Roles reversed in melting pot
Out of closet to join race for Writers`
Twin spectres over prize seat
Parched plateau shuts out poll draught
Jessica family flounders after second somersault
BJP gives Mamata only half-chance
Jaswant clears missile smoke
Rebels knock on PM door
Ramadoss rues blunder
Basu�s Rajiv rap on Sonia

Calcutta, May 4: 
Even her beginner�s luck had run out. How much worse can it get for Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar? She has nothing to lose; Ballygunge to win.

The doctor who has made a name treating infertility in patients is reported to have lost even in the students� union elections, as a representative of the Chhatra Parishad, in RG Kar Medical College.

Just for the record: In 1996, she contested against Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in Jadavpur. Lost.

In 1998, she contested the Lok Sabha polls from Diamond Harbour against Shamik Lahiri. Lost.

In 1999, against Swadesh Chakraborty in Howrah. Lost.

This time, dressed in Trinamul colours again � her sari flaunts the party�s symbol � Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, started late � didn�t know till the last minute where she would be given the ticket � has little organisation for an intensive door-to-door campaign, probably is not as thorough with the constituency as Rabin Deb, who identifies his voters from their addresses, the lady is still in the ring with a fighting chance.

Surely, there must be something in her favour? There is.

For one, it�s the arithmetic. Second, its the new crop of voters in Ballygunge.

In 1996, Rabin Deb won from Ballygunge on a narrow margin of just 1,481 votes but in the Lok Sabha polls that were held simultaneously, Mamata led by around 10,000 votes. In 1998, Mamata led from the segment by 16,000 votes and in 1999, by 18,000. The Congress, which fought on its own in the last Lok Sabha elections, got 16,000 votes. That gives Trinamul a lead of around 33,000 votes straightaway, assuming that the BJP voteshare was a little improvement from its 1996 tally of around 8,500 votes.

�This is the deficit that I am trying to cover,� admits Rabin Deb. �I am assuming that I am already trailing by 30,000-plus votes.�

As Deb sets out to do this, he comes across the second crucial factor that might work Ghosh Dastidar�s way. Probably no other Calcutta constituency has as many new voters as Ballygunge, which includes Kasba. Not all of them are first-timers. A bulk of them are new residents who have moved into new complexes from other areas of the city.

If there is one part of Calcutta where the Left can show tangible development, it is in Kasba � the area to either side of the Rashbehari Avenue connector to the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. Since 1996, there have been nearly 35,000 new additions to the list of electors in Ballygunge. The constituency now has a total 2.19 lakh voters.

The dynamism of Ballygunge has kept Deb on his toes. He is easily the most visible politician in the area. It is ironical that his visibility has increased with the CPM�s waning influence, maybe because of it. Even in Kasba, where the party still commands influence, there is evidence that Mamata was favoured by the women and the youths in the last polls.

This time he started campaigning in March. �It is such a large constituency that I still have not covered it. I can say with some pride that I have covered nearly 70 per cent of it,� says Deb.

He has a simple formula for victory: he has assumed that he is trailing by 30,000 votes; in the municipal elections, the CPM brought down the deficit in the six wards over which the constituency is spread to 6,000. �This means I need to get about 10,000 more votes and I will have made it.�

So, on to factor number three. The PDS, which has put up Tapas Basu. Even those in Deb�s campaign team admit that the student leader was an effective partyman. In Kasba, the PDS can cut into the CPM vote. Deb is banking on the mainly Muslim vote in the Topsia region to neutralise this � making the point at every meeting that Mamata has not yet snapped ties with the BJP entirely.


Burdwan, May 4: 
The last time Nirupam Sen fought an election was in 1987. He wasn�t particularly keen, but the party needed him. Benoy Chowdhury had fought the previous election � in 1982 � and his victory margin was a meagre 3,512 votes. In Burdwan South, this was unthinkable.

Chowdhury said no the next election. So, Sen was roped in to do some firefighting. He fought, and won � by 11,958 votes. The crisis passed, the red hue was back in the traditional Red bastion.

After five years, Sen went back to doing what he liked best: being the backroom boy, one of those buzzing brains in the think-tank, a powerful member of the central committee.

