Broke Bengal freezes big bills
Upbeat Cong throws door open to Trinamul
Cops net Bangla aide of Ansari
Sonia keeps Mulayam waiting
Labour & temple keep PM busy
J&K rigging rage re-ignited
President voice to Atal Ayodhya pledge
BJP defeat brings cheer to Sena and Congress
CPM axes Ganashakti editor
Atal to block Pak in Australia

Calcutta, Feb. 25: 
The government is denying it, but all indications are that the state exchequer is in a fine mess, forcing Bengal to put off payment of all bills of a “bigger volume”.

The payment “embargo” will be in place till March 6, though some fear this may be extended if the state’s finances don’t improve by then.

So far, salary and pension payments have not been affected by the move, but a section of state government employees has expressed fears that it was possible they would feel the pinch as well.

The payment “embargo” was not announced in a circular — as is the standard practice — but conveyed verbally to all departments and district headquarters about two weeks ago.

A state treasury official said the government’s move was aimed at addressing “temporary ways and means imbalances”.

“We have a cash flow problem now which has forced us to cut down or stagger payments of big amounts. Accordingly, we have advised all departments to go slow on payments,” a state finance department official said on condition of anonymity.

But government officials denied the state was in a financial crisis. Samar Ghosh, principal secretary, finance, said: “There is no embargo as such. We are keeping an eye on state expenses.”

However, Reserve Bank of India officials confirmed that the state government had come knocking on their doors.

“A mismatch between receipts and payments tends to occur towards the end of the financial year as tax flows dry up. Bulk of the drawings from the Reserve Bank’s ways and means account takes place during the last quarter,” an RBI spokesperson said.

Treasury sources indicated that payments were likely to resume after March 6. “We hope to resume normal payment of bills next month,” they said, adding that some essential bills were still being cleared. “A food bill of Rs 83 crore was cleared by the treasury recently,” a source in the treasury said.

The source added that there were enough funds in the exchequer to pay salaries and pensions and the fear of a section of the government employees was unfounded.

The state spends roughly Rs 600-650 crore every month on salaries and pensions. “The situation here is still much better than in most northeastern states, where the treasury opens for only a few days in a month,” an official said.

Despite the state’s chin-up attitude, sources said district headquarters and offices of the state government have been telling creditors that there was an “embargo” on payments till March 6.

Not only are creditors not being paid for the time being, a number of projects in the state have stopped or have been deferred following the government’s decision to stop payment.

The combined fiscal deficit of the states and the Centre is pegged at a whopping 10.5 per cent of GDP.


Calcutta, Feb. 25: 
Emboldened by the party’s victory in the recently-held Assembly polls, the state Congress today renewed its call to Trinamul Congress supporters to rejoin the mother party.

“The situation has changed since the May Assembly elections when we were organisationally weak in many states. But today the Congress has proved its mettle by dislodging the BJP from three states…. At this hour, we must call upon those who deserted us to tie up with the BJP to return to the Congress bastion without delay,” former state Congress chief Somen Mitra said this afternoon.

He demanded that the BJP-led coalition at the Centre should step down on moral grounds. “People have given their mandate… and the ruling coalition should accept this,” he said.

Mitra was mildly critical of Mamata Banerjee. He said the Congress had accepted the Trinamul chief as leader of the combined Opposition before the May Assembly elections and even sacrificed its 14 sitting MLAs to facilitate an electoral tieup with her party. “But Mamata could not live up to her promise. The Congress and her Trinamul together got only 86 of the 294 seats in the Assembly,” he said. “(But) our doors are still open to those willing to rejoin the Congress.”

Mamata, however, spurned Mitra’s offer, saying she would stick to the NDA, come what may. “We (the NDA) may have fared badly in the recent elections but we (Trinamul) will not rejoin the Congress which is in league with the CPM,” she said.

Asked if he would accept Mamata as leader if she rejoined this time, Mitra said it was too early to comment. “That is up to the high command to decide. But my job is to strengthen the party before the panchayat elections,” he said.

Mitra did not rule out the possibility of an immediate dialogue with Mamata on this score. “In politics, nothing is impossible,” he said.

