Cong eyes share of Mamata spoils
Desert drive to rescue tri-series
BJP sees respite after recess
Official suspended for Tehelka disclosure
Dress-down for Bendre
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi and Calcutta, March 27: 
The Congress will insist on sharing power with Mamata Banerjee and stake claim to the deputy chief minister’s post if the combine comes to power in Bengal.

The Congress feels that at least “40 winning seats” are necessary for a “lasting and meaningful” tie-up with Trinamul. AICC general secretary in charge of Bengal Kamal Nath said: “We are interested in having seats for five years than 40 days.”

Kamal Nath today received a fax from Trinamul listing 40 seats over which there is no dispute. The bargaining will now shift to 15 other seats, including Sealdah and Vidyasagar, which has gone to Ajit Panja’s daughter.

Though several issues remain to be thrashed out, both the camps have started drawing up plans for joint campaigning by Sonia Gandhi and Mamata.

“There will be no one on the dais when Sonia and Mamata campaign together but the candidate,” a Congress leader said.

He said Sonia had given an “undertaking” to campaign against Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in Jadavpur, where Trinamul has fielded Madhabi Mukherjee.

The Congress is keen to share power on grounds that it will make for a more stable government. “One day, the two will come together, so we might as well work in that direction,” a leader said. The Congress assessment is that, along with Mamata, it will be able to net about 170 seats.

Kamal Nath last night held talks with A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury, Pranab Mukherjee and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi on the Congress’ seat-by-seat prospects in Bengal. Another round of talks will be held tomorrow for which Somen Mitra, Atish Sinha, Adhir Chowdhury, Manas Bhuniya and Pradip Bhattacharya have been invited.

Somen and Atish will leave for the capital in the morning. Mamata is demanding that Somen be asked to vacate Sealdah as a condition to tying up with the Congress. Sources said Mamata had asked Kamal Nath to relocate about 22 sitting MLAs from their constituencies during their Sunday meeting.

Sinha said tonight: “Of course, we want an alliance with Trinamul but not at the cost of our self-respect. What Mamata is doing is not proper. Is this the price we have to pay for standing by the Congress when it was going through a crisis?

“It appears Mamata is out to take revenge on some leaders because they did not join Trinamul and tried to protect the Congress from disintegrating in Bengal. All we want is a respectable settlement of seats. We will request Kamal Nath not to succumb to any unreasonable demand from her.”

Kamal Nath, however, tried to paper over the differences, saying Mamata had been reasonable over the seat-share.

Congress leaders said they had discussed the post-poll scenario in a “threadbare manner”. Mamata has reportedly said that “under no circumstances” should the Congress back Jyoti Basu for prime minister.

“Support Surjeet Singh Barnala if you wish to, not Jyoti Basu,” Mamata reportedly told Kamal Nath. She added that the Congress would get “more than its fair share” in the elections.

The Congress is, however, reluctant to go public against the Left parties at the national level. It kept mum, saying a decision would be taken after Sonia returns from Hong Kong tomorrow.


New Delhi and Calcutta, March 27: 
Sharjah cricket head honcho Abdul Rehman Bukhatir today jetted into Delhi to lobby the government to clear the Indian team’s participation in the triangular series next month.

But to avoid being taken by surprise by possible cancellation, the Cricketers’ Benefit Fund Series sounded New Zealand to step in for India.

Bukhatir expressed hope that India would play in the one-day series scheduled to start on April 8. He met foreign ministry officials in Delhi today.

Pakistan, the other team apart from Sri Lanka to play the triangular, kept up the heat with its cricket board reiterating it would sever cricketing relations with India if its arch-rivals withdrew from the competition.

“The Pakistan Cricket Board policy is absolutely clear: if India doesn’t want to play Pakistan, we are not interested in playing them either,” board director Munawwar Rana said. Earlier, India had spurned Pakistan’s offer of a one-day series in Sharjah to raise funds for Gujarat quake victims.

New Delhi is reluctant to send its cricket team for this year’s triangular because of alleged match-fixing by the mafia and the strong presence of the underworld in Sharjah. Bukhatir said India should take up the issue with authorities in the UAE.

Even as Bukhatir held negotiations with top-level officials, a report from Hamilton, New Zealand, said the Kiwis had been asked to fill the breach that may be caused by India’s pullout.

“We have received the invitation,” John Knowles, a New Zealand Cricket (NZC) spokesman said. “It is an additional tour and it has to be discussed at the board level. Until such time, nothing will be made official,” he added. NZC chief executive Chris Doig declined comment.

Bukhatir said nothing concrete had emerged from his meetings yet. “The government is saying nothing. We are still very unclear about whether India will participate,” he said.

But he denied any information about the reported invitation to New Zealand. “We have a contract with India and we cannot break it till India asks us to do so.

“People have been talking about Bangladesh and New Zealand and other countries... I don’t know... I don’t have any information. For me, our contract with India stands,” Bukhatir said.

Bukhatir, who left for Sharjah this evening, held another round of talks with foreign ministry officials before his departure.

PCB chairman Tauqir Zia said Pakistan would travel to Sharjah anyway. “We will fulfil our commitment by playing in Sharjah,” he said.


New Delhi, March 27: 
Optimists in the BJP see a post-recess turnaround after the Tehelka-struck party allowed the Opposition to get the upper hand in the first half of the budget session.

With Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee having garnered the support of not just the BJP, but the NDA and the Sangh parivar as well, party sources claimed that much of the “sting” in the Opposition’s campaign had worn off. The government, they insisted, would be in a “commanding” position in the second lap.

