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The pact, tilted in favour of Mamata, was formally flagged off after the Trinamul Congress leader and Sonia Gandhi�s emissary Kamal Nath reached a consensus on 276 of the 294 seats during a two-hour uninterrupted discussion.
�We will fight the polls together as we have already reached an agreement over 276 seats. We are continuing discussions on the rest of the 18 seats,� Mamata told a crowded press conference where Nath, too, was present.
Nath said the Congress and Trinamul would fight the polls under Mamata�s leadership. �Mamata will be the next chief minister of Bengal. I will also come here to attend her swearing-in ceremony,� he added.
Out of the 18 unresolved seats, 17 belong to the Congress� sitting MLAs and one to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (Soren).
The deal indicates that Mamata, bolstered by Sonia�s eagerness to strike a deal at any cost, has succeeded in withstanding pressure from the state Congress to renominate all sitting MLAs.
The Trinamul leader declined to give a break-up of the 276 seats. �We will give you the details when a settlement is reached on the rest of the seats,� she said. She indicated later that Trinamul would concede a few more seats to the Congress to put up a united fight against the CPM.
It is learnt that Trinamul has also agreed to accept former state Congress chief, Somen Mitra, as the candidate in Sealdah. The seat, where Mamata has fielded Tapas Roy, had emerged as a sore point. An initial list cleared by the Congress high command was silent on Sealdah and Mitra�s reluctance to step aside was perceived as a stumbling block before the alliance. Roy is likely to be shifted to Burrabazar.
Mitra today said he would go by the high command�s decision. �I have been advocating an alliance with the Trinamul and was never against it. I have been contesting from Sealdah for the last 30 years and will do so this time, too, if the high command permits me,� he said.
The sitting Congress legislators whose fate hangs in the balance include Mohammad Sohrab (Suti), Habibur Rahman (Jangipur), Ajoy Dey (Shantipur), Sasanka Biswas (Hanskhali), Sheikh Daulat Ali (Diamond Harbour), Abu Basar Laskar (Mograhat West), Jyoti Chowdhury (Serampore) Tapas Banerjee (Asansol), Ajit Khanra (Bhagabanpur), Sailaja Das (Contai South), Anil Mudi (Tamluk), Gulshan Mullick (Panchla) and Asit Mitra (Kalyanpur).
In an attempt to placate those on the hit-list, Nath said: �I appeal to the workers of both the parties to join hands to put an end to the Left Front�s 24-year rule. A synergy between the two parties is the need of the hour.�
Nath also indicated that he had been fully authorised by the high command to reach an agreement with Trinamul. Asked whether he had been able to satisfy his party�s state leaders, he said: �When I speak, I speak on behalf of the entire Congress.�
The agreement has virtually taken the wind out of the state leadership�s sail. Most leaders who had been vocal against Mamata�s bid to deny nomination to sitting legislators appeared to have accepted the arrangement.
A few hours after the deal was announced, state Congress chief Pranab Mukherjee went into a huddle with other leaders to draw a list of candidates.
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Another powerful official presiding over a huge bureaucratic empire and handling thousands of crores of public money was swept up in the scam-a-week routine when B.P. Verma, customs and excise chief, was arrested today.
Verma and son Siddharth were picked up by the CBI from their Hudco Place government residence at Andrews Ganj in South Delhi. Two other associates of Verma, Bhavna Pandey and Shrivanam, a partner in the Chennai-based export firm, A.K. Enterprises, were also arrested.
All have been charged under the Prevention of Corruption Act and the Indian Penal Code. The CBI is also considering charging Verma for acquiring wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income.
Verma, remanded in CBI custody for five days, was admitted to a hospital here after he complained of breathing problems.
The arrests followed questioning of Siddharth and his business partner Rohit Jain yesterday. Verma himself allegedly did not co-operate with the CBI, which tried to question him yesterday.
As in armsgate, questions are being raised about the decision-making process in government since Verma�s appointment as chairman of Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC) had gone through even though there was a vigilance case against him.
It is learnt that the Central Vigilance Commission chief, N. Vittal, had written to the then finance secretary, Piyush Mankad, about eight months ago, recommending that Verma should not be appointed because of irregularities committed by him when he was posted in Calcutta in the early nineties.
A former official of the finance ministry, now holding a powerful post-retirement job, is said to have cleared Verma�s name last year for the post. Verma concurrently held the post of director-general of economic intelligence (customs and excise).
�A very powerful officer in the highest echelons of the bureaucracy did the string-pulling. Vigilance clearance is a must for appointment to such posts,� a government source said.
Responsibility for his appointment, however, rests with the country�s highest decision-makers since the final approval was given by the appointments committee of the Cabinet. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, home minister L.K. Advani and finance minister Yashwant Sinha are members of that committee.
However, Sinha told a TV channel tonight: �There was nothing on record against Verma which could have prevented his promotion.�
The vigilance case against Verma relates to his going out of the way to favour two Calcutta-based firms � Sunny Exports and Everest Exports � by charging only 25 per cent customs duty on certain imported goods which otherwise would be levied 300 per cent.
