Samata smells Sangh trap
Vajpayee clears air on Pak talks
CM denies starvation
6 killed in Naxalite bandh strikes
Cash crunch compounds Jaya woes
DD banks on outsiders, old hits
Trinamul bandh threat
TV-rating leak forces revamp
VP predicts post-poll NDA flare-up
Dent in Atish base

New Delhi, Sept. 6: 
George Fernandes may have found a forum in in the Swadeshi Jagran Manch to keep himself in the media spotlight, but his Samata Party colleagues apparently smelt a deeper game when the Manch invited him to a seminar against the Centre’s labour reform proposals yesterday.

National Democratic Alliance sources said the move was designed to “drive a wedge” between Fernandes and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to pre-empt their axis from becoming stronger. “Fernandes has unknowingly fallen into the RSS’ trap,” said a well-placed source.

Yesterday’s meeting may have fetched Fernandes several rounds of applause from the RSS whenever he rubbished the Montek Singh Ahluwalia task force report on labour reforms. But he could also have ended up sowing the first “seeds of suspicion” in Vajpayee’s mind about his intentions, the source added.

The source said Fernandes was sounded out on his participation by RSS joint general secretary Madan Das Devi, the main interface between the Sangh and the Centre. Sangh sources confirmed that Devi spoke to him on August 30. After Fernandes consented, a formal invitation was sent.

Fernandes had attended SJM meetings and exhibitions in 1998 when he was defence minister. But, the source said, his decision to participate in yesterday’s seminar assumes special significance for a number of reasons.

As NDA convener, Fernandes has a special place in Vajpayee’s scheme of things, though he is no longer a minister. And because Fernandes is reportedly chafing under the loss of his ministership, the association with the swadeshi lobby has caused disquiet in the government.

“It is well known that as far as Vajpayee is concerned, the swadeshi group is a red rag. In fact, these activists constitute the Sangh’s official rebels and they have criticised the government’s economic policies in the past. Because the Prime Minister is so sensitive about the SJM, Fernandes, perhaps, should not have accepted the invitation,” the NDA source said. Indeed, other invitees from the Samata Party did not attend the seminar for this reason.

Vajpayee and Fernandes enjoy a special equation. The Samata leader had proved to be a trusted and effective trouble-shooter on a wide range of missions. Whether it involved ADMK chief Jayalalitha or Samata smells Sangh trap Sena boss Bal Thackeray, he had emerged as a shield for the Prime Minister against the pulls and pressures from within the BJP and the RSS.

Fernandes’ status as Vajpayee’s prime confidant has also enhanced his position within the NDA and almost made him the fulcrum of a parallel power-centre within the coalition.

The NDA also seems to be unhappy with what sources described as the BJP’s “systematic attempts to neutralise or finish off” socialist leaders. The source said the delegation of less weighty ministries to Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav in the latest Cabinet shuffle was done with “specific” motives.

“Paswan was sidelined because the BJP is talking to (Bahujan Samaj Party leader) Mayavati about a post-poll alliance in Uttar Pradesh. And Paswan could not have been cut to size without meting out a similar treatment to Yadav. Otherwise, the move would have looked too blatant,” the source explained.


New Delhi, Sept. 6: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today said India would continue the dialogue it had started with Pakistan in Agra, in what seemed like an effort to clear the air after a series of accusations and counter-accusations between Delhi and Islamabad.

Vajpayee is slated to pick up the threads of the Agra summit during his scheduled meeting with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 25.

Vajpayee’s statement came a day after Indian high commissioner Vijay Nambiar told foreign secretary Inamul Haq that recent statements from his country had given the impression that Islamabad was not interested in a “productive dialogue” because they were apparently designed to “provoke” rather than facilitate talks.

After Nambiar’s blunt words yesterday, it almost appeared as though the New York meeting might not take place.

Nambiar was reportedly asked to raise these questions with Islamabad following a meeting which took place yesterday between external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, national security adviser Brajesh Mishra and Vajpayee. On Tuesday, minister of state for external affairs Omar Abdullah had also articulated his reservations about the New York meeting.