The sources said that Sunday’s NDA rally in Delhi and the BJP national executive earlier in the week were endorsements of faith in Vajpayee’s leadership. They were meant to convey to the party’s rank and file, and the nation, that the government was stable and durable.

The perception within the BJP is that the party has come out trumps in the debates it had with the Opposition outside Parliament. “People are convinced by the facts we have presented; that this was a fictitious deal, there was no real transaction, Tehelka’s own antecedents are under a cloud, and it was part of a larger conspiracy to destabilise the economy and the nation. But what has helped us the most is that on the issue of corruption, the Congress cannot look at people with a straight face with its history of scams,” a BJP leader said.

The party’s line of offence was summed up by former Rajasthan chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat at the national executive. He is learnt to have said that the Congress should be told to look at its own legacy of “Bofors and urea scam, sugar scam and what not”.

The initial rumblings within the BJP about the tapes being a “potential challenge” to Vajpayee’s “otherwise spotless record” — because the names of his principal secretary and son-in-law were mentioned — died down once RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan handed him a clean chit.

Also, the BJP feels that the accusation on Thomas Mathew, a home ministry official, that he “conspired” with Tehelka, will set at rest speculation that home minister L.K. Advani stood to gain the most from the crisis.

If there are hitches — like the absence of the Telugu Desam and the DMK from the NDA rally, and the split with Mamata Banerjee — the BJP pretends that they do not exist. Sources maintained the BJP had virtually no stake in the Assembly elections and the polls could not be seen as a referendum on the Tehelka scandal.


New Delhi, March 27: 
The Centre has suspended Thomas Mathew, a home ministry official who was showcaused yesterday for his alleged involvement in leaking documents to Tehelka.

The government notice had also raised questions whether he had links with political parties and other organisations, including the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (Simi).

However, John Dayal, who has represented Christian organisations, today quoted Mathew as saying in his response to the showcause that he did not have any links with Simi. Dayal today released portions of what he claimed was Mathew’s response.

In Dayal’s statement, Mathew said he was associated only with some social organisations, including anti-corruption crusader Jan Shakti, and other Left-leaning and Dalit groups.

Dayal claimed that Mathew, who is director of the organisation and methods desk in the home ministry, and Neeraj Kumar, a section officer in the Northeast division, have been “major targets of the Sangh Parivar”. Kumar, also known as Neeraj Kamal, has been accused of leaking classified documents to Tehelka on how Dutch NGOs were funding insurgents in the Northeast and Bihar.

Dayal said Mathew was handed the suspension order before he could reply to the showcause notice.

The home ministry suspects that Mathew had introduced one of the Tehelka reporters to Shashi Menon, the defence ministry section officer who led them to senior army officers involved in defence purchases and procurements.

Mathew had joined government service in 1975 as a direct-recruit section officer. Before his posting as director in the home ministry in September 1998, Mathew had worked in several ministries in various capacities.

In his reply to the showcause, Mathew has denied he was “aware of any reporter called” Mathew Samuel, one of the two Tehelka journalists who carried out the sting operation. He has also denied any links with a railway contractor, Harish Chandra Prasad, who had claimed that Mathew was conspiring to “destabilise” the Vajpayee government.


Mumbai, March 27: 
It was not a black buck that forced police to see red and move against Sonali Bendre this time.

The actress, known for her skimpy dresses in Bollywood flicks, was arrested today for adorning the cover of a film magazine in a printed kurta that police said had hurt religious sentiments.

She was picked up from her Lokhandwala home and produced before additional chief metropolitan magistrate Usha Iyer, who released her on bail.

Bendre’s picture on the cover of a 1998 issue of Showtime showed her attired in a short kurta with bare legs. The ochre-coloured top worn by her sported religious motifs, including a trident and the word ‘om’.

A government lawyer defended the decision to arrest Bendre two years after the issue was published and said the police moved against the accused after the state government gave the green light.

The police also arrested Ashali Charles Rebello, who had designed Bendre’s kurta and photographer Amit Shanta Kumar Ashar, who had shot her for the magazine cover.

Bendre is not the first in Bollywood to be sucked into such a controversy. However, the zeal displayed by the authorities matched the reputation of the erstwhile Shiv Sena, and not the current Congress, government.

Bendre and her co-accused were charged with deliberate and malicious acts to outrage the religious feelings of any community under Section 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code.

They were granted bail after defence lawyers pleaded that the case was too old and assured the court that the actress and the other two would come to court whenever called.

A police officer said though the social security section of the police had registered the case in March 1998 immediately after the issue was published, it could not initiate action against her because of the government delay in granting permission.

Along with actor Salman Khan and a few others, Bendre was arrested in Rajasthan a few years ago for hunting endangered black bucks.

A source close to her said the actress was “terribly upset” that the police had moved against her on “a frivolous charge”.

The actress, however, said in the court that she had nothing against the police.

She is now playing significant roles in several big-banner films, including Mahesh Manjrekar’s Tera Mera Saath Rahe.

The controversy puts Bendre in the company of a galaxy of showbiz personalities like Pooja Bhatt, Mamta Kulkarni, models Madhu Sapre and Milind Soman and designer Malini Ramani.

Bhatt came under the hostile glare of the law after she appeared on a glossy with her body painted, while Kulkarni went topless for a magazine. Sapre and Soman stunned the moral police when a shoe advertisement featured them wrapped in little but a snake. Ramani raised eyebrows after she turned up at a fashion show’s party in a tricolour dress.




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