The Congress leader also unveiled plans for the panchayat polls slated for next year. “We have already begun work by organising block-level organisational meetings. This is part of our move to consolidate the party’s base in the rural belt so that we can fight the coming polls on our own,” he added.

Earlier, Mitra addressed enthused party workers from various parts of the city and the districts in the lawns of the state Congress office.

But the mood in Mamata’s Harish Chatterjee Street office-cum-residence was sombre. Instead of the usual gathering, only a handful of party faithfuls turned up.

Desperate to maintain her pro-people image, Mamata said she had written to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, criticising the Centre’s move to make it easy for companies to close down and lay off workers in economically unviable units employing up to 1,000 workers.


Calcutta, Feb. 25: 
The intelligence branch and the state CID tonight arrested Saidur Rehman, a Bangladeshi associate of Aftab Ansari, from Belghoria. They had been tipped off about 31-year-old Rehman by Rajkot police who are interrogating Ansari.

Quoting from Ansari’s statement, Rajkot crime branch officers said Rana, another Bangladeshi associate of Ansari, had managed to obtain an Indian passport from Barasat in North 24-Parganas with the help of Rehman. They added that Rehman had rented a house there and was involved in planning the kidnap owner, Khadim’s Parthapratim Roy Burman.

In Calcutta, special inspector-general of police, CID, V.V. Thambi, said Rehman was arrested by the North 24-Parganas police. Investigations revealed that he was the son of a Bangladeshi forest officer. Police found that Rehman lived beyond his known sources of income. “We have evidence to indicate that Rehman had gone to Karachi and had been trained by the ISI,” a police officer said.

Rehman had a house in Park Circus but obtained his Indian passport showing an address in Sonarpur in South 24-Parganas. But police said he never stayed in Sonarpur, nor did he have any business interests there.

Gujarat police said Ansari had told interrogators that Rehman transacted money through the hawala channel from his Belghoria office. The Rajkot police chief said Ansari would be in police remand till March 9. “We will chargesheet him in the case,” he added.


New Delhi, Feb. 25: 
Unfazed by the BJP declaration to sit in the Opposition, the Congress today urged the Samajwadi Party to explore the possibility of a broad-based secular front instead of a rag-tag coalition based on horse trading and poaching.

The Congress and the Samajwadi will co-ordinate tomorrow to raise the Ayodhya issue in the Lok Sabha before the railway budget is presented. The Congress is also keen to push through an adjournment motion on the temple issue. How the Bahujan Samaj Party will react remains to be seen.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi has received feelers from Mulayam Singh Yadav that the Samajwadi will lend “unconditional support” to the main Opposition party against the Vajpayee regime. The Samajwadi made no references to the May 1999 incident when Mulayam had scuttled Sonia’s bid to form government at the Centre, but communicated that there would be no such impediment in future.

But the Congress seems reluctant to bite Mulayam’s bait. Senior leaders told CPM general secretary H.S. Surjeet — who is the key negotiator between the two parties and met Mulayam for an hour this afternoon — that Mulayam should first get the requisite numbers and then seek Congress support. Congress leaders said floor coordination in the Lok Sabha was influencing the leadership’s thinking on Uttar Pradesh.

Last night, the mood in the Congress Working Committee was distinctly anti-Mulayam. Some speakers wondered why Surjeet was raising the issue of secularism when the Samajwadi and the BSP could easily come together to checkmate the BJP. “Going by the posture, it appears that secularism is merely a pretext to grab power,” a CWC member said.

In the Congress’ assessment, the BJP, the BSP and the Samajwadi are posturing to get an upper hand in the complex political situation. The BJP’s move to pull out of the government formation process is being seen as a ploy to set off panic among BSP legislators.

The Congress feels that the BJP may even opt for a brief spell of President’s rule. For its part, the Congress is also not averse to the idea of Central rule if any group fails to form the government.

Congress sources said Surjeet had sent a message to Sonia on behalf of Mulayam — who said “we have left everything to Surjeet” — for talks. But the Congress leadership snubbed the request, saying it was not in a hurry to respond.

