Man vs vote machine
Industry falls sick, front suffers
Party a block in Left land
King in search of lost crown
Antony wave sweeps isle of friends
Son’s chance to avenge villain who never won
PM caught in southern poll-portrait war
Cheap text takes over from loud voice on mobiles
BJP targets Mulayam to blur heartland dissent
Businessman held in fake deposit scam

Maniktala, May 6: 
It’s the battle between a popular man and the well-oiled machinery behind a man who is not.

Maniktala handed out the CPM a stunning blow in 1996 when it ousted Shyamal Chakraborty as its legislator and gave the seat to the younger Paresh Pal, who slayed the Goliath, albeit by a wafer-thin margin of 507 votes.

Chakraborty, a CPM state secretariat member and former transport minister, is burning the midnight oil to recover the popular ground he yielded to Pal. The complaints against Chakraborty in 1996 were many: he didn’t “nourish” his constituency though he was a powerful minister. He made little effort to maintain good public relations after becoming the legislator from here for the third consecutive term in 1991.

Chakraborty says he is working at least 17 hours a day to meet his voters. And, he emphasises to make a point, there are all of 1,77,429 electorate. “It is not possible to meet everyone in my constituency individually, still I’m trying hard to meet at least every family. I’m going by the electoral roll, trying to meet the head of each family. There are about 3,000 new voters in my constituency and I can tell you I have already met every one of them,” he says.

The Left Front controls three of the five municipal wards in the constituency. Chakraborty is concentrating on wards 31 and 33, which are held by the Congress and Trinamul.

“I am no longer a minister, but I try my level best to serve the people here. My party and I helped at least 5,000 poor people who got spectacles free of cost. I also set up a Hindi school, besides one for Oriya- and Telugu-speaking people. I also built two big sports complexes, a career guidance centre. Like Pal, I don’t like to beat my own drum, but I have been forced to speak up ,” he adds.

The CPM and Chakraborty are raising several local issues. “Paresh Pal will have to answer why the Bagmari water supply scheme has not yet been completed. Trinamul has been running Calcutta Municipal Corporation for the past seven months and yet the people of Maniktala are not getting adequate drinking water,” Chakraborty repeats in street-corner after street-corner.

Pal is ready with a reply. “We (Trinamul) are running the CMC for the past few months only. I want to know why the CPM-controlled CMC had failed to complete the scheme though they were in power for 15 years and had their ministers in Writers’ Buildings.”

A commerce graduate from Gurudas College, which was once a CPM stronghold, Pal ensures that he has his finger on the pulse. Every morning, Pal, riding on his bicycle, meets local residents in parks and in Subhas Sarovar, touches the feet of elders and chats up the younger ones.

Pal has also been organising the annual Subhas Mela for the past decade. He helps out local girls by organising a mass marriage ceremony every year. The Subhas Mela organising committee has on standby four ambulances. Some of the clinics in the locality charge Rs 30 and Rs 20 from the poor for X-Ray and ECG.

“Contesting elections is not a problem for me because the people in my constituency know me better than anyone, even Chakraborty. I’m always by their side, trying hard to help them in every respect,” says Pal.

“The CPM cannot defeat me unless it unleashes terror. In 1996, I won by only 507 votes. I’m grateful to God because I’m still alive. You know what happened on election day that year. CPM antisocials attacked me, bombed my car and I was severely wounded. But I resisted the CPM’s attempt to rig the poll in at least 70 booths because of my supporters and I won. This time, I believe the people of Maniktala will re-elect me.”

Pal alleged that the CPM is trying to terrorise his voters. Tension had gripped Kankurgachi a few days ago when CPM supporters set up a stage for holding their rally and covered a huge banner of Pal. “I personally requested the CPM cadre to remove the stage and set it up in some other place. But they refused and tried to provoke my men. But I resisted the temptation because I know the CPM will make it an election issue,” he says.

Besides Pal’s popularity, Chakraborty has to fight dissidence in the party as well. A section of the CPM is unhappy with his nomination and wanted sitting councillor Tuhin Bera instead.

