BJP puts Delhi before Manipur
Party keeps punished Panja in bear-hug
No. 17 goes to new No. 2
Calcutta grid electrifies business
Allies can’t digest Atal’s grain plan
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, May 21: 
George Fernandes, one of the oldest and most reliable allies of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, tonight brought the BJP down on its knees after political skullduggery dislodged the country’s sole Samata Party-led government in Manipur.

Samata, which threatened to pull out its ministers from the Centre, extracted an assurance from the BJP that it would not stake claim to form a government in Manipur. The BJP also said it would take “appropriate action” against its legislators who voted out the Manipur government.

The Manipur coalition government, headed by Radhabinod Koijam, was overthrown during the day after 24 of the 26 BJP legislators voted against a confidence motion. The Koijam government could manage only 17 votes in the House with an effective strength of 59.

The BJP had yesterday assured Samata that a whip would be issued, but confusion prevailed in Imphal today whether a “formal, three-line” order was issued. A livid Samata, which insisted that the BJP had not issued a whip and termed it a betrayal, struck back as soon as the result of the trust vote was declared.

The party threatened to not only withdraw from the coalition at the Centre but also pull out its ministers from the BJP-led government in Jharkhand.

Fernandes, who is the convener of the coalition at the Centre, turned up the heat on Vajpayee by boycotting a meeting of the alliance partners in the evening. Vajpayee rushed two emissaries, PMO joint secretary Sudheendra Kulkarni and Delhi MP Vijay Goel, to turn Fernandes around.

Meeting him at the venue of the Samata national executive convened to review the support to the Centre, the duo urged Fernandes to attend the meeting at the Prime Minister’s house.

The emissaries tried to buy peace with the promise that the BJP would not stake claim to form the Manipur government despite being the single largest party. But Fernandes — once Vajpayee’s first choice in leading such firefighting missions to Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee — turned them away.

The coalition partners eventually met without their convener and spent an hour discussing how to pacify him. The original objective of the meeting was to discuss the post-poll scenario.

Briefing journalists later, Jaswant Singh, Fernandes’ successor in the defence ministry, said: “Nobody from the BJP will be a contender for the chief minister’s post in Manipur and action will be taken against those who did not comply with the whip.”

Singh asserted that the standoff would not undermine the stability of the Centre. “It is an internal matter,” he said, emphasising that Fernandes would continue as the coalition convener.

Singh said the Manipur crisis was not inspired by the BJP but arose out of “an acute sense of aggrievement born of extreme factionalism in the Manipur legislature parties”. He did not rule out the possibility of President’s rule in the state.

Armed with these assurances, Fernandes is likely to meet the Prime Minister. The Samata national executive has authorised him to take any decision on ties with the Centre. No time frame was set for taking a decision.

Asked what action would be taken against the errant BJP MLAs, Singh said party president K. Jana Krishnamurthi would decide after he returns from the central office-bearers meeting in Mussourie.

But Samata sources were sceptical of the BJP’s ability to act against its Manipur unit as an overwhelming majority of the legislators had dumped Koijam. The 24 “errant” BJP legislators included not only the 18 who defected recently to the party but also four of its original members.

Before the NDA met in Delhi, the BJP legislature party leader in Manipur, R.K. Dorendra Singh, who abstained during the trust vote, had declared that he would stake claim to prevent the possibility of President’s rule.

Although Samata is prepared to give the BJP another chance, it said it would be forced to contemplate drastic action if the party reneges on its assurance. In today’s meeting, two Jharkhand ministers, Ramachandra Kesri and Ramesh Singh Munda, said they were ready to quit any time.

Manipur Samata leaders charged Union home minister L.K. Advani and former BJP president Kushabhau Thakre with “instigating” the party MLAs.

Political observers believe that today’s crisis was not just a tug-of-war between the BJP and Samata for controlling a state far removed from Delhi. It was designed at “clipping” Fernandes’ wings post-Tehelka, and pre-empting his return to the Centre in case he was cleared by the Venkataswamy commission probing the Tehelka disclosures.


Calcutta, May 21: 
The Trinamul Congress today removed Ajit Panja as chairman of the party’s West Bengal state committee, but allowed him to “continue” as an ordinary member.

Trinamul, which took the action after a meeting of its MPs at Mamata Banerjee’s house, charged Panja with “anti-party activities” and dropped him from the working committee. “Panja will simply continue as one of the ordinary members in the organisation,” Trinamul spokesman and MP Sudip Bandopadhyay said.