Offering an olive branch to Mulayam, AICC spokesman Jaipal Reddy said the Congress’ “overarching ideological objective” was to ensure that the government is not formed by or with the support of communal forces.

Reddy indicated that the Congress was ready to forgive and forget the events that led to the bad blood between the parties.

“Congress learns from history. But we do not want to live in the past. We will not allow history to be a burden. We will rise above such things,” he said. But he declined to dub the BSP a communal party.


New Delhi, Feb. 25: 
His cup full of woe at the beginning of the budget session, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has decided to cool his allies down by calling another meeting with them.

Today’s 20-minute session with NDA partners at 7 Race Course Road resolved little. There was not even time to discuss his troubles threadbare, given that his party had been routed at the hustings, ally Shiv Sena was threatening to pull out in protest against anti-labour policies and the Opposition had united on Ayodhya and the Kargil coffins.

But with the issues expected to figure prominently in the budget session, it was decided that another trouble-shooting date be set up after the Prime Minister returns from Australia by March 9.

Allies Lok Janshakti Party, the Samata Party and the Janata Dal (United) were peeved that the BJP had not wholeheartedly backed their candidates for the elections. The Sena was annoyed with the government’s allegedly “anti-working class” decision of allowing workers to be axed in industrial establishments.

Some had also taken a tough line on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s threatening noises on temple construction and Opposition plans to make it a big issue during the budget session. The Telugu Desam even reminded the BJP of its diminished status in the coalition by saying building temples would not win elections.

Again in a bid to cool tempers, Vajpayee has convened a meeting on Ayodhya tomorrow. All parties have been invited as Congress president Sonia Gandhi had last week demanded a session to discuss the VHP threat.

After the Cabinet decided to amend the Industrial Disputes Act to facilitate retrenchment, Thackeray had given the government a one-month ultimatum to reverse the decision. He had also snubbed NDA convener George Fernandes, once a veteran trade unionist, for his “silence”.

Fernandes today said he had requested Vajpayee to convene a meeting as some allies wanted a discussion on the issue. He said the meeting would discuss the labour disputes Act and the outcome of the elections, but that a date would be fixed later.

Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee today wrote to Vajpayee that lopsided economic policies were responsible for the BJP’s electoral debacle.

Fernandes denied that government formation in Lucknow was discussed at today’s meeting. He added that there was no move to review the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance as demanded by the Congress.

Parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan briefed members about important issues that are likely to come up for discussion in Parliament.

Other senior leaders who attended the meeting are Union ministers L.K. Advani, Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, Sharad Yadav, Ramvilas Paswan and Nitish Kumar.


New Delhi, Feb. 25: 
The ruling National Conference appears to have learnt little from its mistakes, nor has the Election Commission.

Anger at large-scale rigging by Farooq Abdullah’s party in the 1986 Assembly elections had dealt the final blow to a people already disaffected by Delhi’s policies and made it easy for separatists to call the shots. The party is being accused of large-scale rigging once again — in the byelections to the Jammu parliamentary constituency.

All Opposition parties, including the BJP, a National Conference ally at the Centre, the Congress, the BSP, the Panther’s Party and the Janata Dal, buried differences and joined in organising a protest shutdown of Jammu. Shops downed shutters and students boycotted classes today.

The BJP said its legislators would boycott the Governor’s address to the Assembly on Tuesday as a mark of protest. They would also consider quitting the Assembly, state party chief D.K. Kotwal said.

State Congress president Mohammed Shafi Qureshi said: “Those (1986) elections became the breeding ground for terrorists.” He expressed doubts over the fairness of the Assembly elections due later this year. National Conference leaders, however, dismissed the allegations.

The Election Commission has withheld the bypoll results to look into the charges but it would have done better to monitor the voting on election day to avoid any grounds for complaints.

The timing of the controversy is most unfortunate as Delhi was hoping to begin with a clean slate in the Valley by ensuring that the Assembly elections were free and fair. The Centre is keen to get a message across to the Kashmiris — it has no favourites and is willing to allow voters to choose their leaders.