But the CPM has brought in its time-tested election machinery to work. More than 1,200 party workers are working for Chakraborty. Senior leaders like Prasanta Chatterjee, former mayor, is supervising the campaign for him.


Hooghly, May 6: 
If the Left loses Hooghly, it will have a moribund industry to blame more than a resurgent Trinamul.

The Marxists had ruled the roost here since 1977. In 1996, the Left Front won 15 of the 19 seats — 11 CPM, three Forward Bloc and one Forward Bloc (Marxist). Among them were three ministers: Naren De, Nemai Mal and Pratim Chatterjee.

But in just three years, things turned sour for the Left. In rural pockets like Jangipara, Polba, Dhaniakhali, the Left held its ground, but took a knocking in industrial areas.

In Uttarpara — where Hindustan Motors struggled to survive — the Left trailed by nearly 27,000 votes.

“It is actually the management’s fault. With stiff competition in the automobile market, Hindustan Motors should have thought of diversification much earlier,” says Sunil Sarkar, district secretariat member of the CPM.

In Srirampur and Bansberia — two other industrial areas — the Left lost in 1996 itself. There, the party trailed by 29,000 votes in 1999.

“We admit our organisation is weak in these areas and our trade union movement has also suffered because of globalisation,” says Sarkar.

Take the case of Dunlop. Workers at the company’s Sahagunj factory have not received wages for the past four months, and Citu leaders are watching helplessly.

Two cotton mills of the National Textile Corporation in Srirampur — Rampuria and Banga Lakshmi — are in a moribund state. Citu leaders fear it is only a matter of time before they close shop.

Three jute mills along the river Hooghly in Srirampur — Hastings, Wellington and India — are in bad shape.

In adjoining Rishra, JK Steel is closed and ICI has only its paints and rubber chemical divisions running. The Rilaxon foam mattress company in Konnagar is in dire straits.

All these workers, who will they vote for?

“When the Dunlop factory closed down a couple of years ago, I personally went to Jyoti Basu and Asim Dasgupta and urged them to take steps to reopen it,” says Naren De of Forward Bloc.

But nothing happened. In the civic polls last year, Trinamul wrested the Uttarpara, Konnagar, Champdani and the Chinsurah municipalities from the Left Front. It also held on to the board in Srirampur. That was the workers’ reply.

Then, when Mamata Banerjee arrived in Srirampur with Sonia Gandhi two days after May Day this year, they perked up. Static for so long, things might begin moving again, the workers hoped. They flocked to Srirampur stadium to hear the leaders speak. And when Mamata shouted, “Lal hatao, Bangla bachao”, the crowd went into hysterics. She might or might not provide them a New Deal, but they had had enough of the Left and closed factories — that was how the Trinamul looked at the situation.

What does that leave the Left with? The rural belt, say Trinamul and Congress leaders. Particularly Arambagh, Khanakul and Goghat.

These are also the pockets the Left will go out of its way to retain. For, if it loses here, it will have no one else to blame but itself.


Chinsurah, May 6: 
If Chinsurah votes for the man, the party may win. Naren De knows that.

Sitting cross-legged under a photograph of Netaji during his 1939 visit to Chinsurah, the agriculture minister cannot shake off the troubled expression on his face. He has received several phone calls, he says, some from non-Left sympathisers, saying they would vote for him not because he is a Left leader, but because he is Naren De.

They voted for Left Front legislators since 1977, sent De to the Assembly three times, and wouldn’t mind his fourth stint. But it’s the Left Front that’s getting in the way. In the last two general elections in 1998 and 1999, the Left candidates trailed behind Trinamul by over 12,000 votes. In the two years since, the Left has not gone up on the popularity charts.

But Naren De — that’s different. Even his political adversaries concede they have nothing against the Forward Bloc leader.

The front’s other chance of defeating the Trinamul is Trinamul itself. You can hear the murmurs of discontent in the Trinamul camp because Tapan Dasgupta, district chairman of the party, has been denied a ticket in Chinsurah.

Instead, Trinamul has fielded Robin Mukherjee, sitting MLA from adjacent Bansberia, where Dasgupta has been shifted.