The party’s move to retain Panja as a member is being seen as an attempt to keep him within the scope of the anti-defection law and deny him an opportunity to join the Vajpayee government. Panja had called on the Prime Minister in Delhi on Saturday.

An agitated Panja tonight described the disciplinary action as “unconstitutional, illegal and whimsical”. “I am still the chairman of the party and will not step down, come what may,” he added.

“The removal is a unanimous decision of the working committee meeting, attended by all party MPs, except Panja and Nitish Sengupta. As Sengupta’s wife is seriously ill, he could not attend the meeting,” Sudip said.

Trinamul leaders said the decision was taken at the two-and-a-half-hour meeting. Though Mamata was present, Krishna Bose presided over the meeting. The flashpoint for cracking the whip was a letter Panja sent during the day to party MPs and other functionaries criticising Mamata.

Those present at the penalty session, including Panja’s brother Ranjit Panja, were vocal against the letter in which the dissident took strong exception to the manner in which the North-East Trinamul Youth Congress committee had been dissolved without his consent. Panja also demanded that Mamata withdraw her statements against chief election commissioner M.S. Gill and chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

Panja argued that the letter he had received from party general secretary Dinesh Trivedi on May 18 inviting him to attend today’s “emergency” meeting did not mention his recent acts and remarks. “So, if these were not on the agenda of the meeting, my removal does not stand,” he added.

Convinced that Mamata was instrumental in his removal, Panja dubbed her “a whimsical and erratic dictator”. “Morally, people have already removed Mamata from the post of the party’s chairperson as they have voted against her,” he added.

He also slammed Sudip. “Sudip was absconding soon after the elections and now he has reappeared on the scene. I feel a warrant of arrest should have been issued against him,” Panja said.

He said the party should have issued a notice to him before taking action. “This removal is illegal,” he added. However, Trinamul leaders claimed that the party was forced to punish Panja by irate legislators. “Ajitda has no right to criticise Mamata. As the partymen kept demanding Panja’s removal from the post of chairman, Mamata gave in and left the matter to those present,” said a Trinamul leader.


Calcutta, May 21: 
What’s in a room? Plenty, if it’s Room No. 17 on the first floor of Writers’ Buildings.

The new Left Front ministry’s first full working day at Writers’ did not go without its share of big drama — drama which Bengal’s seat of governance does not get to see often.

The main props in the drama were several of Writers’ rooms. The biggest prop was room 17. It had been Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s room when he was Jyoti Basu’s deputy. So, it had acquired a symbolic No. 2 stamp which, some ministers felt, would rub off on to them if they worked from there. The room is also immediately next to the chief minister’s and, therefore, the No. 2 status for the occupant has a physical sanction as well, say Writers’ officials.

The room, according to the PWD list, was to have been reserved for conferences. But its “symbolic” import and physical proximity to the throne triggered a tug-of-war over the room between three ministers. Though none of the three — Nirupam Sen, Suryakanta Mishra or Asim Dasgupta — came in view, the fight, through their departmental officials, was definitely on, say sources.

Ultimately, Sen, like in other battles fought in the recent past, came out on top. A computer printout of his name was hastily taken out and, by 10.45 am, the room was officially his as he shifted from room 31, which he had been earlier allotted. But it was a hard-fought battle; it needed a meeting between Sen and the chief minister himself.

But the man who bore the brunt of the battle, Bansagopal Choudhury, was smiling. Allotted a second-floor room, Choudhury shifted post-haste to “his own” room, No. 31, on the first floor as soon as Sen vacated it. It used to be his room during the Left Front’s fifth term.

But the person jointly in charge of ministers’ rooms at Writers’, PWD minister of state Dasharath Tirkey, does not yet have a place to stay in the city.

What will be his Calcutta home, at the Karaya Government Housing Estate, is yet to be readied and he has had to put up at the State Guest House.

Tirkey leaves the city on Tuesday for his Kumargram home in Jalpaiguri, unable to bear the “confusion”, as he put it. He will come back to Calcutta a week later by when, he hopes, his Calcutta-residence blues will go away.

Tirkey’s fate was reflected in the allotment of rooms to ministers at Writers’. Several ministers spent quite some time shuttling between rooms they had supposed were theirs and rooms which were actually theirs.

Mohammad Salim did not know which was to be his room till late in the afternoon.


New Delhi, May 21: 
A business delegation’s visit to the CPM state headquarters on Alimuddin Street on Sunday may have raised eyebrows, but for industry it is par for the course.