Then the party decided to pull him out again and put him in the race for Writers�, knowing well that Sen was not keen to be confined to the �four walls of the Assembly�.

Sen didn�t refuse this time, like he did in 1991. But the grapevine began to buzz. Why Sen, asked his partymen? There was no crisis this time. Burdwan was as red as a ripe tomato, ready for the harvest, so why the reluctant firefighting man?

The Opposition is trying to make capital out of Sen�s �lack of interest�. Paresh Sarkar, Trinamul candidate from the constituency, told a gathering: �He (Sen) had been your MLA for five years from 1987. But he had not contested the election after that. What did Sen do for this constituency during his tenure?�

Sarkar is the headmaster of Taraknath High School in Durgapur, an unknown face.

Sen, on the contrary, is a son of the soil. He was born in 1946, and did his graduation in science from Burdwan Raj College. He has been a party whole-timer since 1967.

Sen�s is one of those teflon images that make the task doubly difficult for the Opposition. Sarkar cannot target Sen � there is nothing against the man � so he is attacking the education system. Perhaps, because he is a teacher.

In rally after rally, he is cursing the CPM for doing away with English in government-run primary schools. Sarkar has a diploma in language teaching in English.

But in Burdwan South, the election results will be decided on issues other than English courses � or the lack of it � in primary schools. Besides, the Congress vote-bank had been dwindling since 1977 in this predominantly urban area of 2.15 lakh voters. Only about 16,000 voters are in rural areas � Baikanthapur I and II.

The CPM has a stranglehold over the Burdwan municipality. Only four of the 35 councillors are Congressmen; the rest are CPM members. The panchayats, too, are run by the CPM.

In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP tried to make inroads. It got 61,785 votes from this segment while the Congress got 14,211. The CPM alone walked away with 88,764 votes.

This time, besides the Trinamul, the CPM will have to take on the Party for Democratic Socialism. Saifuddin Chowdhury�s outfit does not have a chance of winning here � even its candidate Bandana Nandi, niece of Benoy Chowdhury � admits as much, but it is embarrassing for Sen.

�My mama (maternal uncle) was two-time MLA from this seat and I am contesting the polls because I want to teach the CPM a lesson,� says Bandana, sitting at her Ramkrishna Pally residence, about a km from Burdwan town.

�I am not contesting the polls to win it. But I want to highlight some of the misdeeds the CPM leaders had done to my uncle. The CPM cadres had misbehaved with me, destroyed the drain in front of my house. My mama was a minister at that time. Still, the party cadres refused to listen to him,� she says.

Bandana, a graduate in Sanskrit and a teacher in a local school, has written in a local magazine accusing the party. At first, the party elders tried to pacify her, but then gave up � even refusing to speak to her � after she joined PDS.

Burdwan South may not throw up a surprise, but the margins will be worth watching.


Habra, May 4: 
If there�s any seat in North 24-Parganas the CPM wants to win, it�s not Khardaha from where Asim Dasgupta is contesting. It�s not even Belgachhia (East) which has Subhas Chakraborty as the CPM candidate. The constituency the CPM would hate to lose most is actually Habra, one of the farthest in North 24-Parganas from its Alimuddin Street headquarters.

The candidate there is Amitava Nandy. This is his maiden entry into the hurly-burly of electoral politics but he isn�t suffering from the butterfly-in-the-stomach syndrome; he has seen enough � from the Congress governments of the 1960s and the 1970s to the Naxalite movement to the still-ongoing fight-till-death intra-party skirmish � to be experiencing bad nerves. He�s also a member of the party�s secretariat and makes up along with the district party secretary, Amitava Bose, the double-Amitava axis against the rebels led by Subhas.

But despite the Left putting its best foot forward, it wouldn�t be easy for Nandy. He is fighting a resurgent Trinamul � its candidate is �gharer meye� and Habra municipality chairperson Tapati Datta. But, above all, he is fighting a ghost that the CPM hasn�t yet been able to exorcise: the ghost of dissidence.

