Back-to-basics Atal cheers BJP
Centre rushes forces to Assam
No safeguards in bank Bill
Mamata wants temple backtrack
Intelligence men out of security team
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Dec. 8: 
After its pro-minority dalliances courtesy Bangaru Laxman�s Nagpur message, the BJP is back to basics after Atal Behari Vajpayee�s assertions in favour of the Ram temple over the last two days.

Echoing the sentiments pervading the party, veteran BJP leader J.P. Mathur said: �For us the temple issue is a nationalist and an emotional issue. Several persons have asked me: what about Muslim sentiments? My answer to them is Hindus have always respected Muslim sentiments whether it is on the partition, free movement between the two countries, or even overturning the constitutional judgment in the Shah Bano case. But when it came to a simple thing like legislating the ban on cow slaughter, Muslims have opposed it in the court. It is high time Muslims learn to understand and respect the sentiments of the majority.�

On the Prime Minister�s proposal to build a temple at the site of the Babri masjid and relocate the mosque at another place, Mathur said: �If a consensus is evolved between Hindus and Muslims, both mandir and masjid can be constructed through their collective efforts. This will change the communal atmosphere in the country.�

BJP sources, however, admitted it was not the finer points of how the issue would be resolved that have fired the imagination of the rank and file but the fact that the Prime Minister chose to speak �eloquently and freely� on a subject whose mention was virtually taboo once the party became part of a coalition.

As a senior party functionary put it: �Even in 1992 when the mosque was demolished, Atalji distanced himself from the act and had privately even condemned it. But this time he spoke on Ram mandir with elan and style. What has made our cadre particularly happy is that he iterated the party�s stand on the occasion of iftar from a Muslim minister�s house. The occasion and venue could not have been more appropriate.�

BJP sources said widely-televised images of Vajpayee holding forth on Ayodhya in the company of Muslim clerics at Syed Shahnawaz Hussain�s house had triggered congratulatory messages to the Central office from states like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.

The central theme was: �Atalji has at last proved that he is really Atal (steadfast). When it comes to the crunch his allegiance is to the Sangh and not to any liberal agenda.�

The uncorking of pro-Hindu and, by implication, anti-minority sentiments, said BJP sources, was �long overdue�. Stressing that the Prime Minister�s declarations were not a response to RSS wishes, the sources attributed it to three factors: one, the results of the Uttar Pradesh civic polls in which the party fared badly even in Vajpayee�s own Lucknow constituency.

Two, the VHP�s Dharma Sansad (religious parliament) to be held during the Allahabad Kumbh Mela next month. The BJP�s information was that VHP working president Ashok Singhal was poised to publicly attack the Prime Minister.

Last, the BJP�s feedback was that Laxman�s gestures towards the minorities were counterproductive. While the Muslims continued to be �sceptical� of the party�s intent, hardcore Hindutva voters were getting disenchanted rapidly.

Claiming that the Opposition�s demand for the resignations of L.K. Advani, M.M. Joshi and Uma Bharti had presented Vajpayee with a �golden opportunity� to go on the offensive on Ayodhya, BJP spokesman V.K. Malhotra challenged the Congress and the Opposition to say clearly if they opposed the Ram temple and a negotiated settlement of the issue.

�The Opposition underestimated us and thought Vajpayee would cave in tamely and persuade Advani and the others to step down. They thought he would do anything to stick to power. But if push comes to shove, we are even ready to sacrifice our government and Atalji symbolises the BJP�s character,� the sources said.


New Delhi, Dec. 8: 
The Centre today swung into action to halt the soaring carnage graph in Assam even as the spate of killings continued unabated.

At a meeting chaired by home minister L.K. Advani, the government decided to rush additional security forces and launch special operations against the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) in some areas engulfed by violence.

Barely a few hours after suspected Ulfa rebels mowed down 28 migrants in Tinsukia district, unidentified assailants gunned down the brother of the Ulfa�s �foreign secretary�, Sasha Choudhury, in Nalbari district last night.

Dipak Choudhury was shot dead from close range at the family residence under Belsor police station. He was an employee at the office of the joint director of health, Nalbari.

Briefing reporters here after the 90-minute meeting, home secretary Kamal Pande said additional security forces are being sent to the violence-scarred areas. Special anti-insurgency operations will be launched immediately against the Ulfa, which is suspected to be behind the series of massacres.

Besides Advani, the meeting was attended by defence minister George Fernandes, Assam Governor S.K. Sinha, chief minister Prafulla Mahanta and army chief Gen. S. Padmanabhan.

What has come as a shock to both the home ministry and the state government is that, until recently, several militants had surrendered. The Centre was even expecting that the surrender figure would touch the 2,000 mark by year-end.

Pande said the Centre will immediately despatch 27 additional companies of security forces to help the 127 companies of paramilitary and army units engaged in anti-insurgency operations. He said the foreign ministry is in touch with the Bhutan government regarding Ulfa camps in that country.

Among other measures, the Centre and the state government decided to destroy Ulfa bases in the Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh from where the outfit carried out the massacres in hit-and-run operations. This apart, night curfew would be imposed with immediate effect in the outer periphery of Assam and border areas. The movement of buses and trucks in these areas will be prohibited.

Home ministry sources said the Centre will provide all necessary assistance to the state in dealing with the crisis and the Unified Command would be strengthened. The security forces, the state police and the intelligence agencies have been directed to share information. Security will be beefed up in areas dominated by Hindi-speaking people.

