Enter Musharraf, exit ceasefire
Brajesh stays, in both posts
Scam grounds Air-India maharaja
Engine in India, track leads to England
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, May 23: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today sprung a surprise by inviting Pakistan’s chief executive Pervez Musharraf to Delhi for talks to settle outstanding issues, including Kashmir.

The decision came hand in hand with the announcement of withdrawing the six-month ceasefire in Kashmir.

“A gratifying feature of these last six months has been relative peace along the Line of Control on account of restraint exercised by both sides,” a statement issued by the government said.

“There has been also considerable lowering of cross-LoC exchange of fire. In this regard, the government has decided it will continue to observe maximum restraint as hitherto,” it added.

Vajpayee’s bold initiative in inviting Musharraf to Delhi is cleverly balanced with his decision to call off the ceasefire. India had maintained that it would not return to the talks table with Pakistan unless Islamabad “created the right atmosphere” by withdrawing its support to terrorists who were launching their battle against India from Pakistani soil.

Calling off the ceasefire will help in taking care of possible adverse domestic reaction to the decision to invite Musharraf as it will indicate that the government is giving a free hand to the security forces to tackle militancy. There has been growing pressure from the Sangh parivar and BJP hardliners who felt that the ceasefire was blunting counter-terrorism operations.

After an hour-long meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security, chaired by Vajpayee, foreign and defence minister Jaswant Singh said: “In pursuance of the Lahore Declaration and the Simla Agreement, Prime Minister Vajpayee has decided to invite General Musharraf to visit India at his early convenience. A formal invitation will be delivered shortly.”

Singh said the stalled eight-point agenda “can be the starting point” for talks with Musharraf. “The composite dialogue agenda provides the framework for talks,” he said. Singh was not prepared to say whether Kashmir could form part of the proposed discussions, but the agenda he spoke of contains the issue.

Vajpayee’s last peace initiative in February 1999, when he rode the peace bus to Lahore, ended in disaster as within months the Kargil war broke out. The bus was in the news today, too, when passengers escaped unhurt after it careened out of control in Punjab.

After the Kargil conflict, India began to argue that it will not be able to resume dialogue with Pakistan unless Islamabad makes its intentions about peace clear. The fact that the Nawaz Sharif government was overthrown in the next few months and replaced by Musharraf’s regime — the man Delhi blames for the misery in Kargil — only strengthened India’s argument.

While this had gone down well with the international community, over the past few months key world players have become a little restive at what many have been describing in private as India’s obduracy. The diplomat in Vajpayee realised that the outside world wanted India to show much more flexibility. The politician in him used it at a time when the ruling coalition looks increasingly besieged from within.

By breaking the ceasefire in Kashmir, Vajpayee is signalling that he is not going soft or making any compromises on the nation’s unity and integrity.

The basis for calling off the ceasefire is the assessment that, over the past six months, militant groups neither saw reason, nor recognised the imperatives of peace, dialogue and cooperation and continued with the violence.

“This phase, therefore, is now over. These terrorist groups have hindered the restoration of peace.... Hereafter, security forces shall take such action against terrorists as they judge best. They will, in the process, continue to exercise maximum care that no harassment is caused to civilians,” the government statement said.

But the government said the “dialogue process initiated by the Prime Minister under (Planning Commission deputy chairman) K.C. Pant shall continue unhindered”. Singh again invited “all sections in Jammu and Kashmir to join the dialogue”, but was non-committal when asked whether the government would allow the All-Party Hurriyat Conference to visit Islamabad. The invitation to Musharraf now takes centre-stage, rendering the Hurriyat’s insistence on being allowed to visit Pakistan a non-issue.

Hurriyat chairman Abdul Gani Bhat ridiculed the ceasefire withdrawal, saying none “ever existed on the ground”, but struck a more positive note on the invitation to Musharraf. “This is a big change which will lead to some change,” he said in Srinagar.


New Delhi, May 23: 
Setting at rest speculation raging for months, the government today announced that the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, will also continue to hold the post of the national security adviser till the new National Security Council (NSC) is firmly in place.

