Minnows crowd Sonia�s please-all team
BJP succession pot boils again
Centre seeks rehab plan for quake victims
Delay drives victims to despair
NDA allies face off in Bihar
Congress firm on Pondicherry
Dimple ducks police punch
Power cuts hit students
Cong eyes pact with CPM rebel
Industry hub chokes on black smoke

New Delhi, Feb. 12: 
Sonia Gandhi today shuffled the Congress organisational set-up, retaining senior leaders and elevating Kamal Nath to AICC general secretary in charge of Bengal.

The exercise, however, lacked punch and is unlikely to get her dividends in the Assembly polls. While Arjun Singh, N.D. Tiwari and Motilal Vora were retained in the Congress Working Committee (CWC), many low-key leaders were brought in.

Mahabir Prasad from Uttar Pradesh and L.P. Sahi from Bihar got CWC berths, highlighting the lack of talent in the two states where the Congress is seeking a foothold. Sonia also created 18 departments to accommodate those who missed CWC slots.

Bengal mahajot votary A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury was retained as permanent invitee to the CWC. Pranab Mukherjee, too, remained a member, against the convention barring state unit chiefs from joining the CWC.

Nath�s elevation is being seen as a sop to the Young Turks who have been seeking a �generation� change. Mukul Wasnik, also from the �young quota� is in the CWC.

But Sonia evened things out by roping in Sahi from Bihar and Prasad, former Uttar Pradesh unit chief. Jaipal Reddy has been appointed chief spokesman and film star Sunil Dutt is in charge of the Youth Congress.

Sushil Shinde, Prabha Rau and Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy were dropped from the CWC but got berths in the Central Election Authority that was revived after 20 years. But Sonia did not name the Central Parliamentary Board.

M.L. Fotedar, who advised Sonia to take the holy dip, bagged a slot in the election authority, which selects candidates at all levels. A surprise omission on this panel was Madhavrao Scindia, Congress deputy leader in the Lok Sabha.

Sonia, however, has not ensured one-third quota for women as she has been promising at all party fora. But if the three vacancies remaining in the CWC are allotted to women, Sonia will have struck a balance.

The Congress chief has retained Ambika Soni, Mohsina Kidwai and Motamma in the CWC, and brought in little-known Sarojini Pulla Reddy of Andhra Pradesh.

The AICC chief has also retained Natwar Singh, belonging to the old guard. Arjun has, however, been removed as minorities department head, but this does not mean he has been robbed of clout. Along with Fotedar and Brinder Singh, he will be a big gun in the election authority.

Sonia did not find a suitable candidate from Tamil Nadu, which is going to the polls in two months. But she brought in Mani Shankar Aiyar as special invitee to the CWC. He has been put in charge of all north-eastern states.

Sonia has been careful to assign at least one Congress-ruled state to each of the seven general secretaries. Her confidante Ambika Soni has got the best deal, being put in charge of Andhra, Karnataka, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir. She is also in charge of the Congress President�s Office.

Ghulam Nabi Azad has been put in charge of Uttar Pradesh to woo Muslim votes ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections. While Prasad is from the weaker sections, Ram Naresh Yadav has been roped into the Central Election Authority.

Mohsina Kidwai has been given Congress-ruled Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh because of her deft handling of Bihar party affairs. G. Venkataswamy has been named head of the SC/ST department, one of the units created to accommodate those who have missed CWC slots. Shiv Shankar is chairman of the OBC department.


New Delhi, Feb. 12: 
�The last hurdle in the path of Advaniji becoming Prime Minister has been removed,� a loyalist said after the notification for L.K. Advani�s trial in the Babri demolition case was set aside.

When Advani was cleared of the hawala �stigma�, the BJP headquarters had burst into a riot of celebration resembling a glitzy baraat. Today, there was no merry-making because of the Gujarat earthquake. But the relief among loyalists was palpable.

BJP sources said there was �no way� Advani would use this legal victory to his personal advantage and position himself as a prospective Prime Minister or �do anything to remotely suggest that he was a threat to A.B. Vajpayee�.

�As long as Atalji is around, Advaniji will simply not aspire to become the Prime Minister,� a source claimed. He pointed out that in 1995 � a year before Vajpayee succeeded PV Narasimha Rao for 13 days � Advani had named him as the BJP�s prime ministerial candidate though his �own claim was greater�.