In 1999, Habra handed to Trinamul a lead of over 6,800 votes; its neighbouring constituency, Ashoknagar, gave the BJP its first seat in the Assembly when it voted for Badal Bhattacharyya against CPM�s Rekha Goswami; and, in 1996, Habra gave CPM�s Baren Basu a victory by less than a thousand votes.

All these were the result of the dissidence ghost. Goswami was Alimuddin Street�s candidate but not local rebel Nani Kar�s. And Baren Basu was to Kar what the two Amitavas have been to Subhas Chakraborty. And, in Habra and Ashoknagar, Subhas�s man Kar called the shots.

Both Basu and Kar are now dead but their ghosts live on. And Nandy, expectedly, is on his toes. He has forsaken his Salt Lake residence: �I go back only to bring a clean set of clothes.�

Nandy might have moved away from Salt Lake to confront Kar�s dissident ghost but another ghost � that of the �Beni Engineering scandal� � has followed him here and is a part of every Trinamul graffiti. Not that it�s cutting much ice but Nandy is also having to contend with the �outsider� tag.

His party, however, discounts that. �Our party works as a whole,� says Shankarkantha Mukherjee, former chairman of the Habra municipality. �Barenbabu died in 1998, but we haven�t neglected voters.�

The party is more worried about the anti-establishment mood but, curiously, it�s also working against Trinamul. The CPM is trying to raise local issues, like the municipality�s �failures�, to corner Datta to deflect the anti-incumbency mood.

Nandy is playing his cards smartly: he�s taking care of Kar�s ghost by having converted Kar�s room in the zonal office into his headquarters; and there�s the ideology-less opponent to take care of local sentiments.

But it will be an uphill task for Nandy as he fights the local dissident ghost and the local �gharer meye� opponent simultaneously.


Purulia, May 4: 
There�s a drought out here. The taps are dry, the rivers missing. It hasn�t rained for years.

There�s also an election out here.

But who cares? Purulia hasn�t changed in decades. How does it matter to them who rules Writers�? There�s no industry here worth naming. Power supply is erratic. And now, drought for the third consecutive year.

Tragedy heaped on neglect. Even the gods seem to be conspiring against Purulia.

But this district will send in 11 legislators. It is serious business, though the people may not think so.

In 1996, the Left Front bagged 10 of the 11 seats. Sitaram Mahato of the Congress was the exception, winning from Jaipur.

This year, the Left has to take on the combined might of the Trinamul, the Congress and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. The three parties have cobbled together an alliance, and, in the process, opened a can of bickering worms.

Trinamul has fielded seven candidates and the Congress and JMM two each. The seat adjustment has made the Congress sore. Even district Congress president, Nepal Mahato, has decided to fight as an Independent against Vishnu Mehta of Trinamul from Jhaldah.

Another Congress casualty is Govinda Mukherjee. He�s now contesting as a BJP nominee against K.P. Singh Deo of Trinamul from Purulia constituency. Incidentally, KP�s brother, B.P. Singh Deo, is district president of the BJP.

KP�s track record is unenviable. He�s contested five times before on Congress tickets � twice as Lok Sabha candidate and thrice for the Assembly � but lost every time.

Despite this, Trinamul decided to nominate him, depriving Congress� Sukumar Roy of a ticket. �Sukumarda would definitely have been a better choice,� says Bibhas Das, president of the district youth Congress. �He had at least been elected once to the Assembly.�

But it is too late for tears, and the Congress activists acknowledge it. The battle lines are drawn. The campaign is picking up despite the blazing sun, the buzzing heat.

In a last-gasp attempt to project a united front, the three-party alliance is trying to make an issue of the Left�s �failure on all fronts and misrule�.

�The (Left�s) stranglehold in every walk of life is another major issue this time,� says KP as he goes on his door-to-door campaign.

He exudes confidence, hardly the man who has been drubbed every time he fought an election. �The response is overwhelming. Can�t you see the smile of the people wherever I go? If the poll is peaceful, this will no longer remain a red fort,� he says.

Equally confident is Prodyut Sen, district secretariat member of the CPM. �The voters,� he says, �will go by the performance of the government, and that is where we stand to gain.

