Atal springs Kashmir visit
No Prime Minister, it�s not the economy
Mamata fires at Delhi Bill, hits Buddha
If India loses, blame it on ISI
Church attack exposes Bush terror doublespeak
Pak blames India for blast
Hurriyat for peace, not polls
Freshers edge out superstars
Surjeet set to get third term at CPM helm
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, March 18: 
Just when everyone thought the Prime Minister had nothing on his mind but Ayodhya, he sprang a surprise by announcing in Parliament that he would visit Kashmir. Atal Bihari Vajpayee will take with him home minister L.K. Advani and defence minister George Fernandes for a joint assessment of the situation in the state.

Though Vajpayee did not mention dates, officials said he could squeeze Kashmir into his schedule around April-end or May-beginning. The visit is certainly likely to be before September as the state is expected to go to the polls then.

The polls are crucial at a time when chances of solving the Kashmir dispute bilaterally appear remote. The Agra summit has failed and it has been followed up by attacks on the Kashmir House and Parliament. Ties between India and Pakistan are in deep freeze.

The Centre knows that the only way forward in Kashmir is by holding free and fair elections. Attempts are already under way to coax the Hurriyat Conference to take part in the polls. Hurriyat leaders have been camping in the capital since the past week and are in touch with the Centre.

American and British diplomats in Delhi have reportedly urged the Hurriyat leadership not to boycott the polls. Senior Indian officials believe most Hurriyat leaders are keen to take part despite their public stance that the polls will decide who will represent the Kashmiris for talks with India and Pakistan.

Senior officials say Hurriyat hardliners are stressing this point to justify taking part in the elections. Policy planners in the government believe the Hurriyat has no other choice as they are getting more and more marginalised in Kashmir.

Reacting to the Prime Minister�s announcement, Hurriyat chairman Abdul Gani Bhat said: �We seek a permanent resolution of the dispute on the peace table and not by a desk in the state Assembly�.�

Vajpayee will be on a mission to win the hearts of a people long alienated from Delhi. He said he would speak to all sections of the people before deciding on any strategy. Policy planners believe the time is right for the Centre to woo people disillusioned by two decades of militancy.

Vajpayee might announce a hefty economic package during his visit to send a reassuring signal to the people. The package was reportedly finalised earlier, but the government was waiting for the right time to announce it.

Delhi is hoping to exploit the post-September 11 scenario and the world�s impatience with terrorism to wean the Kashmiris away from the militants. The Taliban�s ouster and General Pervez Musharraf throwing in his lot with the US-led anti-terror coalition have confused both the militants and the people who support them.

Indian intelligence agencies believe that the time is right to get Kashmir back on track. Since September, security forces have stepped up operations against militants and are hoping to provide a relatively sanitised environment to begin the political process.

Earlier, militants had ensured that Kashmiris boycott the elections. India had accused Islamabad, too, of playing spoiler�s role.


New Delhi, March 18: 
�So sorry, I had to take my wife to the airport.�

�I had such a stomach ache I had to go to a doctor.�

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was crying himself hoarse in Parliament today, trying to convince MPs from all parties that governments may come and governments may go, but economic problems will remain, which is why it is necessary to have a political consensus on them.

The Prime Minister wasn�t aware at the time that � not to talk of making the effort to work out a consensus � MPs would rather bunk the economy class.

In the post-lunch session in the Rajya Sabha, allotted for a discussion on the budget, as many as 14 speakers, whose names had been listed by the Chair, simply did not show up.

According to the business schedule, the House was to adjourn at 6 pm, but the secretariat went into a flap around 4 pm because not one of the listed speakers was around to take the session anywhere near its close. The record number of absentees prompted the Chair to remark: �It is an unusual situation when instead of the Chair looking at the clock, the speakers are looking at it.�

The list of speakers included members from every party but many were from the Congress, which, as Vajpayee is doing now, was a vocal votary � when in power � of a political consensus on economic issues. Kapil Sibal, Dr Kidwai, K. Rahman Khan and Eduardo Faleiro were the missing Congress members.

Vajpayee�s statement applies to them better than any other party. �I am ready to sit in the Opposition. But there must be someone to replace. Even after you come to this side, these issues will persist and pose a challenge to you,� he had said. He was warning of more unpopular decisions forced by the alarming fiscal situation.

Shiv Sena�s Sanjay Nirupam � the man who had attacked the PMO once despite being a member of the ruling coalition � wasn�t around either.