“It just beats me why Tapan, who nursed this constituency for so long, was shifted to Bansberia” says De. But he is not complaining. Nor, for that matter, is Dasgupta — at least not openly. “It is my leader’s (Mamata’s) decision and I have accepted it,” he says.

Not so his supporters. “While Chinsurah gave a lead of 12,000 votes in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, in Bansberia the lead was only by 3,800. Robinda was scared to contest the seat this time. Also, he made a lot of promises to the electorate which were never fulfilled,” says a close aide of Dasgupta.

Mukherjee hotly denies this version. “It was Mamata Banerjee who decided that I contest from Chinsurah,” he says.

Whatever might be the reason for the seat swap, such squabbling can only give a leg up to De. So, Mukherjee is working extra hard to wrest the seat.

You can see the Trinamul festoons and placards fluttering on GT Road. Compared with that, De’s campaign seems lacklustre, unhurried. “We are highlighting three things against Mamata Banerjee: her alliance with the Congress, the recent outburst of Ajit Panja and her poll pact with separatist forces like the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha,” says De.

He doesn’t have to try too hard. Chinsurah knows him. But will they forget the party when they vote for him?


Itahar, May 6: 
Dr Zainal Abedin’s message is simple: “Hoi vote dey, noi kabar dey (Either give me votes or bury me).”

He was the uncrowned king of North Dinajpur’s Itahar till 1996. But in the last Assembly election, he lost to Srikumar Mukherjee of the CPM in a photo-finish. Mukherjee’s margin was only 556 votes.

That was Blow Number One. Blow Number Two was local Congress MP Priya Ranjan Das Munshi. He denied Abedin a ticket this time. So, he decided to fight as a Nationalist Congress Party nominee.

Abedin started early this time. He asked people to vote for him on the hand symbol. But when the Congress entered into a pact with Mamata Banerjee, he was left out in the cold. That is when he turned to Sharad Pawar’s party.

In this Muslim-dominated area, Abedin is banking on the minority community to regain his throne. But why should they vote for him? So that he can “protect their ijjat”.

His rival, Mukherjee, is not smiling now, but insists he will have the last laugh. The civil defence minister agrees his main battle is with the 60-plus streetfighter — Abedin — and not with Amal Acharya of the Congress.

But there are a couple of things going in Mukherjee’s favour. First, a division of the anti-Left votes between Acharya, Abedin and the BJP candidate.

Second, as civil defence minister, he set up Itahar’s fist higher education centre, the Meghnad Saha College, and four new schools. That was a big leap forward in an area where only 25 per cent of the population is literate.

“Our minister built new roads, gave farmers incentives and brought clean drinking water to us. Abedin had never done this when he was legislator,” says Inayat Ali, a schoolteacher.

But Abedin’s target is not so much Mukherjee as Priya. At street-corner meetings, you can hear him seeking his subjects’ sympathy for the “injustice” done to him by the Congress.

Mukherjee, though, is taking no chances. “I will defeat Abedin,” he says. “But he is hell-bent on enticing the Muslims to vote for him.”


Chertalla, May 6: 
It is hardly eight in the morning but the island village of Kuttanchal in Kerala’s coastal Alappuzha district is already bustling. By 8.30, a small boat cuts across the backwaters that surround Kuttanchal. As the boat touches the village edge and a short man in white khadi shirt and mundu (dhoti) alights, a small crowd rushes forward with one resounding cry: “A.K. Antony zindabad”.

A crowd of only 100 people is a small show for a leader of Antony’s stature. But Kuttanchal has a population of only around 600, including children, and the fact that one-sixth of the population came to receive the Congress leader points to Antony’s popularity.

There is a personal dimension to the affection shown by the people. Many had known Antony since he was an infant. Those senior to him looked after him and some grew up with him.

Antony was born at Chertalla town, the headquarters of his constituency about 10 km from Kuttanchal. The personal touch is evident from the moment he starts walking through the village. He addresses almost everybody in the crowd by name.

Antony asks one woman how much milk her goat gives and another young man how much toddy he is able to tap and what price he gets for it.

But once he reaches the venue of the public meeting, the old neighbour transforms into a political animal. Antony lambasts the CPM-led Left Democratic Front, saying Kerala had lost its peace under its five-year misrule. He promises a better future if the United Democratic Front is voted to power.