Going by the reactions, it was not so much the prospect of seeing him in the top job that excited them as the possibility that the Allahabad High Court ruling would put paid to the ambitions of others in the BJP hierarchy allegedly positioning themselves as Vajpayee�s successors.

�There are any number of examples,� said a party worker. �We have a Cabinet minister who was emerging as the media�s favourite for the job despite losing his Lok Sabha election,� he said, obviously referring to Jaswant Singh.

Though human resources minister Murli Manohar Joshi is among the seven others who have been given a reprieve and can, thus, aim for the top slot, the party�s �natural choice� was the home minister. �If the BJP is what it is today, it is thanks only to Advaniji and none else,� is the refrain in the party headquarters.

Sports and youth affairs minister Uma Bharati, also one of the eight against whom the notification for trial was set aside, said: �This ruling is just. The case was fraudulent from the start and the FIR filed against us showed it was politically motivated. We were not part of the events that led to the demolition of the disputed structure.� But she said a Ram temple should be built on the spot where the mosque stood. �I have clearly stated from the beginning that a Ram temple should be built on that spot and I stick to the stand even today.�

Claiming that the Allahabad High Court ruling had �strengthened the forces of truth�, Uma demanded a debate on the circumstances that led to the demolition. �It was not a conspiracy of individuals but an eruption of the sentiments of people who were not allowed to start construction from the shilanyas site, which was far from the disputed structure. Such people felt humiliated,� she said.


Ahmedabad, Feb. 12: 
The Centre has asked the Gujarat government to prepare a blueprint for rehabilitation of earthquake victims and assured every assistance to build a �new Gujarat�.

Home minister L.K. Advani today said: �Now that the rescue and relief phase is almost over, rehabilitation has to be started. This is the most challenging test. We have asked the Gujarat government to prepare a blueprint.�

The state government has asked for a tax holiday for Kutch.

Expressing satisfaction with the state government for handling the crisis well, Advani said with the response Gujarat got after the calamity, �I feel the crisis can be converted into an opportunity.�

He said as Morbi town was rebuilt after it was devastated by floods in 1979 and Surat became one of the cleanest cities in the country after the 1994 plague, a new Kutch will be built after the earthquake. The people of Gujarat, known for their enterprise, will repeat the feat again.

Talking about the relocation of the villages in Kutch district, the home minister said: �It has to be done with the consent of the village committees.�

On offers to �adopt� villages from the corporate sector and NGOs, the home minister, who visited quake-affected Banaskantha and Patan districts in north Gujarat, asked the state government to spell out the policy. �The government should define the liabilities if an organisation or corporate house wants to adopt a village or a cluster of villages.�

Suggesting a bureaucrat-builder-politician nexus in Ahmedabad, Advani asked the state government to do away with the impression that the tragedy in Ahmedabad was �man-made� by taking stern action against the guilty persons � be it builder, government official or architect.

On the state government demand for a five-year tax holiday in Kutch and granting the status of a special economic zone to Mandvi and Mudra � two ports in Kutch district � Advani said the finance minister is examining all proposals put to him and is in the process of finalising the budget.

Flat-owners beaten up

Eight persons were arrested by police for beating up residents of a collapsed building in the Satellite area of Ahmedabad, reports PTI. The police said that of the four blocks of the Shikar Apartment, one collapsed in the earthquake, claiming the largest number of lives in building collapse in the city.    

Bhuj, Feb. 12: 
�I don�t need anything. I have lost nothing,� shrieks Muljibhai Gordhanbhai, lunging at anyone who comes near him.

The 43-year-old shopkeeper lost two of his three children in the earthquake on Republic Day.

Muljibhai made countless trips to the collectorate for the compensation promised to the quake victims. Each time, he was told to come back the next day. Driven to the brink, he now sits on the rubble of his small house in Vijaynagar, refusing to budge or even eat.

The 43-year-old is one among countless victims who, having lost their families and their livelihood, find the government is not willing to help them start afresh.

The compensation was to be given within three days but almost three weeks later, officials still tell the claimants queueing up at the collectorate door: �kal aana�.