Nirupam�s excuse was: �I had already informed the Rajya Sabha table office that I would speak tomorrow because I did not want my speech to get overshadowed by those of more important leaders.� He said he did not know how his name was called today.

Another absentee said he had to go to the airport to see off his spouse, a second had a stomach complaint, a third had �urgent personal work�, and a fourth said he had to call on a senior minister.

Why did they have their names listed? No reply.


New Delhi, March 18: 
Mamata Banerjee skipped voting on the anti-terror law in the Lok Sabha tonight, dealing an embarrassing, but not fatal, blow to the Vajpayee government and keeping the gun powder dry for use against the Left Front in Bengal.

The Bill, which replaces the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance, was adopted as the ruling coalition has a comfortable majority in the lower House. In the division pressed by the Opposition, 261 voted for and 137 against the Bill.

Besides the Trinamul Congress, the BSP and Sharad Pawar�s Nationalist Congress Party stayed away from the vote.

On Wednesday, the Bill is likely to come up for voting in the Rajya Sabha, where the Opposition has the numbers to defeat it. The government is thinking of convening a joint sitting of Parliament to rescue the legislation. In a combined session, the ruling coalition can rustle up a majority.

Mamata�s stay-away card, though severely embarrassing for the Centre when allies have struck strident public postures in the wake of the Ayodhya standoff, was primarily aimed at the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government.

The CPM-led government in Bengal is biding its time to enact an anti-crime Bill, which has drawn allegations of being a clone of the Central law against terrorism. Bhattacharjee was ready to go ahead with the Ordinance last year, but the CPM�s central committee, which was at the forefront of the campaign against the anti-terror law, applied brakes to escape charges of doublespeak.

Having stayed away from the Lok Sabha, Trinamul will now oppose the Bengal Bill without reservations.

Opponents of both the Bills had expressed fears that the laws could be misused against the minority community, the main reason for the scrapping of Tada.

By opposing the Bills and Bhattacharjee�s statements on unregistered madarsas, Mamata is sending a message to the minority community, which had started drifting away from her after she allied with the BJP.

On the Ayodhya issue, too, Trinamul had left the Vajpayee government red-faced by severely criticising the attorney-general�s submission in the Supreme Court and later by boycotting an NDA meeting convened by the Prime Minister.

However, Mamata today made light of the decision. �We have decided to be absent from voting. Earlier also we had fought Tada. The earlier experience is that it has been misused by parties in power everywhere,� Mamata said. Without mentioning any names, she said the state administration, the Tada implementing authority, misused it.

The Lok Sabha today witnessed a seven-hour debate initiated by the Congress� Jaipal Reddy, who dubbed the Bill Draconian.

In the evening, the government revived efforts to get the law enacted through a joint sitting. A joint session will have 782 members � 407 for the NDA and 375 for the Opposition. Even if the nine-member Trinamul skips the joint session, the ruling coalition can sail through.

However, this option may be exercised only as a last resort. President K.R. Narayanan may have reservations about the proposal. The Opposition has already said that pushing through the Bill using a joint sitting would tantamount to browbeating Parliament. It would also set a precedent that could encourage future governments to opt for the shortcut.

A joint sitting can be called any time, even after Parliament adjourns for a break on March 23. But a two-day notice has to be given.


Guwahati, March 18: 
In a shocking and unprecedented incident, this afternoon, Harbhajan Singh was �pushed around� during an altercation with security personnel at the Ashok Bramhaputra Hotel.

Though the actual target of the overzealous policemen was a photographer-friend of Harbhajan, India�s sole hattrick-achiever in Tests confirmed that the �dhakka-dhukki� did open up a wound on his left elbow. It got bruised when he intervened.

Fortunately, Harbhajan neither slipped nor was he at the receiving end of mis-directed blows. Or else, the Indians would almost surely have refused to take the field tomorrow. Ironically, Harbhajan is himself a Punjab police officer.

�I�m now fine,� Harbhajan told The Telegraph, early in the evening, a few hours after the incident. Clearly (and predictably) upset, though, he added: �What if the visitor had been a family member? Must we be treated like prisoners?� An excellent question, considering the extent to which security personnel have isolated both the Indian and Zimbabwean teams, ahead of the fifth and final one-day international at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

Stuart Carlisle and Co. aren�t much concerned, but a house arrest-like situation does affect Sourav Ganguly�s team.

Outraged, manager Sunil Khanna and others insisted that the Kamrup deputy commissioner, whose jurisdiction includes Guwahati, be �immediately� called. Absar Ali Hazarika, the deputy commissioner, arrived promptly as did other senior officers.