“The NSC is still in a formative stage. The Prime Minister is in charge of NSC and it is best at this stage that the principal secretary continues as the NSA,” defence minister Jaswant Singh said after the 135-page report of the group of ministers on national security was released. When the NSC becomes fully functional, the two posts would be segregated, Singh said.

A decision on the appointment of the chief of defence staff to serve as a single-point military adviser to the government on strategic forces will be “taken soon” after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee holds consultations with various political parties, home minister L.K. Advani said after releasing the report.

The decision to allow Mishra to continue as the NSA, even if temporarily, is a double-edged one: it staves off the pressure from the Sangh for his head, and gives Vajpayee enough ground to justify Mishra’s continuance as his principal secretary, a post more important from his viewpoint. The RSS has demanded Mishra’s exit from the Prime Minister’s Office on the argument that he was “incompetent” and that he was not an elected representative of the people and, therefore, not “sufficiently accountable”.

But BJP sources said Mishra’s job as NSA would be a “token” one, given that Advani and K.C. Pant, the adviser on Kashmir, have virtually taken over the handling of the state. The decision to call off the ceasefire itself, said sources, was an indication of which way the “wind was blowing”.

They said the “moderate” approach advocated by the Vajpayee-Mishra combine had ceased to work and, henceforth, Sangh hardliners were expected to play a “crucial” role in shaping the Kashmir policy.

At various news conferences, including some addressed by the sarsanghchalak, K.S. Sudarshan, the Sangh has dropped enough hints that Mishra and N.K. Singh should go. Singh went and it was expected that after his departure the hardliners would be silenced. Pant’s appointment as Kashmir adviser was a signal that Mishra’s clout was diminishing.


New Delhi, May 23: 
Air-India managing director Michael P. Mascarenhas was today suspended and his deputy J.N. Gogoi asked to take over the job.

Mascarenhas, who has long been under a cloud over a slew of deals, has been suspended on the basis of a vigilance report which indicts him for favouring Air-India’s former general sales agent in the United Kingdom, Welcome Travels, with larger than permitted commissions in the form of incentives.

An internal note says the report has found a “conspiracy to unduly favour Welcome Travels” and “there is a genuine apprehension of tampering with documents. As such, it was also decided that Mascarenhas and P.K. Sinha, regional director, India, be placed under suspension.”

The Air-India chief is being accused of having paid Welcome Travels £725,000 beyond what the company was supposed to receive. Not only was this firm paid undue commissions termed productivity-linked incentives over and above the normal rates, it also took incentive cuts on tickets sold by Air-India’s own offices in the London sector.

Incentives were negotiated without permission from the airline’s board of directors and were being paid on gross, and not net, revenues as contracted, civil aviation ministry officials said.

They claimed that the orders had been issued today after the charges were confirmed by three sets of reports — prepared by M.B. Sagar, acting chief vigilance officer, the comptroller and auditor general of India and by V.K. Verma, Air-India’s director, corporate affairs.

Mascarenhas had earlier come under a cloud over an aircraft wet-lease (hired with crew) deal he had signed with an unknown company called Caribjet which tipped the country’s national carrier into the red.

Air-India ran up a Rs 321-crore loss during a three-year period by flying wet-leased planes, rented on terms loaded in favour of leasing companies.

A special audit probe conducted by the government had revealed that “wet-lease losses have constituted over 45 per cent of total losses run up by the national carrier between fiscal years 1994-1995 and 1997-1998”.

The report said the cost of the first wet-lease deal signed by Air-India with Caribjet for two Airbus-310s in November 1994 was jacked up by the airline’s then commercial director, Michael Mascarenhas, by $157 per block hour which worked out to a total additional payout of Rs 3.37 crore.

This was also done by the airline management without reference to the board. The total rent eventually worked out to $1.72 million a plane a month, which was higher than the $1.62 million quoted by a rival bidder that was rejected.