Investigations by the CBI, which has been watching the movements of Verma and his associates from February, have led the sleuths on to a sex-and-sleaze angle. �He (Verma) was closely involved with 12 women who appear to have been favoured in cash and kind,� a senior official said. �Bhavna Pandey was a key figure in the ring.� These women were based in Calcutta, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad and other cities.
Pandey and several others of the dozen women were under CBI surveillance. Sources said he is also closely associated with an influential Uttar Pradesh politician.
The CBI questioned Rohit Jain throughout the day. Both Jain and Siddharth, who studied in a public school in Delhi and later graduated from a prestigious college in Calcutta before undergoing training as a pilot, owned �shell� companies, including Jubilee Enterprises and Jubilee Medicare.
There is a stink of money- laundering in the business ventures of Verma, his son and their associates. The CBI believes that K. Vijay Pratap was the principal conduit for the money that passed into Verma�s hands. Vijay Pratap had handed over Rs 2 crore to Siddharth at a hotel on March 23.
The CBI has recovered documents suggesting Verma acquired several lakhs that are not accounted for. During Saturday�s raids on Verma�s residence and other locations, CBI found papers indicating assets worth Rs 24 lakh in investments in UTI and LIC, Rs 24 lakh of jewellery, Rs 1.4 lakh cash, $1,500 in foreign exchange, household goods totalling Rs 16 lakh, besides a bank balance of Rs 7 lakh.
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The party feels that Sinha has failed to clean up the stock exchange �mess� and prevent the market crash. Sources said Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu is miffed with Sinha for not having learnt any lessons from the 1992 securities scam.
Naidu allowed party MP Ramachandraiah to send a letter to the Prime Minister last Saturday, targeting Sinha. The letter, urging Atal Bihari Vajpayee to �act� before it was �too late�, also assailed the RBI for its �systemic failure�.
The Desam leader said the �latest stock market crash has not received the attention required of the finance ministry and the RBI�.
The party has urged Vajpayee to immediately convene a meeting of chief ministers or finance ministers to discuss the market crash. �Since Yashwant Sinha was a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) along with George Fernandes, Jaswant Singh and Murasoli Maran, among others, the least that was expected of the NDA government soon after coming to office was to put in checks that could have prevented the stockbrokers from playing havoc with the financial system,� Ramachandraiah said.
�I request you to act before it is too late. All your predecessors acted on any issue only when the show was over like in Harshad Mehta�s case. That approach leads us nowhere because it amounts to locking the stable after the horses bolted out,� he said.
The JPC on the securities scam had observed in its report that �both BoK (Bank of Karad) and MCB (Metropolitan Cooperative Bank) had allowed themselves to be used as conduits by the brokers in violation of all regulations, norms and practices over the years, thus endangering the interests of banks, their depositors and the shareholders,� he said.
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On the second day after the Supreme Court banned all modes of public transport not using the clean fuel, CNG, from April 1, Delhi got a taste of how much of the rest of the country travels.
Roads were deserted as most buses, taxis and ubiquitous autorickshaws had failed to make the switch to compressed natural gas. Commuters hung perilously from footboards, some clutched windows and still others sat on the roof. At railway stations, the only transport available was the horse-drawn carriage, tanga.
Sights familiar in ill-connected rural areas visited the capital today. Tomorrow will be worse since offices, schools and colleges will reopen after a day�s holiday for Ram Navami.
�The Supreme Court is now ruling us, and the politicians, sitting comfortably in Parliament, are silently watching our plight. They are all looting the public, the poor. What will happen to people like us, mere labourers? How will we go to work and feed our family?� asked an angry Balbeer Singh, one among a large crowd of people waiting for a bus at the busy ITO crossing, on a normal day possibly the most polluted part of the city.
As Shyam Sunder stepped out of New Delhi railway station, he was hoping to catch the first bus to go to Vallabh Bhai Patel Hospital. His 10-year-old son Ramesh is admitted there for a heart ailment. After waiting two hours in the hot April afternoon, Sunder decided to walk.
Back at the hospital, Ramesh was waiting eagerly � as he does every day � for the food his mother cooks for him and his father fetches. After the meal, his father carries him out on his back for fresh air. Ramesh is too weak to walk.
Today, it was well over three hours after the appointed time, but Sunder had still not arrived.
In the meantime, at ITO a bus heading south had pulled in after one and a half hours. Roma pushed her way in the mad scramble of people anxious to get to work.
Many had clambered on to the roof.
The driver asked Roma and other passengers to enter through the gate meant for his sole use. Having done that, however, the bus remained still. Tempers were rising. The driver told the commuters a police patrol was lurking close by, stopping people from travelling on the roof.
That was the order of the commissioner of police. Pulling people down from the roof, a policeman said: �We have to follow orders, but the irony of it all is that in the evening we will be travelling home in the same manner and perhaps we will be hanging from the door because we travel by public transport.�
About 15,000 private and state-run buses and thousands of taxis and autos had been ordered by the court to switch to CNG. Several bus and taxi operators said they were prepared to abide by the order but had been running from one government department to another to get documents for compliance.
Delhi transport minister Pervez Hashmi said the government would seek an extension from the Supreme Court pleading that there were not enough CNG outlets in the capital. The court has already given a six-month extension.
New Delhi with over two million vehicles on the roads is one of the world�s most polluted cities.
Today, the air was clean, but no one seemed to take notice.
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