The Indians, it is learnt, made two demands � relaxation of the choking security for their guests and removal of the offending securitymen from the hotel.

Hazarika accepted both demands, or else the incident would have become an even bigger controversy.

�What happened was unacceptable. Surely, the players have a right to meet friends and family. I wonder how something so fundamental could just be brushed aside,� remarked Khanna, speaking exclusively.

Though it didn�t reach the �dhakka-dhukki� stage last evening, a Sourav confidant was made to wait for over half-an-hour at the hotel gate while policemen (including a deputy superintendent) debated among themselves. All this despite the captain requesting his two PSOs to personally escort the gentleman to his room.

The securitymen relented once Sourav lost his cool and the manager made the point about not denying entry to those specially invited by the players. Sourav, in fact, pointedly asked: �Will I or anybody else call somebody who is a threat? Aren�t we ourselves concerned about security?�

Thanks to thick-headed decision makers, what happened this afternoon was simply waiting to happen. Still, nobody could actually have foreseen �dhakka-dhukki� involving an Indian cricketer.


Washington, March 18: 
Twenty four hours after terrorists blasted two Americans to death in Islamabad, the tragedy notwithstanding, what stands out is that Washington�s double standards on terrorism remain unaffected by the aftermath of September 11.

On the day the American Center in Calcutta was attacked in January, US state department spokesman Richard Boucher made the point in his daily briefing that �no US staff were at the Center at the time of the incident, and no American citizens were injured in the shooting� which claimed the lives of five Calcutta policemen and injured 13 other Indians.

The following day, President George W. Bush was pointedly asked whether the incident in Calcutta was �an attack on our country�. Bush was evasive.

He replied: �We�re gathering more information about it, to find out exactly what the facts are.�

Bush went on to make a mealy-mouthed, non-committal statement about working together �to fight off terrorists�.

Yesterday, within hours after it became clear that two American lives had been lost in Islamabad, Bush, who was week-ending in Camp David, issued one of his strongest statements since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

�I am outraged by the terrorist attack that took place today in Islamabad, Pakistan, against innocent civilians,� the President said.

�I strongly condemn them as acts of murder that cannot be tolerated by any person of conscience nor justified by any cause...We will work closely with the government of Pakistan to ensure those responsible for this terrorist attack face justice,� he added.

Secretary of state Colin Powell followed suit and asked his assistant secretary in charge of South Asia, Christina Rocca, to cut short a visit to New Delhi and rush to Islamabad.

The stark contrast in Washington�s reaction yesterday was not just to the incident in Calcutta in January.

In the last seven weeks, there have been 13 incidents in Pakistan similar to the deadly attack on the church in Islamabad yesterday.

In all these instances, the attacks were carefully planned, suggesting a high level of organisation and planning on the part of terrorists, who are clearly regrouping in Pakistan after their rout in Afghanistan.

In five of these 13 cases, doctors from the Shia community were targeted: they were killed at locations which they frequented daily, indicating that they were observed and shadowed before the terrorist plan was put into action.

Pakistani officials have concluded that terrorists are now targeting Shia doctors, not ordinary members of the community any more. Their aim is to be high profile and thus send a chilling message that jihadi groups in Pakistan are as powerful as ever.

It was a message which ought to have registered in Washington, if only because it highlights the fact that General Pervez Musharraf is hamstrung in his professed fight against terror within Pakistan�s borders.

The message did not register adequately here because no American lives were involved in these 13 incidents.

The US continues to react only when lives of its citizens are in jeopardy.

One of the few Americans in public office who seemed to realise this message, at least in part, was Republican Senator John McCain, who was in Pakistan recently.

Appearing on television yesterday, McCain said Musharraf clearly �does not have control over parts of his country and elements of his society, and he�s got a long way to go�.

But even McCain favoured the medicine of more US aid to Pakistan and greater intelligence cooperation.


New Delhi and Islamabad, March 18: 
An embarrassed Pakistan, under international glare for yesterday�s grenade attack on a church, today blamed India for the tragedy even as a US official cut short her Delhi trip and left for Islamabad.

In Delhi, foreign ministry spokesperson Nirupama Rao described Pakistan�s allegations as � preposterous and unadulterated rubbish�.

While the two neighbours played the blame game, US assistant secretary of state Christina Rocca cut short her visit to India and left for Islamabad to be with the American embassy officials there. She will also discuss the current situation with the Pervez Musharraf regime.

Five persons, including American diplomat Milton Green�s wife and child, were killed in the grenade attack on the Islamabad church. Forty people, including Green, are in a serious condition.