Today, it appeared as though the Prime Minister had a re-think on his stand vis-ŕ-vis Pakistan and had decided to temper his rhetoric that had become markedly strident when he addressed party members or Parliament.

Addressing the ongoing conference of state police chiefs, intelligence agencies and Central police organisations, Vajpayee said: “Our efforts have not yielded the desired results so far. Yet, a definite step has been taken in the quest for peace. We will continue the process set in motion in Agra.”

Vajpayee referred to the ceasefire on the Indo-Pakistan border and said that for six months the Centre had asked security forces to keep away from combat operations against militants. “We did so in the hope that good sense would prevail among the various terrorist groups and their mentors to begin meaningful dialogue for peace in the area,” he said.

The Prime Minister expressed hope that “dialogue alone can build mutual trust and understanding and help us arrive at a negotiated settlement over various outstanding bilateral issues, including Kashmir”.

Vajpayee’s tone on insurgency in the Northeast was as conciliatory. He said the National Democratic Alliance government was committed to usher in a “new era of peace, normalcy and all-round development in a region suffering from decades of insurgency”. He also made it clear that while hammering out a solution with the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim(Isak-Muivah), the territorial boundaries of the states bordering Nagaland will not be redrawn.

“We are trying to institutionalise the peace efforts initiated earlier with the principal Naga militant group, the NSCN(I-M). We hope to achieve concrete results without adversely affecting the interests and endangering territorial integrity of other states,” he said.


Bhubaneswar, Sept. 6: 
Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik today stuck to his ground, denying starvation deaths in Kashipur after his visit to the tribal village. He said 20 people who died between July 27 and August 20 succumbed to food poisoning and “other diseases”.

The chief minister said the final medical report given by a team of doctors from the MKCG Medical College in Berhampur had established that food poisoning was the cause of the tragedy in most cases.

He denied reports which claimed that he had admitted to starvation deaths in Kashipur. “I have not told anybody from either the print or electronic media that starvation deaths have taken place in Kashipur,” Patnaik said at a news conference after his visit to Kashipur.

“Food taken from common sources was the possible mode of transmission. In all the three incidents that occurred in Panasguda, Bilamal and Pitajodi villages, the food items found in the bodies were mango kernel or ragi,” said the medical report, which was submitted to the government yesterday.

The doctors had conducted a number of tests, including histopathological, microbiological and blood analysis, before arriving at the conclusion, health secretary Meena Gupta said.

Patnaik, who visited Bilamal and Panasguda, said the victims had lifted their quota of PDS rice.

“It is true that the area is extremely poor and deprived. Kashipur is one of the poorest areas in the poorest state of India. These areas have been neglected in the past. But the PDS system is working well in Kashipur. My government would continue to do the good work done in these areas,” he said, adding that more than 64,500 of the 1.2 lakh people in the block had been covered under various social security schemes.

The government, in association with Unicef, has started a health awareness campaign in over 400 villages, he said, reeling out statistics of several programmes undertaken by him.

The chief minister said the tribals store mango kernel and ragi for consumption. “In these cases, the ragi and mango kernel meals had developed fungus and, therefore, proved fatal,” he said.


Ranchi, Sept. 6: 
The Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) struck hard on the second day of its 72-hour statewide bandh, killing at least six persons and injuring over a dozen in different parts of Jharkhand today.

Panic gripped the 10 extremist-infested districts of the state after reports that the underground outfit had planted landmines on the Palamau-Ranchi highway. Reports reaching here from Latehar said six persons, including two policemen, a Christian priest and a nun, were killed when the Naxalites opened indiscriminate fire on a police patrol. The body of the nun is yet to be recovered, R.C. Kaithal, IG (Operations), said.

Police sources said the priest and the nun, travelling in a Tata Indica, were caught in the crossfire between Manika and Latehar, around 80 km from the capital. The priest has been identified as J.B. Cresta from Asanabad mission in Sonepat (Haryana).

A senior police official said among those killed was a villager, Prem Singh. Till last reports, the exchange of fire was continuing. Six persons injured in the incident were rushed to the Rajendra Medical College and Hospital in the capital.

The two police personnel killed were identified as Dasai Paswan, a CRPF jawan, and Wajan Murmu. Reports reaching here said such was the panic spread by the extremist outfit that even senior police officials fled the spot.

