Atal reaches a dead-end on Ayodhya
Minister spots plague symptoms
Pakistan puts list of 20 beyond India’s reach
Woman power pulls Rajnath
Ursula dresses up a Swiss hardsell
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, Feb. 16: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today said he had failed to resolve the Ayodhya dispute and the only option left now was to wait for the court’s verdict.

Vajpayee’s statement at a news conference in Lucknow was directed as much at the minority community in Uttar Pradesh, which is in the middle of a crucial Assembly election, as at his allies in New Delhi who are firm that status quo should not be disturbed.

“My efforts have failed due to the unrelenting attitude of both parties and the only course left to resolve the imbroglio is to await the court verdict,” he said.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which has threatened to start temple construction if Vajpayee fails to settle the dispute by March 12, expressed surprise. “I have no knowledge where and how the talks have failed,” VHP president Ashok Singhal said.

VHP general secretary Acharya Giriraj Kishore thundered: “We will go to jail, struggle, but we will try to accomplish the work.” But BJP sources said there was “scope” for mediation and a crisis could be averted.

The Centre is drawing up a two-pronged strategy to stave off the Ayodhya crisis — buy time on the legal front and persuade VHP activists to court arrest “peacefully” instead of creating a law and order problem as in 1990 and 1992.

“No, no. This will not be allowed this time,” Vajpayee said when asked if there would be a repeat of the violence of December 6, 1992.

VHP activists could be allowed to transport a pillar or a stone carving readied for the temple to the “undisputed” site, perform a puja to symbolise the start of construction and then court arrest “peacefully”.

Vajpayee indicated that he was willing to concede the VHP’s demand to get the cases heard at the earliest. But he was non-committal on how soon the law ministry would say if the “undisputed” land could be handed over to the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas. “There is no time frame for settling the matter,” he said. Two more judges would have to be appointed to the Ayodhya bench, an indirect admission of seeking more time from the VHP, the Prime Minister said.

Official sources admitted that irrespective of whether there was a BJP or a non-BJP chief minister, the Centre could not watch silently if a law and order problem arose in Ayodhya. “The leaders could still prevail upon the VHP agitators to court arrest peacefully instead of forcing the police to lathicharge or open fire as in 1990,” said sources.

RSS sources said so far only four heavy pillars had been carved. These pillars would have to be transported by cranes to the temple site 3 km away. But, even RSS sources said the task could be “extremely daunting” because of the narrow alleys that would have to be negotiated.

Political observers believe that rather than throwing the gauntlet at the VHP, Vajpayee’s Lucknow statement was meant to consolidate his own position in the ruling alliance in the face of the Sangh’s temple campaign.

“It is meant as a reassurance to those NDA constituents who made it clear that they would not brook any activity on the temple front. The Telugu Desam is an important ally and its leaders have made it clear that if the VHP is allowed to disrupt status quo in Ayodhya, they would withdraw their support even without holding a formal meeting,” the sources said.

Vajpayee’s statements were also directed at the minority community in Uttar Pradesh. The central and eastern districts, which have a large minority population, go to the polls in a few days. “The statement is meant to check the rapid consolidation of the Muslim votes behind the Samajwadi Party. Muslims have turned to Mulayam more out of insecurity than for any of his promises,” the sources said.


Patna, Feb. 16: 
Union health minister C.P. Thakur today said symptoms of the mystery disease that has broken out in Himachal Pradesh indicated pneumonic plague, but there could be no confirmation till pathology reports come in.

“I can confirm absolutely when the pathology test reports are made available,” he said in Patna.

Thakur said the symptoms were so clear that any examining doctor would first think of plague. Initial medical tests have detected bacteria in blood samples, while patients have been admitted with swollen throats, lung infections and high fever.

Panic gripped Himachal after three persons died and 14 were hospitalised, reviving memories of the 1994 outbreak that killed more than 50 people in Gujarat.

The first to fall ill was Randhir Singh, a villager in Shimla district, who died on February 4. His wife, Sulochana, who was brought to Chandigarh’s Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, died last Thursday. The third person was from Uttaranchal.

Officials in Himachal said hundreds were lining up outside medical centres to collect antibiotics in Rohru and Jubbal, some 100 km east of Shimla. “The situation is constantly being monitored and over 1,70,000 capsules have been distributed in the affected areas so far,” state health minister J.P. Nadda said.