Assurances about new industry, employment and fair price for the farmers are made one by one. He glosses over the faction fight between his camp and that of K. Karunakaran, which touched menacing proportions at the start of the election process.

But there is not a word about the BJP, the Congress’ principal opponent at the Centre.

The BJP is not politically important enough in Kerala to deserve mention, he says later. He refutes the Left allegation that the UDF has struck a deal with the BJP.

Antony’s stay at Kuttanchal was brief but the island village is happy. Kurien, a fish vendor, says: “The very fact that he found time to come and meet us on a day Sonia Gandhi is coming to Chertalla highlights how important we are to him. We will go around campaigning in other villages, too, and see to it that he gets a bigger majority this time.”

Antony points out from time to time that, along with the political initiatives, his personal equation in and around Chertalla has played a role in transforming this communist bastion into a constituency where the Congress and the UDF can win.

Of the 11 elections held here, the Congress and its allies as well as the Left have won five times each.

Once, in 1965, the seat went to the Kerala Congress, which was not part of either front. Antony was the first Congress leader to win from here in 1970, with a 360- vote margin.

This is not a sure seat for the UDF. But Antony has steadfastly refused to migrate to a “safe seat”, holding on to what many in the Congress say is an irrational, emotional attachment. This time, however, Antony and his supporters are more confident.

They believe there is a virtual wave in favour of the UDF all over the district and say the Chertalla people realise their MLA will become chief minister. That Antony’s majority in the 1996 polls (8385 votes) was the highest-ever for the UDF is a confidence booster. His opponent is the CPI’s C.K. Chandrappan, who won the seat in 1991.

Moving out of Kuttanchal, Antony repeats almost the same drill in villages on the other side of the lake. His campaign in Chertalla ends with a huge meeting addressed by Sonia Gandhi.

Antony will not come back to Chertalla before polling day. His campaign for his own seat is over five days before the poll. The prospective chief minister has more important tasks ahead, one of them being his mission to other parts of the state to help colleagues who do not have much rapport with the voters.


Chennai, May 6: 
When MGR cut and thrust with his trademark rapier, M.N. Nambiar faithfully bit the dust in each and every battle on the screen during the swashbuckling sixties.

Decades later, the popular villain’s son stands a chance of worsting in real rife the candidate of the party founded by Tamil Nadu’s legendary hero.

Caught in the ironical twist of the plot in realpolitik is ADMK candidate Dalit Ezhilmalai, who was minister of state for health in the previous Vajpayee government.

Ezhimlai is facing a stiff challenge in the Trichy Lok Sabha seat from Nambiar’s son Sukumaran, who is contesting on a BJP ticket. The irony is more stark since Ezhimalai’s party is on an upswing elsewhere in the state.

Ezhimalai could lose to Sukumaran due to a complex interplay of circumstances over which he does not have any control.

One of Ezhimalai’s main problems is a newfound friend. He had joined Jayalalitha’s party after quitting the Pattali Makkal Katchi in 1999 when he was denied a ticket in the Lok Sabha elections. While switching over, he did not pull any punches in pummelling his one-time party boss, S. Ramadoss.

However, the rollercoaster politics of Tamil Nadu soon came into play, pitchforking Ramadoss, too, into the Jayalalitha camp, leaving Ezhilmalai nonplussed.

Ezhimalai now has to depend on Ramadoss’ PMK ranks to some extent for canvassing and other backbreaking election work. But the Ezhimalai faction fears that Ramadoss’ whole-hearted cooperation is unlikely given the bad blood between the two.

The caste equation is also not in Ezhimalai’s favour. He is one of the few Dalit candidates to be ever fielded in a general constituency. The move is seen as Jayalalitha’s riposte to the DMK’s attempts to project itself as a champion of Dalit interests.

There is no love lost between Ezhilmalai and Dalit outfits like the Pudhiya Thamizhakam and the Dalit Panthers of India. Most of them are now campaigning for the BJP candidate.

Besides, unfortunately for Ezhilmalai, Trichy is a predominantly urban constituency where the voters could tilt towards the BJP.