Officials said “hit squads” of the MCC, which had spread out in different parts of the state following the bandh call, had carried out the killings and the attacks. They added that the Naxalites conducted the “operations” with highly sophisticated weapons, including self-loading rifles, and even lobbed hand grenades at the police.

In a related incident in Basai village of Gumla district, six manual labourers, returning from work in a truck, were injured when suspected MCC men opened fire on the vehicle.

Sources said chaos prevailed at the Latehar government hospital as there were few doctors. The injured were being attended by the lone doctor on duty. The district authorities requisitioned the services of private practitioners.

Earlier reports said the militants planted landmines along the Latehar-Ranchi highway triggering panic in Palamau, Latehar and adjoining districts. The extremists set ablaze a truck near Sisai police station in Gumla district.

The outfit has put its strongholds in Jharkhand and Bihar under the purview of the bandh, called to protest the Bara massacre in Gaya.


Chennai, Sept. 6: 
A money crunch seems to have compounded Tamil Nadu’s political uncertainty even as the Supreme Court continued to pose uncomfortable questions on the government’s future while hearing petitions challenging Jayalalitha’s appointment as chief minister.

Speculation on Jayalalitha’s possible step-down has added to the confusion. Names of certain ADMK ministers, whom she is believed to have shortlisted to stand in for her in case of an adverse judgment, are doing the rounds in the corridors of Fort St George.

Among those whose names are being mentioned in ADMK circles are finance minister C. Ponnaiyan, education minister and former Lok Sabha deputy Speaker M. Thambidurai and tourism minister Saroja, who represents a scheduled tribe community. Bhaskaran, who’s related to Jayalalitha’s confidante Sasikala, is also being seen as a possible contender for the stop-gap arrangement. Though there is no threat to the ADMK government, the tension was palpable at the state secretariat today. There was also a sense of listlessness with Jayalalitha staying away for the second day running.

So, Ponnaiyan’s announcement of a cash-crunch couldn’t have come at a worse time. The finance minister said the government was having to run from pillar to post to mobilise Rs 500 crore so that the state could comply with the RBI norms on cash-credit limits to procure kuruvai (short-term) paddy from Cauvery delta farmers.

“Money is the real problem,” Ponnaiyan told the Assembly in response to a query by K.S. Mani, a former DMK minister. Mani had questioned the government’s delay in announcing the parallel procurement price for paddy and production incentives for farmers. These were to be decided at a Cabinet meeting last evening but the meeting got postponed.

Ponnaiyan said an “irregularity” had cropped up in the state’s cash-credit limit account. The state, he said, had drawn more money (for the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation to procure paddy from farmers in the previous samba paddy season) than the value of stocks held by it. The credit-limit, he added, had been exceeded by Rs 530 crore, over and above the Rs 350-crore-limit fixed by the Reserve Bank of India.

Ponnaiyan said finance secretary R. Santhanam had rushed to Mumbai a few days ago to convince RBI on the issue, as it was holding up the procurement of paddy harvested in the kuruvai season, which had put the farmers in distress. But the RBI top brass, he said, “rebuffed us with a big No” and wanted the Rs 500 crore to be paid back to regularise the cash-credit limit account.

The government, therefore, has approached the State Bank of India for a term loan of Rs 500 crore, Ponnaiyan said. Once this comes through, the money will be paid to SBI to regularise the state’s cash-credit limit account and bring it in line with the RBI norms, he added.

As these procedures will take a few days to be completed, “we decided to postpone the Cabinet meeting yesterday to September 10 when we will decide on the procurement price”, Ponnaiyan said.

The detailed explanation, sources said, was also an indirect way of scotching speculation that the Cabinet meeting was cancelled because of the apex court’s posers.


New Delhi, Sept. 6: 
At 5 in the evening in Mandi House, headquarters of Prasar Bharati, a crowd chokes the facilitation counter; clerks inside the glass-panelled cabin accept forms, record them on computer terminals and issue receipts. Within the hour, though, the crowd is dispersing.