A senior health official in Delhi said two villages in the region have been quarantined. “Blood samples have been given for biochemical examination and it will take 48 hours to confirm whether it is plague or not,” the official said.

Authorities have closed schools and colleges in the area and asked government doctors not to go on leave. Doctors said there have been no fresh cases since Friday and the condition of those admitted in the Chandigarh institute was improving.

“We are hoping to keep the outbreak under check. A five-day dose of antibiotic (Doxycycline) has been given to the patients, as well as likely victims. But we have to keep our fingers crossed,” Thakur said.

“A drive to catch rats has also been launched,” said a doctor.

The plague is caused by the bacteria yersinia pestis and spread by fleas carried by rodents.


New Delhi, Feb. 16: 
If the Bush administration prodded General Pervez Musharraf to respond to India’s demand for handing over 20 offenders named in a list given to Pakistan, the military dictator shows no signs of being under pressure.

On the contrary, the display of defiance at least in relation to the list has gone up several notches with the Pakistani establishment seeking to rubbish India’s stand. Before leaving Washington yesterday, Musharraf had said: “They have this list of 20 people. Now, I am not going to do their bidding.”

Foreign minister Abdus Sattar, with impeccable India-bashing credentials, raised the pitch further. He said the Indian demand “is nothing more than a bid to malign Pakistan”.

The shriller tone betrays the steadily depleting patience of the Pakistani leadership at the lack of headway in breaking the standoff on the border that is taking a heavy financial toll on a struggling economy. Musharraf’s urgings in Washington to get President George W. Bush to nudge India towards withdrawing troops and sitting down for talks drew no response.

Having hauled soldiers from across the country to the border and kept up the pressure for so long, there is no reason for India to either call them back or resume dialogue with Pakistan. Asked in Lucknow today how long the military build-up would last, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee replied: “Till such time it is needed.”

That time can be hastened by Pakistan if it acts on the list of 20. But Sattar said none of the 20 fugitives sought by India was involved in the December 13 Parliament strike, which meant there was no case for handing them over.

The list, he said, dealt with crimes committed 20 years ago, which, allowing for some exaggeration, is not entirely incorrect. But some of the key figures listed made their name in the Mumbai blasts — Dawood Ibrahim, for instance — which happened a decade ago.

Sattar, however, chose to ignore that, preferring instead to dwell on Delhi’s subterranean motives. “Why should India ask for them now? It is a clear bid to malign Pakistan,” he said.

Extradition of criminals should be based on the Saarc convention against terrorism or be part of a dialogue. “India should use the forum of Saarc to raise the issue of the list of 20 or India and Pakistan should put an extradition treaty on the agenda for talks,” he said.

Signs of Pakistani desperation have been evident for the past few days, starting with the accusation that India had a hand in American reporter Daniel Pearl’s abduction and followed by Musharraf’s charge that Delhi was planning a nuclear test.

“Musharraf’s credibility is at stake. Whatever Musharraf says is taken with a pinch of salt,” Vajpayee said today at a news conference during his campaigning in Uttar Pradesh.


Haidergarh, Feb. 16: 
No one misses Rajnath Singh in Haidergarh. His wife Savitri Singh makes sure of it.

The Uttar Pradesh chief minister is busy touring the rest of the state secure in the knowledge that he has left his home constituency in safe hands.

The campaign in Haidergarh — from where Rajnath is trying to win the second time — is fast becoming an all-woman show.

Savitri wakes up very early these days. It’s almost dark when she starts calling up her sahelis. They have to rush; they have 20 villages to cover and time is running out.

The vehicle Savitri boards turns into a mobile stage. Some sing, some dance. There is impassioned clapping all around.

As the women’s convoy reaches a dusty, nondescript village, Savitri leads her team to the first house. She strikes the right chord at one go. “Vote for my husband,” she says, hands folded. “You know what all he has done for Haidergarh. It is good to have a chief minister representing your village. And, you see, what has been done here is just the foundation, the building is yet to come up.”

The words flow freely, not once does she fumble or grope for a phrase. Nor does she duck uncomfortable questions. But most of the time there aren’t any questions.

“Tell me, how can you possibly say no to her?” says Kalawatidevi. She runs a shop next to Haidergarh’s main bus-stop. “She is putting so much effort for her husband and the moment he becomes chief minister again, she will go back to the kitchen without any fuss. Kitni achchi hai.”