No action was taken against Mascarenhas on the basis of this report despite the fact that the charges were far more serious and the losses ran far higher than those for which he has now been suspended.


London, May 23: 
India is effectively blamed for being the centre of corruption in world cricket although the malaise may have started in a small way in the county game in England, says a 75-page report into match-fixing commissioned by the International Cricket Conference.

Published today by Sir Paul Condon, former head of Scotland Yard and director of the ICC’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), the interim report states: “In many ways the Indian betting industry has been the engine room which has powered and driven cricket corruption.”

He makes it clear that the job of tackling corruption has to be shared and not left mainly to India. “The work of my unit has shown that it would be wrong to leave the analysis at this statement for we are or will be carrying out investigations which embrace most of the full member countries of the International Cricket Council. The blame for the spread of cricket corruption is a shared responsibility and must not be unfairly laid upon the Indian sub-continent.”

“The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Indian government have courageously acknowledged the role which the unlawful betting industry in India has played... and see resumption of international matches against Pakistan in 1978 as being a key stimulant for raising interest in betting on cricket,” he said, stressing that betting mushroomed during the 1980s and 1990s with the proliferation of televised one-day matches.

Reacting to the report in Lahore, Indian cricket chief A.C. Muthiah said: “We were the ones who first initiated inquiries into corruption and then banned cricketers who were found guilty of match-fixing.”

The report almost vindicated India’s stand against sending its team to non-regular venues, saying: “This relaxed (security) regime was particularly relevant at neutral venues where none of the participating teams was on home territory... Corrupt practices took place under the cover of the carnival atmosphere at some of these events.”

Although Sir Paul has not named and shamed players, it was confirmed today that acting England captain Alec Stewart, one of the most respected figures in the side, is to be formally questioned by the ACU.

It has been alleged that Stewart received £5,000 from bookmaker M.K. Gupta for providing pitch, weather and team information during England’s 1993 tour of India. The allegation, denied by Stewart, surfaced last year when he was touring Pakistan.

As far as the English Cricket Board was concerned, Stewart had no case to answer. “I spoke to Alec when these allegations came up, along with Tim Lamb and David Graveney (senior ECB officials), and he answered our questions absolutely clearly,” said board chief Lord MacLaurin.

But he made it clear that any England player found guilty of involvement in match-fixing could expect a life ban.

Responding to the interim report of the ACU, which has been in operation for seven months, BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew said: “This report makes shattering reading for anyone who loves cricket. Sir Paul Condon suggests that matches were being rigged long before that (the perceived corrupt period of 10 years) in the comfortable, traditional world of county cricket.”

Agnew added: “Whatever Gupta’s motives or qualities, much of what he has told investigators has turned out to be true. And it seems amazing that six months have passed since Stewart’s name was linked to the allegations of receiving cash for information, which he refutes, and nothing has been done. It is a sorry tale, indeed.”

ICC president Malcolm Gray accepted criticism from his own Anti-Corruption Unit that the ICC had been slow to deal with the scourge of match-fixing. “The ICC and all the national boards... were slow to react. They didn’t realise how deep and wide this problem was. They didn’t act strongly enough, or robustly enough or quickly enough,” Gray told BBC.

Sir Paul’s report says the disease has been checked but not eradicated. “Corruption continues to happen and the potential for corruption in cricket remains a real threat.”

He adds: “There are indications that some players and others are still acting dishonestly and to the orders of bookmakers. Allegations have been made in relation to matches played in the ICC Knockout tournament in Nairobi in October 2000 and more recently in relation to the New Zealand v Pakistan series in 2001.”

It says self-declaration forms submitted by players and cricket officials have given him sufficient grounds to investigate five individuals. There are many startling allegations.

“I have spoken to people who have been threatened and others who have alleged a murder and a kidnapping linked to cricket corruption.”

Sir Paul says he has uncovered a conspiracy of silence. “Players did not want to be branded an informant and risk being ostracised by team mates. There was the justified fear that ‘whistleblowers’ would be penalised rather than supported.”




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