�There are 50,000 applications for compensation,� hisses an officer at the makeshift collectorate. �No one sees things from the government�s perspective. About 15,000 people have died here and we have 50,000 applications. We have to sift through the fake ones. That is the truth.�

The truth, however, is written on the faces of the hundreds who have lined up outside.

Maulana Mohammad breaks down as he recounts how he was shoved out of the office where he had gone to claim Rs 3 lakh � Rs 1 lakh each for his mother, wife and son who were killed in the quake.

�The forms that I filled out on January 30 have been misplaced. Now they want me to fill three other forms. I know they want me to get tired and stop asking for money,� he says.

Shyambhai Ranjibhai has been sent from pillar to post. �First I was told to meet the collector, then the deputy collector and now my corporator who has already moved to Ahmedabad. No one knows when he will be back,� he says. �We were supposed to get Rs 1 lakh for the dead within three days of moving our application.�

A fax message from Gandhinagar, dated February 1, asks the collector to provide compensation for the people, cows, buffaloes and camels killed in the earthquake.

�Rs 1 lakh to be paid for each person dead,� the message reads. �Rs 30,000 for buildings totally razed and Rs 15,000 for those damaged. Rs 2,500 for each cow, Rs 3,000 for a camel, Rs 750 for a calf, Rs 4,000 for an ox, Rs 6,000 for a buffal, Rs 300 for a donkey and Rs 150 for a goat.�


New Delhi, Feb. 12: 
Putting the BJP in a quandary, NDA allies Samata Party and the Janata Dal (United) have decided not to withdraw their candidate for the Asthawan Assembly by-election in Bihar�s Nalanda parliamentary constituency.

Communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan�s Lok Jan Shakti Party has also fielded a candidate, threatening the fragile unity of the NDA partners in Bihar.

The state BJP had suggested that home minister L.K. Advani and defence minister George Fernandes mediate between the NDA partners so that one of the candidates withdraws from the fray.

But the Samata Party and the Dal (U), suspecting that the BJP might discreetly favour Paswan�s candidate, rejected the role of Advani as mediator.

The BJP felt that two NDA candidates � both from the same backward Kurmi caste � will only benefit the Rashtriya Janata Dal which is backing an upper caste Bhumihar.

Asked if the Dal (U) was prepared to accept Advani�s mediation, party spokesman Mohan Prakash said the question did not arise. �It is our sure seat. Our candidate is strong there. There is no question of our withdrawing from the fray.�

Sources close to Nitish Kumar also categorically ruled out any compromise on the seat saying there is no need for any mediation as the Samata Party �has a rightful claim on the constituency�.

Coming down heavily on Paswan for trying to �poach� in their territory, the Samata Party and the Dal (U) leaders questioned Paswan�s locus standi in Asthawan.

�He floated a party a month ago and now wants to contest our seat,� fumed an angry Samata leader.

Paswan�s point is that his candidate, Arun Kumar, was elected to the Assembly twice from Nalanda when even Nitish Kumar lost there once.

Given the caste arithmetic in the constituency, RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav fielded son of late R.P. Sharma, a Bhumihar, whose death necessitated the by-election. He hopes to corner the upper-caste votes assuming a division in Kurmi votes between Paswan�s and Nitish Kumar�s candidates.

The Samata Party has a strong Kurmi candidate in Satish Kumar, who had won in 1995 as an Independent.

Asthawan, in the Nalanda Lok Sabha constituency of the defence minister, is known as �Kurmiland�. It also has a sizeable presence of upper-caste Bhumihars and Scheduled Castes and a sprinkling of Extremely Backward Caste (EBC) people and Muslims. There are only a few Yadavs.

A victory at Asthawan is crucial to Nitish Kumar and Fernandes. It is not as important for Paswan as it is not his �territory�.

Since both the parties are fielding Kurmi candidates, the Bhumihar votes would be crucial to both the Samata Party-Dal (U) combine and the Lok Jan Shakti Party nominee.

The BJP has a considerable influence on the Bhumihars and would play a crucial role in deciding the fate of the candidates.

Paswan is leaving nothing to chance. He expects to get the support of the entire Paswan community besides a majority of Bhumihar votes, thanks to the BJP. He has also started wooing the EBCs with the induction of former Union minister Jainarain Prasad Nishad into his party.