If Ezhimalai is the wrong man in the wrong place, the BJP could not have chosen a better seat than Trichy in a state where the party does not have much of a presence.

The BJP enjoys some goodwill in Trichy because of the work done by the late Rangarajan Kumaramangalam. Keen to capitalise on this, the BJP has flooded the constituency with multi-coloured posters of a beaming Ranga, carrying appeals to the voters to support Sukumaran.

The workers of the Congress, an ADMK ally, are also playing truant. The Congress is upset because it was not given the seat. The party had been winning the seat for long now, barring in the last two elections when the BJP romped home.

Another ADMK ally, Tamil Maanila leader G.K. Moopanar, too, agreed to let Jayalalitha’s candidate have the seat. The generosity was seen as an attempt to get even with local strongman Adaikalaraj, who had ditched Moopanar last year and joined the Congress.

Ezhimalai’s hopes now ride on the anti-incumbency factor. The industrial downturn, which has affected ancillary units in Trichy, and the decline in the price of paddy could work in his favour.

But the odds against him outnumber the positive factors. Unless there is a strong pro-Jayalalitha wave, the former health minister will find it difficult to get back to Parliament.


New Delhi, May 6: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is caught in a bind with both the DMK and the MDMK seeking his presence in their respective rallies.

Vajpayee and MDMK chief Vaiko have tried to resolve the knotty problem without stepping on DMK leader Karunanidhi’s toes. While Vaiko is freely using Vajpayee’s portrait for his party’s campaign, the Prime Minister will address a public meeting of the DMK-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) tomorrow in Chennai.

However, not everybody is satisfied with the arrangement. Karunanidhi has not taken kindly to Vaiko using Vajpayee’s portrait in his public meetings. Vaiko, on his part, is not happy with the DMK’s insistence that Vajpayee will address only the NDA rally.

After the MDMK walked out of the NDA last month, the DMK chief urged Vajpayee not to campaign for Vaiko. The BJP leader reluctantly agreed, despite his soft corner for the MDMK chief.

Vajpayee’s dilemma was that Vaiko stood by him, inside and outside Parliament, throughout the crisis triggered by Tehelka’s revelations on defence deals. While the DMK stayed away from the NDA rallies organised to defend the government, which was tarred by the Tehelka tapes, Vaiko was there at all the rallies aggressively defending the NDA.

Though the DMK and the MDMK have parted company at the state level, both continue to swear by Vajpayee in Delhi.

The bitter enmity between the two is, however, likely to be a headache for Vajpayee in the post-election scenario.

The war is over the chief minister’s slot. While ambitious Vaiko has set his eyes on the top job, ageing Karunanidhi has his son, M.K. Stalin, in mind.

Vaiko left the NDA protesting Karunanidhi’s plans to anoint Stalin as chief minister. He opposed Stalin’s growing influence over the affairs of the NDA at the state level. In 1993, he had split the DMK to launch the MDMK as he suspected Karunanidhi of secretly promoting Stain at his cost.

Both Stalin and Vaiko are young. But that is where the similarities end. While Vaiko is aggressive, charismatic and enjoys a national-level exposure, Stalin, the Chennai mayor, has just come out of his father’s shadows.

Stalin, however, denies that he is a chief ministerial candidate. “Who are the people talking about my becoming the chief minister. It is only the MDMK leader Vaiko and the ADMK leader Jayalalitha. No one else,” said Stalin in Chennai.

While the DMK has gone all-out against Jayalalitha in its campaign, Vaiko has refused to comment on whether she can become chief minister despite being disqualified from contesting the polls by the Election Commission.

Rumours are galore that after the elections, which the DMK is likely to lose, both the MDMK and the ADMK will try to split the DMK. There could be political realignments and, like the PMK, the MDMK could rejoin the ADMK, which it had left in 1999 on the issue of continuing support to the BJP-led government. All the three parties — ADMK, PMK and MDMK could return to the NDA fold.

Conversely, political pundits predict, Karunanidhi may return to the third front, his natural habitat. Barring his personal rapport with Vajpayee, the DMK is not quite comfortable in the saffron company. The Sangh parivar outfits, too, have not relished the idea of Stalin taking over as chief minister.