�Small and marginal farmers used to migrate to the cities with begging bowls. Didn�t that stop after the Left Front came to power?�

Tell him that the Opposition is wondering if the polls would be peaceful, and he accuses them of attempting to foment trouble. �Over 200 Trinamul and JMM activists, armed with sophisticated weapons, have been sent here after training in Jharkhand....�

Allegations and counter-allegations at a time when the merciless sun beats down on Purulia, caking it dry, as the mercury soars and the people queue up in front of taps to try their luck.

Whoever wins on May 10, the people here have little to lose.


New Delhi, May 4: 
The Jessica Lal murder case suffered another setback today when a second witness, Shiv Das Yadav, turned hostile and said he had not seen the model being shot dead.

Yadav was an electrician at Tamarind Court, the restaurant where Jessica was murdered on April 29, 1999. Every Thursday, a party would be held at the restaurant owned by socialite Bina Ramani. Yadav�s job was to light up the place and turn on the generator in case of power failure.

Like key witness Shyan Munshi yesterday, Yadav today went back on his statement to the police. He said he did not see anyone shoot Jessica since he was on the terrace putting off the lights after the party ended.

Yadav claimed that he went into the cafe only at 2 am after hearing some noise and �do patakhe ki awaaz� (sound of two fire crackers). �Bina Ramani was walking ahead, so I followed her inside the cafe. I saw Jessica Lal lying injured on the floor,� he said.

The prosecution case is on shaky ground after Munshi, the key witness and a complainant, went back on his police statement yesterday and failed to identify prime accused Manu Sharma, the son of a former Union minister.

The murder trial began on Wednesday with witness Deepak Bhojwani, who was present at the bar inside Tamarind Court, identifying Sharma and two other accused. Sharma, who had appeared tired on Wednesday, looked relaxed today and even broke into a smile in court.

Jessica�s father, Ajit Lal, was disappointed. �Things are not looking good. I have left everything in the hands of God so that justice can be brought to our daughter.� Lal has been present at all the hearings, listening to witnesses go back on their word.

Lal had called Munshi�s father last week. �I requested him that Shyan should come out with the truth,� he said. �Shyan�s father said he would speak to his son. I am very disappointed. I feel shattered.�

Sabrina, Jessica�s younger sister, could not hide her emotions when Munshi refused to identify the accused. She rushed out of the court in tears.

�I met Shiv Das Yadav at the police station when he was giving his testimony. He looked so scared. I cannot blame him because the opposition has so much money and power. They can use it to pressure a person like Yadav since he is not backed by anyone,� Sabrina said today.

But Jessica�s family refuses to excuse Munshi. �We did not expect a boy from a wealthy family to be bought over,� Sabrina said. �I can forgive the people who have killed Jessica, but I cannot forgive Shyan.�

�I feel sorry for the police. They were so conscientious, but the case seems to have fallen because of the two witnesses. A lot will now depend on the judge,� the sister said.


New Delhi, May 4: 
As opinion polls in newsmagazines predicted the return of the Left Front in Bengal, BJP president K. Jana Krishnamurthi insisted that the position of the CPM-led alliance was �not happy�.

Krishnamurthi claimed that for the first time, the Left leadership was �nervous� but added that Mamata Banerjee was not in a position to take full advantage of the situation.

�Despite the anti-government sentiments, people are not happy with the way Mamata ditched the BJP. Had the entire Opposition come together, they would have made a clean sweep of the state. Ajit Panja�s rebellion has given the impression that Mamata is presiding over a divided house and that has affected her image,� he said.

The BJP chief, who was in Bengal recently, said the outcome of the polls would depend on the �last three days of campaigning�.

In Tamil Nadu, the DMK-led front had started consolidating while Jayalalitha had �squandered away her initial advantage�, Krishnamurthi claimed. �The biggest problem before her voters is they know she cannot become the chief minister,� he said. The BJP is part of the DMK-led alliance.

Krishnamurthi said the BJP-Asom Gana Parishad alliance in Assam had countenanced the subversive tactics of militants by urging their voters to �accept it as a challenge�.

�I told a public meeting that it is a challenge not just to the BJP but to democracy,� he said, adding that such statements from leaders could instil confidence among people.