Sitting on the sofas in the smallish lounge in front, two youths, graduates of film training institutes, speak on mobiles, informing their colleagues back in offices somewhere in the city or in Mumbai, Chennai or Calcutta that time is running out and there seems to be an unexpectedly large presence of wannabe producers. Opposite to them, on another sofa, a girl from a Delhi documentary-production firm is doing much the same.

Doordarshan, the public broadcasting behemoth with some 25,000 employees, sophisticated production and transmission facilities, has invited proposals from wannabe producers for its Metro channel. The deadline is just about coming to an end and young hopefuls from media companies put their files in order before leaving.

For days, many of them have prepared proposals — some want to do serials, some chat shows, some travel episodes — with great care, filling up forms, drafting synopses and generally trying to make their projects saleable. Most of them have been hard put to even mobilise the finances — DD is charging non-refundable processing fees of Rs 10,000 and Rs 25,000 per proposal.

The scene inside Mandi House today tells a story of distrust and lack of faith. Prasar Bharati cannot trust Doordarshan to utilise its own resources to the optimum and run its own channel and, therefore, keeps lowering its rates to attract private producers. Doordarshan cannot trust itself to do a decent job of producing and marketing its own programmes on a channel — terrestrial, not cable — that has a wider reach than most cable broadcasters and therefore keeps outsourcing.

“Doordarshan is reducing itself from a public service broadcaster to a mere transmission agency,” writes media critic N. Bhaskara Rao of the Centre for Media Studies.

More than 100 proposals have been received by Doordarshan for the Metro prime time (8 pm to 10.30 pm), mid prime time (7 pm to 8 pm and 10.30 pm to 11 pm) and ordinary slots. The public sector National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) on its own has submitted 20 proposals. Major production house Shri Adhikari Brothers wants to do four programmes.

There are 48 weekly slots vacant after HFCL-Nine is pushed out of Doordarshan Metro — Prasar Bharati has discontinued the arrangement — on September 10. Since the arrangement was terminated, DD Metro has sought to auction the time slots twice. Each time, the bids received were paltry, far below the expectations and certainly not comparable with the Rs 130-odd crore that HFCL-Nine had paid DD for the year it practically ran the Metro channel.

Failure after failure to engage private producers on a grand scale at the cost of its own infrastructure and employees has not discouraged Doordarshan from trying its hand again. Even after new producers are engaged, it will take them an average three months to ready their programmes and for Metro to air them. So, Doordarshan has fallen back on its “golden oldies” — serials like Buniyaad, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi and Chunni and Udaan that were hits when entertainment television was in its infancy will be re-aired starting September 11.


Calcutta, Sept. 6: 
The Trinamul Congress today threatened to organise a state bandh if there is even “a one-paise hike” in the electricity tariff charged by CESC.

Trinamul spokesman Pankaj Banerjee alleged that CESC owed about Rs 1,000 crore to the state. “We are warning in advance. If there is even a one-paise increase in the electricity charges by CESC, we will launch a continuous movement against it and we will not hesitate to call a state-wide bandh,” Banerjee said.

He said the party had no option but to launch an agitation in the interest of domestic consumers and small industries. The decision was taken by Trinamul chief Mamata Banerjee at a meeting of party MPs, MLAs, councillors and leaders from districts last night.

Criticising the state government for failing to realise its dues from CESC — accumulated over the years — Banerjee said it had further allowed the power utility to collect about Rs 1,000 crore from consumers in terms of cess.

“We fail to understand how the government allowed such an amount in dues to accumulate. Moreover, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has included CESC chief R.P. Goenka in his team of delegates to Japan,” he added.

Maintaining that CESC had enjoyed government patronage in the past, Banerjee said former power minister Sankar Sen had to resign when he tried to rein in CESC and realise the money it owed to the state electricity board.


Mumbai, Sept. 6: 
Two days after the leak of lists of TV-rating households, the agencies will revamp their panels of such homes.

“Our panel is being completely revamped,” said L.V. Krishnan of IMRB, which runs TAM, a rating agency. “In Chennai, too, in all probability, a similar leak has taken place today,” he added.

A senior executive suggested that a certain channel or a production house could be behind the leakage. Asok Das of INTAM, the ORG Marg agency whose TV-rating households were also made public, said its panel, too, would see an overhaul.