Stalin’s recent comments that the DMK is not like a “mutt” of the shankaracharya (where succession is the norm) has raised the hackles of the Hindu Munnai, which has taken offence and has threatened to campaign against the DMK unless he retracts.


Mumbai, May 6: 
Tushar Gandhi’s tapering fingers punch the keys of his cellphone as he travels to the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation’s office in a car.

“On way 2 work. Catch u up evening,” the short text message comes on his phone screen before travelling to his friend’s cellphone in nanoseconds.

Like hundreds of others, Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, cannot do without short message service or SMS, which has made cellphone-to-cellphone conversation possible without saying a word.

In classes, offices and markets and on trains and buses, more and more users are writing to each other instead of shouting into their handsets to make themselves heard. Many of them are teenagers, exchanging sweet nothings.

“SMS has caught on in a big way. It is cheap, instant, and reliable,” said Balu Nayar, head of mobile portal and new applications division at Hutchison Max’s Orange, one of the two mobile service providers in the financial capital.

Though the telecom industry in the West embraced SMS as a standard technology in 1991 to sop up extra network capacity, it caught on only a year or two ago.

In India, it was launched last year by cellular service providers as a value addition.

But in the past six months it has become so popular, it is now a part of the service in Mumbai, Nayar said.

The battle between Orange and BPL, the other service provider in Mumbai, is no longer over prices, but over a wide range of short message services they are offering to capture the growing cellular market.

Because both Orange and BPL are offering almost the same rates for phone calls, SMS is going to determine to a large extent which will emerge victorious, a market analyst said.

SMS is possibly the cheapest means of communication as you pay only Re 1 to send a message — up to 160 characters — anywhere in the world to a person with a cellphone. No STD or ISD charges. And you receive a message absolutely free.

Little wonder, it is a big hit with stock brokers. “They are using it in a big way, cutting huge STD bills,” Nayar said.

Unlike e-mail, text messages arrive almost instantaneously, making it possible for two people to have a text-based conversation as if they were in an Internet chatroom.

Users say the service has all the immediacy of a phone call, with extra privacy. In the Maharashtra Assembly, where the use of cellphone is banned, legislators and reporters merrily, but clandestinely, trade messages on their phones.

With SMS, background noise is no problem and reception is not an issue. Ever tried talking on a mobile phone from a crowded restaurant or a speeding train?

The service is catching up in other cities, too. Almost 60 per cent of the estimated 1,60,000 cellular subscribers in Calcutta use SMS every day.

While Command introduced the service in May last year, Spice followed in October. Both cellular service providers in the city furnished the service free till December and then began charging Re. 1 for each message.

Spice marketing vice-president R. Mahesh said: “Since the service can be used by WAP and non-WAP handset users, it is extremely popular. The low charges in comparison to airtime rates makes the service the best for short messages.”

SMS has also helped the cellular companies to introduce a range of value-added services like information on flights, trains, stocks, business news and sports.

In Philippines, where a cellphone user averages 15 messages a day, the world’s highest, President Joseph Estrada’s fall was credited as much with SMS as with Opposition parties.

Using the powerful new technology, the Opposition had mobilised tens of thousands people, bringing the politician down from power.

Mumbai is fast catching up with Europe, where a cellphone user sends at least one message a day.

“It’s growing terrifically fast. We have now set ourselves an ambitious target of five messages per day per customer. We hope to achieve this in three to four months,” the Orange official said.

With wireless applications protocol or WAP technology that lets a mobile phone user surf the Net remaining slow and expensive, the use of SMS is ballooning.

“It is not just about sending and receiving messages. From the weather and cricket scores to the day’s news bulletin, you can now access almost any information on your cellphone at a nominal rate and this is the beauty of SMS,” Nayar said.


New Delhi, May 6: 
In the run up to the “make-or-break” Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, the battlelines are becoming progressively blurred with the BJP launching an “Opposition co-option overdrive” in an attempt to neutralise whatever traces of dissent that remain in Lucknow.

The first target of Operation Co-option was Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had positioned himself as the BJP’s main adversary.