In a show of female bonding, Savitri is almost always accompanied by former MLA Puttu Awasti’s wife, Prema. Awasti, a Congress MLA, vacated the Haidergarh seat in favour of Rajnath a year ago, forcing byelections. In turn, Rajnath promised to make him a Rajya Sabha MP.

She hasn’t forgotten the promise. But for the moment, she is putting her heart and soul into Rajnath’s campaign. She has her own following, too. “Abhi dhol baj rahe hain, baad me jashn hoga (Now we are beating drums, we will celebrate later),” she says.

Rajnath has changed the face of Haidergarh. In the one year that he has been the representative of this sleepy town, new roads have been built, many schools have been repaired. Haidergarh has tasted prosperity. More has been promised.

“How can people be blind to what my husband has done for them?” Savitri asks. “They know my husband is the best thing that has happened to them in their entire lives. They know he is an honest, hard-working man.”

In a way, Rajnath has also been helped by the candidates pitted against him. Both Arvind Singh Gope, a student leader fielded by the Samajwadi Party, and Vishwanath Chaturvedi of the Congress, are first-timers. In upper-caste dominated Haidergarh, Hari Ram Rawat of the Bahujan Samaj Party doesn’t have much of a chance either. “How does it matter who is fielded? It is all the same,” she says.

As Savitri’s sena goes to yet another village, there is song and laughter in all the five vehicles that accompany her. They don’t mind going back to their staid lives once the elections are over. As Prabha, who is helping Savitri, says: “At least now we are in charge.”


Mumbai, Feb. 16: 
She stepped out of the sea in her wet white bikini like Botticelli’s Venus, only more tanned, to leave James Bond shaken and stirred. She has landed in Mumbai now to stir up Bollywood, though in far more conventional clothes.

Ursula Andress — the original Bond woman who debuted as Honey Ryder in Dr No and whose legendary bikini was auctioned last year for $50,000 (“a disappointment”) — is here to promote, well, her country. She is to draw the attention of the Hindi film industry to Switzerland.

Tonight, the woman for whom Agent 007 kept his rescuers waiting while drifting with her in a boat in Dr No will honour director Yash Chopra for “pioneering efforts” to bring Switzerland to Bollywood.

Chopra did more for Switzerland in India than any tourism department. Since he shot Amitabh and Rekha for Silsila in Switzerland, Hindi films were never the same again.

But that was in the eighties. Since then, Bollywood has been going places — Australia and New Zealand mostly — for exotic locales. Switzerland, dubbed expensive, lost its prominence.

The Swiss government now wants an image makeover and has appointed Andress, the ultimate Bond girl, as its brand ambassador.

So the vivacious actress was here, in a noodle-string black blouse with matching trousers and a transparent black jacket, and a red shawl draped loosely over her shoulders, drop-dead gorgeous at 66, addressing reporters.

She will be in the country till Tuesday.

Andress, who says the bikini-debut set the standards for the next Bond girls, put her success down to her deviation from the regulation Marilyn Monroe looks to the “healthy sportive kind” portrayed in Dr No that was made in 1962. Fragile femininity did not sit easy on her.

“I was a success as I represented a new woman. I deviated from the standard Monroe kind of a curved voluptuous woman to a healthy sportive and strong kind,” Andress said.

She finds the current crop of Bond beauties “stunning”. But not the later Bond films.

“There are too many explosions in the current Bond films. I hate explosions. Too much noise and special effects. I like the simpler Bond films, just like the books.”

She finds the new Bond okay — she had starred opposite Sean Connery — but she likes Kabir Bedi, whom she met recently, too.

Andress, who also acted opposite Elvis Presley, knows Bollywood is a huge industry, but is intrigued by the name.

She wanted to know what “B” stood for. She has not seen any Hindi film either, though she is willing to give it a shot if the script is good.

She is willing to give Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding a dekko, too. But tonight she will be presenting the first “Swiss Filmfare Award” to Yash Chopra.

The actress finds Mumbai very crowded. “Previously I thought Rome was the most crowded city. But I changed my mind after coming here.” And, no, she is not going to Calcutta.

With a touch of humour, she said she finds Switzerland a better place for cows. “When I saw a cow trying to cross the road amid so much traffic (here), I felt pity for the animals. They were much better off in Switzerland,” she said.




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Minimum: 15.5°C (-2)



Relative humidity

Maximum: 91%,
Minimum: 43%

Sunrise: 6.13 am

Sunset: 5.28 pm


Mainly clear sky. Minimum temperature likely to be around 17°C

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