Chennai, Feb. 12: 
The president of the Tamil Nadu Congress, E.V.K.S. Elangovan, has made it clear that his party would not back down before the PMK if it insisted on forming the government in Pondicherry.

�The Congress is not going to give in on Pondicherry. We�re upset with Jayalalitha�s unilateral decision, but I believe our tie-up will continue,� Elangovan said. �Anyway, what�s the strength of the PMK in Pondicherry? They�re only making a lot of noise.�

The CPI, which has some clout in the region, is also against installing a PMK-led government in Pondicherry.

ADMK sources, however, denied that their leader had agreed to cede Pondicherry to the PMK. �Amma will not take any precipitate decision so easily,� they said. �Only a broad agreement has been reached regarding Tamil Nadu. They�ll be allotted 10 per cent of the seats, that�s all, and more rounds of discussions will follow before anything concrete is arrived at.�

A PMK insider admitted that Pondicherry did not figure prominently in the talks between S. Ramadoss and Jayalalitha when they met. �When Jayalalitha asked him about it, he said: �we leave it to you�. But we�re confident she would take note of our aspirations. After all, we can swing the votes in more than 60 constituencies,� he said.

Jayalalitha, who is said to be confident of retaining the PMK on her side, is expected to make an announcement tomorrow on either seat-sharing or the first batch of candidates.

According to sources, Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) leader G.K. Moopanar has advised the Congress to accept whatever seats Jayalalitha offers in Tamil Nadu but to insist on Pondicherry. �We can even tell her that we can go our own way there while she is free to support the PMK if she so chooses,� Congress sources said. The Congress is relatively stronger than the ADMK in Pondicherry.

Though Moopanar has bargained for nearly 40 seats in Tamil Nadu � the number that the party contested in the last Assembly polls � the TMC officially insists it has not yet decided whether it would remain in the ADMK-led front.


Siliguri, Feb. 12: 
Dimple Dewan, one of the two �prime suspects� in the assassination attempt on Gorkhaland leader Subash Ghising, today contested the police claim that she was picked up yesterday, saying that she was rounded up on Saturday night.

�I don�t know what crime I have committed that they have been interrogating me for the past two days. Police swooped down on my house late on Saturday night and picked me up, without informing me what my crime was. They kept asking me about the whereabouts of my husband, Kishore, who works in Gangtok,� she said.

Dimple alleged that throughout the night police tried to pressure her into �confessing� that she had �links� with a political leader.

�I�m not a criminal that they should treat me this way,� she said at Siliguri police station before being taken to Kurseong�s sub-judicial magistrate�s court.

�Neither have they allowed me to call up my family nor have they informed me on what charges they have brought me here. I don�t know what I have done,� Dimple said, her eyes welling up.

A resident of Malaguri on the outskirts of Siliguri, Dimple, 30, was among the 15 people �picked up� for questioning after Saturday�s attempt on Ghising�s life. Police claim that Dimple and O.R. Kothwal, who has several cases against him, are the prime suspects in the case.

�Dimple and Kothwal, who has a history of arrests for crimes ranging from car-jacking and drug-dealing to forging bank drafts, were picked up on the basis of records of calls made to the mobile phone seized from the slain militant,� police sources said.

The additional superintendent of police (Siliguri), Ajay Kumar, told reporters that Dimple and Kothwal have been charged with conspiracy against the state, criminal conspiracy, attempt to murder, damaging government property and under the Arms Act.

Kumar, however, refused to say under what circumstances the two �prime suspects� were arrested. �It is too early for me to comment on the case. They were arrested following circumstantial evidence against them,� he said.

Refusing to comment on the seized mobile phone, Kumar said: �We have gained vital clues on the identities of those behind the attack. We have recovered a pocket diary and a wallet and some incriminating documents from the slain militant. We are tracing the calls made on the mobile phone, which apparently was used to keep track of Ghising�s travel route.�


Calcutta, Feb. 12: 
With Madhyamik examinations just two weeks away, 4.5 lakh candidates have been particularly affected by severe power cuts in the districts.

The districts have been reeling under power cuts for the past four days following the shutdown of two 500-MW thermal power generating units for repairs at the NTPC�s plant in Farakka.

The situation aggravated with one of the two operating units of the Bakreshwar power plant being shut down following snags. Besides, the 210-MW fifth unit of the Bandel thermal power plant is also being overhauled.