The government has announced a special task force to probe the incident.

�President Musharraf expressed his dismay at the recent lapse in security in Islamabad which resulted in the loss of innocent lives,� the military government said in a statement after he met senior commanders.

On the identity of the attacker, Pakistan interior minister Moinuddin Haider told CNN that he could have been a �suicide bomber� and the unidentified mutilated victim.

Rocca, who arrived in Delhi on Saturday from Sri Lanka, was scheduled to meet foreign minister Jaswant Singh, national security adviser Brajesh Mishra, India�s special envoy to Afghanistan Sati Lambah and other senior officials in South Block today. But she cut short her visit within hours of the attack.

�In order to accompany the fallen in Islamabad back to the United States, given this tragedy, I am curtailing my visit to New Delhi and proceeding at once to Pakistan. I thank my Indian counterparts for their understanding in this matter,� Rocca said in a statement.

The Indian foreign office said Rocca would return to the US from Islamabad. Officials said fresh dates for her visit to India would be worked out soon.

Pakistan, which is usually at the receiving end of allegations from India for any terror attack, appears to have adopted similar tactics.

Pakistan�s law minister Khalid Ranjha was quoted in The Washington Post as saying: �May be it�s an exercise to spoil our relations with our foreign friends. One cannot rule out the possibility that they chose the place to embarrass the Pakistani government.�

�I would not take it completely out of consideration that India might be involved,� the minister added.

Describing Ranjha�s claim as �totally preposterous�, the foreign ministry spokesperson said: �The government of India strongly condemns the terrorist attack in Islamabad and regrets the loss of innocent lives.�

Washington continues to rally behind Musharraf and described such attacks as attempts by terrorists and fundamentalist forces in Pakistan to undermine his position.


Srinagar, March 18: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee�s promise of �fair� polls in Jammu and Kashmir and his challenge to militant groups to participate in it to �prove their popularity� drew strong reactions from Kashmiri leaders today.

�We seek a permanent resolution of the (Kashmir) dispute on the peace table and not by a desk in the state Assembly,� said the All Parties Hurriyat Conference chairman Abdul Gani Bhat on phone from New Delhi. �We have had elections in the past as well, but no Assembly could or can solve the problem,� Bhat said, reacting to the Prime Minister�s statement in Parliament.

He added that the number of killings in Kashmir has increased. �We think the graph of killing has gone up and the situation will improve only when the Kashmir dispute is addressed.�

Mehbooba Mufti, vice-president of the People�s Democratic Party, was more forthright. �Elections have always been rigged in Kashmir. Democracy has never been allowed to cross the Jawahar Tunnel. Democracy has never been allowed to take roots in Kashmir,� she said.

�Democracy and secularism could have cemented the relations between the state and rest of the country, but the largescale rigging in various elections completely shattered the confidence of Kashmiris�. The Prime Minister�s earlier statement had raised hopes that polls in the state would be fair and free, but the largescale rigging in the recently held bypoll in the Jammu parliamentary constituency has grounded our hopes. The National Conference misused the official machinery to rig the polls,� Mehbooba added.

�We welcome the Prime Minister�s assurance and his invitation to the separatists to participate in the Assembly polls. The Centre should give an assurance to the separatists that meaningful talks will be held immediately after the elections to solve the problem permanently,� she said.

National Conference provincial president G.N. Shaheen protested against the charge and promised free and fair polls. �Elections have always been free and fair after 1977. Before that the polls were rigged�. Our government will ensure free and fair polls in the state,� he said.

Shaheen demanded restoration of the state�s eroded autonomy, saying: �This is the only way to restore the confidence of the people in the state.� He challenged the separatist Hurriyat Conference leaders to �fight the election to see (for) themselves where they stand�. �If any one has any complaints, they should approach the Election Commission. It is not our government, but the EC which conducts the polls,� he said.

Attack on BSF hub

Militants today launched an attack on the heavily-guarded BSF headquarters in Srinagar, but failed to cause any damage or casualty.

A BSF spokesman said militants fired five rifle grenades in quick succession towards the border force�s main frontier headquarters in the high-security Sanant Nagar area, injuring a security guard. One grenade exploded inside the complex while others hit the adjoining Indian Oil complex and the telephone exchange.


Hyderabad, March 18: 
Debutants are the current toasts of the Telugu film industry � almost all the 25 films released in the first quarter of the year have fresh faces in lead roles.

