women can offer prayer with-out any difficulty, said a mos- que administrator. �They take part in Jumma and Jumerat. Women feel free to pray here,� he added.

On the posh Exhibition Road stands Masjid Abdul Hai. Women have been welcome here since it was set up in 1991. After the men take up their positions, barely half-a-dozen women tiptoe to one corner and kneel down for the prayers.

�This is spiritually the most enlivening moment of my life... being able to come here and pray,� said Rukhsana Begum, an employee of the state housing department.

In fact, Golakpur boasts of an �all-women mosque�. No curtains are needed at Masjid Hakim Mehdi as the men choose to stay away. Women even run the administration of the mosque. Sahnaz Begum, the administrator of this modest institution, says that women have learnt to exercise their freedom in pray- ing to God. �This is precious, and we guard it zealously,� she added.

At the same time, the women admit that their participation in some sects is still extremely restricted.

Putting things in perspective, Maulana Asgar Raja, a researcher on Islamic law, said allowing women to pray in mosques is an old practice, but Islam had later prohibited it. �Now in some sects, this old practice has been resumed, but the subject is still controversial. Most maulvis do not think that the practice has the sanction of Islam. However, there is no bad blood among members of the different sects over permission given to the women to conduct namaz,� he added.    

New Delhi, Nov. 24: 
BJP�s �eternal rebel� Madan Lal Khurana was once again in his element in the Lok Sabha today, directly challenging his superiors.

�I will lead the people of Delhi in a movement if the master plan is not amended,� Khurana said in a discussion on the plight of Delhi workers following the closure of small-scale and household factories in the capital.

Union urban development minister Jagmohan, however, sang a different tune. �Do we want our city to become a junkyard of unauthorised constructions, mirroring civic and moral chaos, or an orderly and disciplined capital of a resurgent republic embodying justice and honesty?� the minister asked.

Khurana warned that the situation would spin out of control if the master plan was not changed. �There are reports today of plans to close down more industries and the government deploying more troops. If this happens, it will be difficult to control the situation,� he said.

This is not the first time Khurana has clashed with the BJP or the RSS. He had taken on the RSS when Christians were being targeted all across the country and had also opposed certain policies of the World Trade Organisation which the BJP was supporting.

Congress and Samajwadi Party MPs supported Khurana, urging the Union minister to amend the master plan. �The master plan is not a static concept, and in any case needs to be reviewed in 2001,� said Congress MP Kamal Nath.

Khurana has petitioned the Prime Minister and the home minister, urging a change in the master plan.

Jagmohan said he was not rigid on the issue and the master plan could be changed, if necessary. �But this must be done according to the guidelines and only if it serves the cause of justice and the interest of the public,� he said.

When asked by Khurana whether he was ready to hold a meeting of Delhi MPs and Central government ministers, Jagmohan said, �I am ready to talk to anyone.�

Jagmohan suggested that the polluting units could be shifted to Narela where effluents can be treated.    

New Delhi, Nov. 24: 
The BJP, which had hoped that Rajnath Singh would transform law and order in Uttar Pradesh, is alarmed at the recent killings after he took charge as chief minister less than a month ago.

A Congress leader and block pramukh was killed in Jaunpur yesterday, leading to communal clashes. Earlier, there were Shia-Sunni riots in Azamgarh and Kanpur, and a Saharanpur BJP MLA was killed in his constituency.

BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra alleged it was part of a �conspiracy to defame Rajnath Singh and foil his efforts�. �It is a fact that the NDA�s record at maintaining communal harmony has been good and this has angered and worried some people,� he added.

Asked to name who �these people� were, Malhotra pointed fingers at �Pakistan and the ISI� and �political parties interested in garnering Muslim votes�.

�Pakistan and the ISI want to give India a bad name, while some parties, like the Samajwadi Party and the Congress, interested in minority votes, want to vitiate the communal atmosphere,� he said.    

New Delhi, Nov. 24: 
Samajwadi Party members today forced an adjournment on the killings in Uttar Pradesh after the Speaker refused to concede their demand of a statement from the Prime Minister on the issue.

Raising the issue in the House, Samajwadi leader Mulayam Singh Yadav said: �There is a communal situation in Uttar Pradesh after the killing of four persons in Jaunpur. The Prime Minister should come to the House and make a statement on the incident.�

As soon as Question Hour was over, Samajwadi members demanded that the Speaker allow them to speak on the Uttar Pradesh incidents.

But the Speaker had already allowed BJP member Madan Lal Khurana to table a call attention on the plight of Delhi workers. �This is a violation of parliamentary norms. We should, as always, have Zero Hour after Question Hour,� Yadav said.    


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