However, the allegations of rigging will convince people that no matter what happens, Delhi and its allies in Srinagar cannot be trusted.

Ironically, the Hurriyat Conference had announced its own version of the election commission a few weeks ago. Though this had no legal basis, it sent a clear message to the Centre and the international community — Kashmiris have no faith in India’s election officials.


New Delhi, Feb. 25: 
President K.R. Narayanan today said the Centre was “duty-bound” to maintain status quo at the disputed site in Ayodhya while favouring resolution of the conflict through mutual negotiation or a legal mandate.

In his customary address to the joint sitting of Parliament that began today, Narayanan echoed the Vajpayee regime’s policy statement that ruled out resumption of talks with Pakistan and de-escalation on the Indo-Pak border.

Narayanan’s text, approved by the Union Cabinet, dealt at length with the Ayodhya issue in the wake of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s threat to go ahead with construction of the temple after March 15. “The government of India, being the statutory receiver, is duty-bound to maintain the status quo at the disputed site in Ayodhya. It will also ensure that all necessary measures will be taken to ensure the preservation of law and order,” the President said.

Acknowledging that Ayodhya is a contentious issue and its amicable and speedy resolution is crucial for communal harmony and national integration, Narayanan said the dispute can be resolved through mutual agreement between the parties concerned or through a court verdict.

In his hour-long address, Narayanan highlighted the government’s approach towards Indo-Pak relations and a number of other subjects, including terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir, economy and VRS in public sector undertakings.

He said bilateral dialogue cannot be resumed with Pakistan unless Islamabad puts an end to cross-border terrorism.

Asserting that acts of terrorism and dialogue cannot go together, Narayanan said Pakistan has ensured the failure of talks with “its acts” of betrayal. “India is prepared to resume the dialogue process with Pakistan, provided Islamabad satisfies us that it has indeed taken effective steps to end training, equipping and financing of terrorists and stop their infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir and other parts of India,” he said.

Referring to the attack on Parliament as an “audacious challenge” to India’s sovereignty, Narayanan said: “The incident was the nadir of a long list of reprehensible acts in a 20-year-long campaign of cross-border terrorism against India.”

He said sustained investigations into the conspiracy had clearly revealed the hand of terrorist organisations long operating from Pakistani soil with the support of the country’s ruling establishment. The outfits are closely aligned through ideology, inspiration, resources and logistics to those who carried out the September 11 terror strikes on the US, Narayanan said.

The President said India is determined to end cross-border terrorism by all means. “The necessary level of military strength and preparedness will be maintained to deter any aggression.”

He said a three-pronged strategy to deal with the internal situation in Jammu and Kashmir would include measures to eliminate terrorism, support faster economic growth and talks with any group within the state which eschews the path of violence.

Narayanan also outlined the economic agenda for the coming fiscal year to achieve an eight per cent growth rate. In a boost to agriculture, the President said the Essential Commodities Act would be modified and inter-state movement of farm products would be allowed.


Mumbai, Feb. 25: 
With the BJP hitting the skids in the polls, the Congress and the Shiv Sena find themselves on the same side of a political fence that has long divided them.

Both parties are gloating over the defeat of the BJP, though for different reasons. The Congress feels a weakened BJP is no longer in a position to try and topple the party-led coalition government in the state. The Sena feels that the BJP, sobered by the poll defeat, would deep-freeze the contentious labour reforms Bal Thackeray is opposed to.

“The BJP has been humbled by the people across northern India. It won’t dare try and topple the state government any longer with the help of the Shiv Sena,” said Mumbai Congress chief Murli Deora, who is close to party chief Sonia Gandhi.

“The results of the polls are a lesson to the BJP. It needs to do a lot of self-introspection and change its big-brotherly attitude towards its allies,” Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Nirupam, a Thackeray confidant, said.

The Centre’s attempts to amend the Industrial Disputes Act — without consulting allies like the Sena — smacked of the BJP’s “high and mighty” attitude, he added. “We hope they will now see reason and mend ways.”

The defeat of the BJP in the key states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttaranchal leaves the party ruling only four states against the Congress’ 13, including Maharashtra.