The interest aroused in business circles by the meeting, however, has less to do with its venue and much more to do with the possibility of what is coming to be called the “Calcutta grid” — a loose, amorphous network of political and business decision-makers who suddenly find themselves in a position to leverage their clout to improve the investment climate in Bengal.

“We do any number of meetings with any number of politicians in political party offices in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai or in any other place — why should anybody look askance at that,” wondered a senior official of the Confederation of Indian Industry. CII chief Sanjiv Goenka and its director-general, Tarun Das, were on the team that met chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Das had yesterday described the meeting as “unprecedented”. Even the other apex chambers of commerce — Ficci and Assocham — are not surprised that the CPM should have welcomed a business team to its party office.

“It’s a non-issue,” says Jayant Bhuyan, Assocham secretary-general. “If, say, Sonia Gandhi meets industry leaders at 10 Janpath or in the Congress office, there is nothing unusual about it.” Assocham has put in a request for a meeting with Bhattacharjee through its constituent, the Bengal Chamber of Commerce.

“It makes little sense to play politics with the venue of the meeting. You do not argue with a chief minister on such things. It was a Sunday and if he had to open Writers’ Buildings to meet an industry delegation, even that would have been turned into an issue. Either way, he would have been at the receiving end,” said a CII official.

Given the CII’s clout and reach, Bhattacharjee’s goodwill — and the delegation found him “very positive” — can help channel investment into Bengal. One of the suggestions the CII is understood to have made to the chief minister was to encourage a pro-active bureaucracy that should compete with counterparts in Andhra, Karnataka and Maharashtra to reach out and lure investors.

This is where the “Calcutta grid” can help. The three apex chambers of commerce are headed by businessmen and professionals who have deep roots in Calcutta.

Goenka took over as president of the CII last month. Tarun Das is an alumnus of St. Xavier’s College. Amit Mitra, the secretary-general of Ficci, is from Presidency College. Raghu Mody, head of Assocham, is a Calcutta-based industrialist. Together with Harshvardhan Neotia, who now heads the CII, eastern region, these men form an influential business group.

Since the dismantling of the old economic regime, industry leaders have done away with inhibitions when it comes to meeting politicians. In Calcutta, even as the results of the Assembly elections were being announced, Neotia and Shishir Bajoria were in the Alimuddin Street office congratulating the CPM’s winning candidates.

Ficci, too, has been in close touch with Bhattacharjee since he took over as chief minister for the first time. S.K. Birla was a member of the Ficci delegation that had met Bhattacharjee shortly after he had taken over.

Leading lights of Ficci are out of the country and are likely to ask for an appointment with Bhattacharjee after their return around June 12, said a spokesman.

Among the apex industry organisations, the CII is the most aggressive and does not fight shy of admitting that it seeks to influence politicians to its way of thinking. It regularly organises meetings at its headquarters with politicians and makes elaborate presentations on the national and international economic environment and new policies that should be framed.

Topping the CII’s agenda is its work to thrash out a political consensus on economic reform.

Despite the personal contacts Bhattacharjee might enjoy with these personalities, there are policies the CPM will continue to pursue that industry will be wary of. Bhattacharjee, personally, and his party are against policies they perceive are dictated by the WTO regime.


New Delhi, May 21: 
The squabbling within the National Democratic Alliance today spilled out into the open at a meeting of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee with chief ministers on stopping Central purchase of foodgrain from farmers.

Parkash Singh Badal and Om Prakash Chautala, BJP allies and chief ministers of Punjab and Haryana, denounced Vajpayee’s plan to ask states to buy their own wheat and rice for sale through the public distribution system. Other NDA chief ministers, including Andhra’s Chandrababu Naidu, joined the protest.

Vajpayee did not push the proposal and had to be content with announcing a committee of chief ministers to “examine the possibility of decentralisation and efficiency of the current system”.

The climbdown came after a humbling tirade by key allies. When Vajpayee pleaded that the price of buying and storing grain was “unacceptably high”, Chautala bluntly said: “Any decision to do away with Central procurement would go against us.”

The Centre has long been complaining that it cannot buy any more grain as its silos are bursting at the seams. It has stock valued at nearly Rs 60,000 crore.

Earlier this year, the government announced a new system, which would let states buy their own grain with fixed subsidy from the Centre. Today’s meeting was to stamp a seal of approval on the policy, which could have sent grain prices tumbling. Asim Dasgupta of Bengal advocated continuation of the current policy.




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