On May Day, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee invited Mulayam over to breakfast at his residence. Samajwadi sources claimed that during the nearly two-hour-long session, their “netaji” managed to “extract” a number of assurances from the Prime Minister, the chief among them being a road connecting Lucknow to Gwalior.

The sources said this project was important for Mulayam because of Gwalior’s proximity to Etawah, his home turf. The district includes his erstwhile Assembly constituency, Jaswant Nagar.

Despite the Samajwadi leader’s penchant for caste-based Yadav-centric politics, he reportedly agreed with Vajpayee that “caste politics was not good for UP”, and mentioned his bete noire, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), in this context.

BJP sources said in the second lap of the budget session, both Samajwadi and the BSP had distanced themselves from the Congress’ clamour for a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe the Tehelka exposé and made the ruling benches’ task “easy”.

“But Atalji played a master stroke this time by inviting not Mayawati but Mulayam for a one-to-one session,” the sources said.

In the past, it was Vajpayee who had placed the final seal of ratification on the BSP-BJP alliance in Uttar Pradesh, which led to the formation of a coalition government twice.

Although the experiments were short-lived and created acrimony between the two, Mayawati never criticised Vajpayee and instead always maintained that she had no personal animosity towards him.

The Mulayam-Vajpayee tęte-ŕ-tęte also assumed significance following reports of how both Samajwadi and the BSP tacitly supported chief minister Rajnath Singh’s candidacy in the recent Haidergarh Assembly byelections.

Both put up Kurmi candidates and ensured that the votes of this influential backward caste were split, while the upper caste votes consolidated around Singh.

At a news conference today, Mayawati denied that she would have a pre-poll understanding with the BJP. But she smiled when asked if there would be yet another post-poll pact in the event of a hung Assembly.

BJP sources said their gut feeling was that the BSP was planning to field upper caste candidates both to split the BJP’s core votes and to enhance its own acceptability. “Upper caste nominees who get elected will threaten to desert Mayawati and pressurise her to join our hands. Our strategy will work in the end,” claimed sources.

The third Opposition party, Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, is waiting in the wings to be inducted into the NDA at the Centre and the state government. Singh has held a series of meetings with the chief minister.

According to BJP sources, it remains to be seen whether he will join their ranks right away and ensure a Cabinet berth for himself at the Centre and ministerships in Uttar Pradesh for his MLAs or wait to clinch a deal close to the Assembly elections.


Calcutta, May 6: 
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) today arrested a businessman from Port Blair in connection with a money-laundering racket involving fictitious bank accounts opened in the names of several well-known personalities.

Deputy inspector-general of the CBI Vijay Kumar said a CBI team led by superintendent Dhiraj Nayyar arrested one of the prime accused, Sudip Rai Sharma, and produced him before chief judicial magistrate of Port Blair C.K. Lahiri.

Lahiri rejected Sharma’s bail plea and permitted the CBI to bring Sharma to Calcutta on “transit remand”.

Sharma, a businessman, was helped by bank officials to open fixed deposit accounts for his unaccounted money.

The CBI, along with Sharma, will visit branches of the nationalised banks and offices of financial institutions in the city for investigations next week.

CBI sources said the investigators are not convinced with Sharma’s statement. “He is contradicting himself. Once he arrives in the city, we will interrogate him to get to the bottom of the scam,” Kumar said.

The CBI has already seized the bank lockers of Khageswar Puhan, assistant general manager of Indian Overseas Bank. Puhan is currently posted at the bank’s Strand Road branch and is another prime accused in the multi-crore racket.

“The seized documents reveal that Puhan has a bank locker in the Bhubaneswar branch of the bank,” said Vijay Kumar, deputy inspector-general of the CBI. Kumar added that the CBI has raided Puhan’s properties, including a house, in Bhubaneswar.

The sources said the CBI has recovered documents and valuables worth several lakhs of rupees from Puhan’s locker.

The scam came to light last month, when two persons from Port Blair informed the CBI that 28 high-value fixed deposit accounts were opened in different nationalised banks in Calcutta, Port Blair and Chennai on a single day in January 1997.


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