What speaks volumes for the trend is that 15 new films getting ready for a Ugadi release have no senior actors. It appears that the audience is tired of superstars like Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna and Venkatesh.

�It will be path-finder for the entire Indian film industry if the trend for clean, fresh and youth love stories holds good this year as well,� says K. Raghavendra Rao, a senior film director who is jobless for the first time in his 35 years of film career.

Chitram, a Ramoji Rao production, was a trailblazer. Modestly funded with less than Rs 35 lakh, the hero was paid a salary of Rs 11,000 per month. The film went on to gross more than Rs 10 crore and had a Kannada remake as well.

Soon there was a deluge of films with �fresh faces�. Almost 40 Telugu films were made with actors picked from colleges and high school and heroines from Bollywood and Bengal.

However, another 60 films on similar themes are gathering dust for want of additional funds for their release. �The boom brought in many producers and directors who had very little experience in management leading to problems midway,� said prominent film director Kodi Ramakrishna.

According to a rough estimate, about Rs. 100 crore was invested in the trend-setting films in the past two years. �Unlike the past, the present trend is for low budget films which have earned more for the producers,� a representative of the Andhra Pradesh Film Chamber of Commerce said. The cost of an average film has come down from Rs. 75 lakh to about Rs 35 lakh.

The season�s superhit Nuvvu lekha Neenu Leenu grossed almost Rs. 25 crore against an expenditure of less than Rs. 60 lakh.

Another superhit Student No. 1 starring NTR�s grandson, NTR Junior, was made with Rs 1 crore but grossed Rs 30 crore.

�He will gross more than Rs. 100 crore, what all films of his grandfather could have grossed together,� said his father Harikrishna.

The onslaught of the juvenile brigade has taken its toll on the superstars. Chiranjeevi, who made three films last year, had none to boast this year. His Mrugaraju bombed in the first week itself. Four out of five films of Nagarjuna did not get a rating. Two of the three films of Venkatesh were not for an all-state release. Two of Soundarya�s five films are still in the can.

Even a multi-starrer like Akasha Veedhilo with Raveena Tandon and Tamil actor Prabhudeva failed to make a dent. Producers of films starring Ramya, Karishna and Rambha have dropped the actresses midway.


New Delhi, March 18: 
CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet is likely to be re-elected for a third term at the party congress beginning in Hyderabad tomorrow.

The 85-year-old communist leader, who is always at the centre stage of a political crisis, is considered �indispensable� at a time when the Opposition is waiting to get its teeth into the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

Surjeet is not mulling a quit decision either. �Main kahin nahin ja rahan hoon (I am not going anywhere),� he recently said. A past master in coalition politics and backroom-negotiations, Surjeet played his role best during the rule of the United Front government at the Centre.

His access to 10 Janpath is well known and Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav � no friend of the Congress � rushes to him for advice.

Surjeet, at one time, had almost coaxed ADMK leader Jayalalithaa to join the People�s Front. �There is no other leader in the CPM who enjoys this kind of acceptance � especially in the Congress and the Samajwadi,� said a Left leader.

Surjeet, very often, is the emissary between the Congress and the Samajwadi when they refuse to talk to each other.

Prakash Karat, second in command in the CPM, is not considered to be cut out for the delicate confabulations that go together with the culture of coalition politics � bringing together a disparate group of Opposition parties.

In his entire political �career�, Karat has not visited Parliament and prefers not to dabble in networking with parties that have little in common with the CPM. He is much more of a stickler for ideology and has always maintained that the CPM should �stand on its own feet� rather than hitch a ride with other parties.

The party constitution does not have a provision for a deputy general secretary � someone who can assist Surjeet. �In any case, Karat carries out most of the routine work,� said a Left leader.

The CPI had inserted a clause � making way for a deputy general secretary � in its constitution because Indrajit Gupta needed someone to assist him. �The CPM can do the same. But at the moment, it seems unlikely,� said a Left leader.

Sitaram Yechury, who comes third in the party hierarchy, does not have the kind of acceptance that Karat has � though he may come close to matching Surjeet�s skills at stitching up alliances.

Surjeet himself realises that his departure from the helm could prove costly for if not the CPM, the Opposition as a whole.

He had tried hard in 1998 to hammer out an uneasy truce between the Congress and the Samajwadi to stall the march of the Vajpayee government just like he had tried in 1996 to convince his comrades in the central committee to agree to Jyoti Basu�s prime ministership.




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Relative humidity

Maximum: 93%,
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Sunrise: 5.47 am

Sunset: 5.42 pm


Partly cloudy sky

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