The poll outcome would not affect the political alignments at the Centre, the BJP chief asserted. �Why should there be realignments in the Centre? In Kerala, the UDF and LDF are directly pitted against each other. In Tamil Nadu, our partner has the highest stakes. In Bengal, the Trinamul is already out of the NDA. Any plus in Assam is advantageous to us,� he argued.

Briefing the press, law minister Arun Jaitley appealed to Bengal voters to throw out the Left Front government �which cannot perform and which has brought economic and social ruin to the state�.

Jaitley also questioned Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia�s prediction of the fall of the NDA government in an interview to a news agency yesterday.

�What the basis of the Congress� optimism is has not been substantiated or made clear in his statement. But this dubious claim certainly establishes how the Congress is undermining the democratic mandate which the NDA government has received to rule for five years,� he said.

Jaitley alleged that the Congress was so taken up with its �lust for power� that in the last few days, it had become the �blue-eyed boy� of the outlawed Ulfa.

�It consciously failed to condemn the terrorism Ulfa unleashed on the democratic process,� he said.


New Delhi, May 4: 
Worried over adverse domestic reactions to South Block�s effusive response to America�s new security policy, foreign minister Jaswant Singh today said Delhi would not support any US move to �unilaterally alter� the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Igor Ivanov, Singh�s Russian counterpart, also made it clear that Moscow was in no hurry to �destroy� the AMB Treaty � signed between the US and the former Soviet Union � unless convinced by Washington that the alternative suggested guarantees better security and global stability.

The new security blueprint involves further cuts in America�s nuclear arsenal and talks of building a missile defence system. But analysts say the expansive shield will include a network of installations which would undermine the 1972 treaty, considered the cornerstone of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War.

Both India and Russia agreed that any change should come about only after wide-ranging consultations. The two sides will be in touch with each other after both have an opportunity to discuss the matter in detail with American experts next week.

The tone of India�s response was set by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he met Ivanov for 45 minutes. Vajpayee stressed that �bilateral agreements between countries should be respected and any modification should be through mutual consultation and understanding�.

Ivanov, who arrived here last night, also met Singh and other senior officials. Tomorrow he will call on President K.R. Narayanan and meet finance minister Yashwant Sinha.

Both Delhi and Moscow agreed to set in place a mechanism � besides annual foreign minister-level meetings � to marry their position on important international issues. They agreed to have their next summit-level meeting later this year when Vajpayee would travel to Moscow early November to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ivanov handed over a special message from Putin to Vajpayee and stressed �the great importance� of the strategic partnership between the two countries was important �in the interest of the world�.

On the ABM treaty, Singh said: �It should not be abrogated or amended unilaterally.� India, he said, welcomed the US announcement as it stressed on the need for consultation and cooperation before bringing about any change and because America intended further cuts in its nuclear arsenal and �de-alerting� them. �Between mutually agreed decision and mutually assured destruction, the former is preferable,� he said.


New Delhi, May 4: 
The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) rebels who set May 20-22 as the deadline to topple the Rabri Devi government today met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to discuss Bihar�s political situation.

The rebel MPs met Janata Dal (United) president and civil aviation minister Sharad Yadav last night. However, NDA leaders said they were not party to the toppling game.

This is the second meeting of the rebels with Yadav since they formed the RJD (Democratic) last week.

Three Lok Sabha MPs � Nagmani, Anwarul Haq and Sukdev Paswan � had a half-hour meeting with Vajpayee at his 7 Race Course Road residence.

After the meeting, Nagmani said they told the Prime Minister they needed protection as they were receiving threat calls from persons close to RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav.

Nagmani, however, denied that they discussed politics. He said the primary objective of the meeting was to request Vajpayee to accord special status to Bihar on the lines of Uttaranchal.

After the bifurcation of the state and creation of Jharkhand, the economic situation in Bihar has become worse, they said.

Addressing a joint press conference yesterday, the rebel leaders � including Rajya Sabha members Bhante Viriyo and Kumkum Rai � said they could return to the party if anybody from outside Laloo Yadav�s family was made chief minister.