Though allies like the Sena — fearful of a Congress comeback — are unlikely to dump the BJP at this juncture, they are likely to extract their pound of flesh for supporting the hobbled party.

The cries of the Sena over the amendment could reach a crescendo in the coming days, making it hard for the BJP to get it through.

“We are not going to let the BJP throw the workers’ rights to the winds. We need changes in some labour laws, but not at the great expense of the workers who vote for us,” Nirupam said.


Calcutta, Feb. 25: 
Acknowledging chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s criticism of Ganashakti, the CPM today announced major changes in the party mouthpiece.

As reported by The Telegraph today, Ganashakti editor Dipen Ghosh was replaced with a relatively lightweight party functionary, Narayan Dutta, also a state committee member.

Among other notable appointments to the newspaper were those of Abhik Dutta and Atanu Saha who have been given high posts.

The changes were announced by CPM politburo member and Left Front chairman Biman Bose at the end of the four-day state party conference. “We made the changes unanimously,” Bose said.

The changes were made following Bhattacharjee’s expression of resentment over some reports published in the paper regarding madarsas a fortnight ago.

The party mouthpiece had carried at least three articles, quoting Bhattacharjee as saying that some unauthorised madarsas in the state were engaged in “anti-national” activities and that the government would initiate stern action against them.

Both Bhattacharjee and the party had to deny the Ganashakti reports following a Muslim backlash against the chief minister’s controversial statements. This is the first time that the CPM has had to contest reports published in its mouthpiece. “Is Ganashakti our party paper or a bourgeois publication?” Bhattacharjee had asked at a recent state committee meeting.

A section of the party leadership had defended Ghosh initially.

However, it read the overwhelming mood and persuaded Ghosh to relinquish the post. Ghosh, known for his close proximity to state CPM secretary Anil Biswas, will now be a member of the state secretariat.


New Delhi, Feb. 25: 
At a time key world players are keen to follow in American footsteps and end Pakistan’s isolation, India is trying to ensure that the Commonwealth does not allow it re-entry till Pervez Musharraf continues to rule the country.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who will leave for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet in Queensland, Australia, on Thursday, will try to ensure that the Chogm continues to take a hard line on Pakistan and focuses on fighting global terror.

The four-day meet begins in Coolum on March 2. Pakistan was suspended from the Commonwealth council after the 1999 military coup that toppled the Nawaz Sharif government.

Fiji, which too was suspended after the Mahendra Chaudhury government was overthrown, was re-admitted after a democratically-elected government was installed last year.

India is not happy at the haste with which Fiji has been brought back. It feels the island nation had fulfilled only a part of its obligations and the guidelines set by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG).

At Coolum, India is likely to be offered a berth in the CMAG, which has among its members Australia, Bangladesh, Barbados, Botswana, Canada, Malaysia, Nigeria and the UK. But four of the members’ term is coming to an end early next month. Indications from South Block, however, suggest that Delhi is yet to make up its mind on whether it should be in it.

The debate stems from the fact that India does not necessarily agree with a lot of what the members in the CMAG feel on regional and international developments. One such example is the current turmoil in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Though some of the members are keen to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe as the European Union had done, Delhi has argued that a decision should be postponed till the Commonwealth observers’ group, scheduled to visit the country for the forthcoming elections there, returns and submits its report.

But one advantage of being in the CMAG is that it would ensure that it does not bring back in haste a member country suspended on grounds of democracy till it fulfils all obligations as demanded by the Commonwealth heads of governments.

“A review of Pakistan is unlikely to take place at the forthcoming meet,” foreign secretary Chokila Iyer said this afternoon when asked whether Islamabad could be re-admitted to the forum since Musharraf has declared the roadmap that would return his country to democracy.

“He has only announced the roadmap. But the Commonwealth will have to wait till October to see whether Pakistan returns to democracy,” she said.

A draft plan of action on terrorism will come up for discussion at the Chogm. Iyer said the plan contains “important and substantive” measures on the legal and financial side that member countries could take to combat terrorism.


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