While the Governor expressed confidence that the violence would be checked �within a few weeks�, the chief minister said security forces would launch coordinated operations to destroy Ulfa camps inside Arunachal Pradesh.

Mahanta denied his government had failed to protect the lives of people but added that the Ulfa was carrying out desperate hit-and-run strikes because its cadre were surrendering in droves.


New Delhi, Dec. 8: 
Finance minister Yashwant Sinha will table the banking amendment Bill allowing the government to reduce its equity stake to 33 per cent in public sector banks without any safeguards against private individuals consolidating their stake higher than the government holding.

Government officials had earlier promised such safeguards to bank unions to get them to accept the stake sale.

This is likely to make the passage of the Bill even more difficult as the Congress and the Left parties have made retention of the state-owned character of PSU banks a condition.


New Delhi, Dec. 8: 
Realising that the Prime Minister�s Ayodhya stand could alienate her Muslim voters in the run-up to the Bengal polls, Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee today asked Atal Behari Vajpayee to withdraw �without delay� his controversial statement.

Mamata, who demanded an immediate meeting of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) constituents on the issue, slammed Vajpayee�s statements over the past couple of days as �unwarranted�.

The statements, she said, had already triggered communal tension in sensitive areas, especially in Uttar Pradesh. Mamata was backed in her stand by Yerran Naidu of the Telugu Desam and the Indian National Lok Dal�s Sushil Indora.

�The Prime Minister�s statement has created tension. A wrong message has gone out to the nation. The Prime Minister should send a message so that communal tension is not spread,� sources quoted her as saying at today�s all-party meeting convened by Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi to end the five-day deadlock in Parliament.

The Janata Dal (United), the Samata Party and the DMK were not present at the meeting.

Yesterday, Mamata and Naidu had called on Vajpayee. The Prime Minister had reportedly told them he would not deviate from the NDA agenda. Reassured, Mamata told reporters after the meeting that she was �satisfied� with his response.

But the allies were in for a shock when, later in the evening, Vajpayee shovelled more fuel into the fire as he tried to elaborate on what he had said earlier.

At today�s meeting, Mamata requested parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan to convey her party�s feelings to Vajpayee. Sources said Mamata was appalled at the sudden change in Vajpayee�s stand regarding his commitment to the alliance�s secular agenda.

Mamata, they said, believes that the Uttar Pradesh polls have something to do with Vajpayee�s statements. Though they have endeared him to the hardcore Hindutva votebank in the state, the statements could not have come at a worse time for the Trinamul chief who is trying to woo Muslims in Bengal.

Later, talking to reporters, Mamata said: �Our intention is not to topple the government, but support people�s issues.�

Asked to comment on senior BJP vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy�s remark that the �allies are overreacting�, she said: �If somebody thinks we are wrong, they may take action against us.�

Mamata said: �We are not over reacting but putting across our viewpoint. We are a coalition government, and it does not belong to a particular party.�

Naidu said: �The Prime Minister�s statements were uncalled for, unnecessary and added fuel to fire. It is a very sensitive issue. Ours is a vast, multi-religious country facing so many problems. The Prime Minister should clarify his position.�


New Delhi, Dec. 8: 
In a startling move with ramifications for Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee�s security, the Prime Minister�s Office has abandoned a time-tested mechanism and procedure for advance security liaison by Indian intelligence with foreign hosts whenever the head of government undertakes visits abroad.

On December 5, the PMO issued an order saying Vajpayee has �approved� a proposal to revise the composition of the advance security liaison team for all foreign visits of the Prime Minister. The order was issued less than a month before Vajpayee leaves for Vietnam.

Although the order says revision of the composition of the liaison team was approved by the Prime Minister, government sources are wondering who mooted the proposal in the first place. Officials are questioning the wisdom behind removing the intelligence component of the team.

The sources pointed out that according to the December 5 order, signed by a joint secretary in the PMO, the team would henceforth consist of the joint secretary of the �territorial� desk dealing with the particular country or region, director of the Special Protection Group (SPG) responsible for the Prime Minister�s proximate security, personal secretary to the Prime Minister or deputy secretary/director in the PMO, the deputy chief of protocol in the ministry of external affairs and the officer on special duty responsible for external publicity in the foreign office. The joint secretary of the territorial desk will head the team.

The sources said before the latest order, the liaison team consisted of senior officials of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the foreign ministry and the foreign office�s own security personnel. RAW and IB officials, along with those of the foreign ministry, used to liaise with their counterparts in the security set-ups of the host countries to prepare the Prime Minister�s programme.

The December 5 order does not give security-specific reasons for downgrading the team.

The change seems to have been �dictated by considerations of compactness and single representation for each area of responsibility�.

The order says on any visit, the joint secretary of the territorial desk will be in charge of the political and economic parts of the Prime Minister�s programmes. The SPG chief will be responsible for �all aspects of security�.

Before a state visit, the SPG director will take briefings from RAW and IB on the Prime Minister�s security and the threat perception. He will be entitled to share intelligence inputs with security officials of the foreign governments.

SPG sources admit that the head of their organisation is not qualified for the task set for him by the PMO order. �He neither has the specialisation nor the mandate to liaise with intelligence and security officials of the host countries,� an SPG official said. �Now IFS officials have every reason for jubilation.�

Intelligence sources said there are specific officials who liaise with their counterparts abroad at least a month before the Prime Minister�s tours.




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