Denying the charge of RJD spokesman Shivanand Tiwari that the three rebel Lok Sabha MPs had been paid Rs 2 crore each by the BJP, they said: �The day it is proved, we will retire from politics.�

Tiwari had alleged in Patna that the BJP had earmarked Rs 100 crore to topple the Bihar government. An MP could be bought over for Rs 2 crore while Rs 50 lakh was being offered to MLAs, he had said.

The RJD(D) leaders said people of Bihar were familiar with Tiwari. One of them, Paswan, said he was consulting lawyers to file a defamation suit against Tiwari, a Laloo foe-turned-friend.


Pondicherry, May 4: 
S. Ramadoss is a disillusioned man. His dreams of ushering in a PMK-led government in the Union Territory lies in tatters.

While the PMK-ADMK front does not seem to be in any position to win a majority, Ramadoss� party is in danger of being wiped out by bigger rivals like the Congress and the DMK.

�Our leader committed a blunder in allowing the Congress to contest separately. The ADMK is no force here. The last time they made any mark here was way back in 1977 when MGR was alive,� said a senior PMK functionary.

�She (Jayalalitha) chose to contest 20 seats after talks with the Congress fell through. Now her partymen are finding it tough to carry the burden of the campaigning on their shoulders as the leader of the alliance,� he added.

PMK and ADMK workers make it clear how much they are missing the Congress in the alliance. Though the Congress-ADMK alliance was routed in Tamil Nadu in 1996, in Pondicherry, the Congress managed to win the Lok Sabha seat almost on its own steam.

Former chief minister Farooq Maricar, who is also the Union Territory�s lone MP, says: �It�s unfortunate that we could not rope in our natural and traditional ally, the ADMK, but we are a pretty strong force to reckon with here and cannot afford to tail behind upstarts like the PMK.�

However, the Congress-Tamil Maanila Congress-CPI alliance is also not on a very strong wicket. The revolt of former public works minister P. Kannan has considerably weakened the TMC. Kannan has floated his own party, the Pudhuchery Makkal Congress (PMC), and joined hands with the DMK.

Observers say the DMK-led front could put up a better show than it had bargained for, thanks to the division in the Opposition ranks and its alliance with Kannan�s party.

Besides, in contrast to the lacklustre performance of the present Congress-TMC coalition government, sources say the preceding DMK-led government�s achievements are generally appreciated by the people.

G. Sukumaran, a civil rights activist, feels Ramadoss� Vanniar card has fallen flat in the enclave because of its cosmopolitan culture.

The general opinion, sources say, is that neither camp will get a majority and that new alliances will be forged after the elections.


Calcutta, May 4: 
Former chief minister and CPM politburo member Jyoti Basu today criticised Congress chief Sonia Gandhi for allowing her party to align with the Trinamul Congress in Bengal.

�Sonia has criticised the panchayat system in West Bengal. She said yesterday in a number of public meetings that Mamata Banerjee will be made chief minister once the Congress and Trinamul were voted to power...,� Basu said in an election rally at Kalindi football ground in the city.

In the meeting, in support of CPM nominee from Belgachhia (East) Subhas Chakraborty, Basu said: �I feel pity for Sonia. I know her personally. I also knew her husband Rajiv Gandhi very well. When Rajiv was the Prime Minister, he visited our state and praised the Left Front government for implementing the panchayat system and the land reforms Act. I asked him why he was not taking initiatives to implement the two in the Congress-run states. But Rajiv told me that a Central Act will be required to force Congress-run states to implement land reforms act and panchayat system. But, you know, he had to die a pathetic death before introducing the Acts.

Now Rajiv�s wife is criticising us. She perhaps does not know what her husband had said about land reforms and panchayat systems in West Bengal.�

Basu said Trinamul and the Congress would not be able to come to power in the state as there has been no �mahajot�. �Mamata used to tell people that they would be able to replace the Left Front government once the grand alliance was formulated. But they failed to fight the election together under the banner of the so-called grand alliance and I am sure they will be defeated this time too,� Basu said.

Transport minister Chakraborty described the Congress-Trinamul pact as �old wine in new bottle�. He came down heavily on Mamata Banerjee for �playing a drama of committing suicide. Does anyone commit suicide by informing everybody?� Chakraborty asked.


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