“There will be major changes. Many of the houses — may be all — will be dropped. But we can only come to a final decision after a thorough investigation,” said Das.


Meerut, Sept. 6: 
Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh today said the pent-up discontent among the BJP allies will become more pronounced after the Uttar Pradesh elections, culminating in a flare-up within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Singh said the BJP is proving to be a liability for the allies as the Vajpayee government has failed to deliver. The saffron party has become so unpopular that it will lose Uttar Pradesh and, later, Gujarat.

The Telugu Desam suffered due to its association with the BJP, performing dismally in the July panchayat elections. The DMK, too, had to stomach a setback because of its alliance with the BJP in Tamil Nadu in May, he said.

Singh, who underwent check-up at AIIMS this morning, drove to this western Uttar Pradesh town to commiserate with farmers from 55 villages, whose land has been taken over by the Meerut Development Authority, without adequate compensation, to set up industrial units. Reeling under acute power shortage and the effects of the economic slowdown, the gathered farmers were an agitated lot. But they burst into thunderous applause as Singh turned on his charm, assuring them that he would fight till his last breath for their cause.

The former Prime Minister will be campaigning for the People’s Front, consisting of the Samajwadi Party, the CPM, the CPI and the Janata Dal (Secular).

Talking to The Telegraph, Singh said the BJP’s defeat is a certainty as its governments, both in the state and at the Centre, have proved to be the worst since Independence.

Singh said a farmers’ rally will be held in Delhi on November 6 to mobilise support against the WTO agreement. Farmers’ bodies, political parties and all those opposed to the WTO would be invited.

Asked if the BJP-led government will play the Ram Mandir card again, Singh said it would be “ludicrous and naive” on the part of the BJP. “Can they solve the power crisis with mandir? Can they solve the farmers’ problems with Ayodhya?”

Singh was equally critical of the move to saffronise education and said instead of wasting public money on astrology, the government should spend the funds on “astronomy”.

“I am not opposed to the WTO per se. But I am against those clauses which hurt us. The country is told nothing about what the government is doing on the WTO. The government should have obtained Parliament’s permission before giving an important commitment. Not a single meeting was called on the WTO,” he complained.

He cited how even Bill Clinton could not get his way on CTBT as the Congress opposed his move. He said nobody knows what will be the government’s stand on the review of the WTO.

Singh was pleased that West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had filed a public interest litigation on the WTO issue. “I congratulate him,” he said, adding that other states should follow suit because agriculture is a state subject.

The Raja of Manda said the Vajpayee government was trying to discuss economic issues as it wanted to divert attention “because they have no answers”.

The Mandal messiah was also critical of the Congress for its inactivity. “Not only do we need an effective alternative government, we also need an effective alternative Opposition,” he quipped, saying that even he, with his fragile health, was picking up sundry issues to put the BJP in the dock.


Berhampore, Sept. 6: 
Congress legislature party leader Atish Sinha’s hold over the party has been weakening since he was replaced as Murshidabad district party president by Congress MP from Berhampore Adhir Chowdhury.

The MP has already removed Sinha’s close associates, legislators Abu Hena, Mayarani Pal and Humayun Reja, from the district committee and inducted his own men, Swapan Goswami, Bani Israel and Shyamal Roy, to the posts. Mrinmay Roy, one of Chowdhury’s trusted lieutenants, has been named as the district Congress treasurer.

However, Sinha, who hails from Kandi, says he had decided to quit the party president’s post because of his preoccupations as CLP leader left him very little time to devote to district matters.

A 19-member district Congress committee was formed today at a meeting chaired by Chowdhury at the district party headquarters here. The names have been sent to the PCC for its approval.

Chowdhury has accommodated in the district committee Mohammad Sohrab of Suti, Debashis Chatterjee of Bharatpur and Mannan Hussain of Murshidabad who had contested the last Assembly polls as “independent candidates” against Trinamul Congress nominees, against the PCC’s wish. They have been given charges of the Jangipur, Kandi and Domkol sub-divisional committees. The Lalbag and Berhampore sub-divisional committees have gone to Shyamal Roy and Bani Israel.


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