As result, the shortfall in areas covered by the state electricity board have shot up to 200 MW every evening since Friday.

Power department sources said due to a sudden and heavy drop in generation, the NTPC was forced to cut down its supply to the SEB by 200 MW.


Calcutta, Feb. 12: 
With hopes of a mahajot receding fast, the Congress has begun exploring the possibility of seat adjustments with the outfit that expelled CPM leader Saifuddin Chowdhury�s intends to float.

The issue was discussed threadbare at a marathon meeting at PCC chief Pranab Mukherjee�s residence last night. Also present at the meeting � apart from Chowdhury � was state unit vice-president Pradip Bhattacharya.

�The discussion was satisfactory. I am keen to join forces with the Congress to float a secular democratic front for the coming Assembly elections. But before that, I will float the new party I have been talking about for several months,� Chowdhury said after the meeting.

Reciprocating Chowdhury�s gesture, Bhattacharya said: �We, too, are eager to have a poll alliance with Saifuddin�s new outfit. That is why we want him to launch his party at the earliest.�

However, several Congress legislators who petitioned Sonia Gandhi to give them the go-ahead for a tie-up with Mamata Banerjee today reiterated that a grand alliance with the Trinamul Congress was the need of the hour if they had to oust the ruling communists.

Party MLA Sougata Roy and AICC member Sukhendu Shekhar Roy, prime movers behind the mahajot, met Mamata at her Kalighat residence last night to discuss a possible switch-over to the Trinamul. Congress sources said all the 16 MLAs who petitioned Sonia would meet her on Friday to seek approval for poll adjustments with the Trinamul.

In another development, rebel CPM leader and South 24-Parganas district secretary Samir Putatunda appears set for a showdown at tomorrow�s district committee meeting at the Alimuddin Street headquarters. Putatunda is still smarting from the humiliation of being dropped from the list of invitees in yesterday�s party-sponsored meeting.

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and CPM state secretary Anil Biswas will be present at the session.

�Though the meeting has been called to choose nominees from the district for the coming polls, the humiliation meted out to Putatunda will figure in the discussions,� said a loyalist of the rebel leader.

Rishi Halder, a former Zilla Parishad sabhadhipati, also criticised the way Putatunda was left out of the list.


Asansol, Feb. 12: 
The sprawling industrial belt and residential areas around Asansol and Ranigunj are enveloped in smog.

Dense black smoke emanates from various industrial units in these two unplanned and congested municipalities. According to a recent survey by the West Bengal Pollution Control Board, these areas have the �most polluted air�.

Concentration levels of suspended particulate matter (SPM) and nitrate in the air have reached �alarming proportions� the report says, with the SPM content as high as 540 microgram (mgm) per cubic metre. Environment officials point out that the maximum permissible level of SPM in these areas is 200 mgm. Incidentally, the SPM content in Calcutta is nearly 300 mgm per cm.

More serious is the concentration of nitrate, which at 90 mgm per cm is far above the permissible limit.

To make matters worse, every day more than three lakh vehicles, including inter-state buses and trucks, run through the Grand Trunk Road that bifurcates these towns and the industrial units.

�One has to be a resident to experience how horrible the situation is. City buses, which have little regard for pollution norms, are allowed to ply with impunity. This apart, the boom in the second-hand motorcar market has filled the air with carbon monoxide,� said T.K. Ghosh, deputy chief engineer, ECL.

Ghosh had to move his wife and children to his paternal home after his wife had get bronchial asthama. �I am waiting to retire so that I can return to my native village, where I shall be able to breathe fresh air.�

Respiratory diseases such as silicosis and asbestosis are on the rise because of the increasing pollution, health officials point out. These could lead to more serious ailments such as tuberculosis and bronchial asthama, they say.

�The government should immediately do something to stop the menace. Out of every 10 patients, six to eight persons on an average, are the victims of pollution-related diseases,� said Subrata Bhattacharya, a chest specialist.

Strangely enough, the government health department has no figures on how many people have been suffering from pollution-related diseases. However, Manoj Pant, a district official, says: �There is no reason to believe that we have been suffering from complacency. We have been trying to do all that is possible.�

�The corporation has been instructed to be harsh with industrial units. Fines would be imposed from next month against the units that do not set things right by that time,� Pant added.


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