Atal, Basu trade word-fire
Basu replays ?barbaric? barb
Romesh Sharma friend murdered
Ranbir Sena vows savage revenge
Guess what stars will twinkle in
Calcutta weather

Calcutta, March 20 
Like two arch rivals shaking hands before a prize fight, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Jyoti Basu greeted each other at the airport this morning but left their smiles behind as they sparred in a verbal slugfest through the day.

The Prime Minister, in the city for the first time since assuming office, took the battle to Basu?s backyard when he told a modest crowd at the Brigade Parade Grounds that the chief minister?s description of the BJP-led government as ?uncivilised and barbaric? tarnished the image of the country.

?I am shocked that Basu persistently describes our government as barbaric and uncivilised. What have we done to deserve this? Is it because we have come to power through a democratic process after 40 long years? Or is it because of our successful completion of a year in office, belying hopes of the Opposition?? he asked.

?Since this morning, I have been trying to find out whether Bengal has a separate definition for civilisation. But someone told me that it is the language of the communists,? he said sarcastically. ?India is an ancient and civilised country. How can an uncivilised person be the Prime Minister of such a country??

Shortly afterwards, Basu hit back while addressing the 29th state conference of the SFI in Arambagh, saying he did not know of any other adjective to describe the party.

Despite the bitter exchange of words, the two met in private in the evening at Raj Bhavan. It is not known if the mood had changed for the tete-a-tete, because no one else was present. Though there was no official briefing on the talks, CPM sources said the leaders discussed the growing lawlessness in Bihar. Vajpayee regretted that the Congress had decided to oppose President?s rule in the state. However, Basu is believed to have said that the CPM was against the use of Article 356.

At the rally, human resources development minister M.M. Joshi went a step ahead in tongue-lashing Basu. Describing him as ?senile,? Joshi said ?Basu?s outbursts indicate that he is ageing?.

BJP leaders severely criticised the Left Front?s performance. ?At one time, Bengal was a front-ranking industrial state. But it is now lagging behind,? said Vajpayee.

At another meeting to inaugurate the Bharat Chamber of Commerce centenary celebrations, he said: ?What Bengal needs today is not the ideology of stagnation, which has proved itself to be a failure all over the world, but an action plan for a major leap forward.?

Expressing concern at the plight of workers in Bengal?s industries, the Prime Minister urged the state to take the initiative. ?The state government cannot keep its eyes shut on such a burning issue. The Centre is ready to co-operate to solve the problem if the state acts responsibly,? he said.

?We want sick units to be reopened. There have been proposals to provide voluntary retirement schemes to workers of sick public sector units. But we want to revive them,? Vajpayee said. He cited statistics to show how poorly Bengal fared. The industrial power consumption in Bengal was a mere 2,069 mw, while in Maharashtra the figure was over 15,000 mw.

?Bengal accounts for the most number of sick industries,? said Vajpayee. ?If our efforts have to succeed, we need to evolve a common perspective between the Centre and the state and between business concerns and trade unions.? Calling for a change in attitude, he asked the state government to bear in mind that revival efforts must be commercially viable and should not be a drain on the exchequer.

In an attempt to pre-empt any misunderstanding with the Trinamul Congress because of Mamata Banerjee?s absence at the rally, Vajpayee praised her, saying her decision to not join the Cabinet shows that ?she is not power-hungry.?

?Trinamul is an important ally and our friendship will continue,? he added. Referring to occasional differences among the coalition partners, the Prime Minister said: ?There may be a lot of noise if utensils are kept together in the kitchen. But what really matters is the taste of the food.?    

Arambagh, March 20 
Chief minister Jyoti Basu today again described the BJP government as ?barbaric and uncivilised?.

?Many people asked me in Delhi why I described the BJP as a barbaric party. I humbly question them to suggest how else I can describe a party which was responsible for the demolition of the Babri mosque,? he said.

The chief minister was addressing the open session of the 29th conference of the SFI at the Arambagh high school ground.

Basu, who has repeatedly expressed impatience with the Congress for not pulling down the Vajpayee government, again said the BJP should be removed from power immediately as it was trying to shatter the country?s integrity.

Responding to the Prime Minister?s comment on the industrial backwardness of Bengal, Basu told PTI: ?He (Vajpayee) has assured all help in development of the state . If he does so, it is good.?

But he accused the Centre of ?doing nothing to revive public sector units. Not only are they being neglected, they are also not getting government orders.?

At the Brigade rally, Vajpayee had charged the state government with not cooperating to acquire land for railway projects. Basu responded by saying: ?We have been acquiring land according to law. There is no problem.?    

New Delhi, March 20 
A girlfriend of suspected Dawood accomplice Romesh Sharma, now in Tihar jail, was murdered at a farmhouse in Delhi?s outskirts today.

Kunjam Budhraj, alias Dolly, Sharma?s 29-year-old mistress who had stood by him even after his arrest, was eliminated by underworld accomplices of Sharma?s nephew, Surendra Mishra.

Kunjam had frustrated Delhi police as they tried to build the case against the Delhi don. It was in her house in Sarvodaya Enclave ? a gift from Sharma ? that the police unearthed substantial cash and other documents related to his countrywide assets on October 20 last year. That was when the Sharma case had begun to unfold. The police were coming to grips with Sharma?s network and his massive clout with politicians whom he plied with wine and women.

Kunjam had stubbornly withstood interrogation by sleuths of the Delhi police. The grit and steadfastness earned her Sharma?s confidence. His other mistresses had deserted him, but Kunjam remained loyal. Only yesterday, Kunjam?s father Amritlal Budhraj and brother Pawan had visited Sharma in Tihar jail.

Sharma was worried about his disputed farmhouse in Chhattarpur in the Mehrauli police station area. He advised both father and son that Kunjam should visit the farmhouse and hold a puja in the compound. This is the same farmhouse that Sharma had forcibly taken over from S.K. Subba. A miffed Subba moved court but the farmhouse still remains with Sharma, who had entrusted Surendra Mishra to take care of it.

Kunjam, forever obedient to Sharma, reached the farmhouse around noon today. She was preparing for the puja when four henchmen of Mishra walked in. She was hardly given a chance to sound the alarm. The four men pounced on her and within seconds stabbed her to death.

Vivek Gogia, additional deputy commissioner of Delhi Police?s southern division, said his personnel had no difficulty in identifying the allegiance of the assailants. Eyewitnesses reported to the police that the killers were Mishra?s friends and accomplices. Gogia told The Telegraph: ?We can definitely say now that one of the biggest heirs of Sharma?s vast property has been eliminated.?

Sharma?s faith in Kunjam grew after she refused to turn a witness for the prosecution. She turned down several proposals from the police to cooperate with them.

Police said Surendra strongly resented Sharma?s increasing dependence on Kunjam. He had realised that his hold on Sharma?s property (Sharma had made him accountable for at least three of his sprawling bungalows and other undisclosed assets) was slipping with Kunjam emerging as a power centre.

Today?s murder was a desperate ploy. A senior Delhi police official said Mishra had only acted like a fool. Sharma had every right to disinherit him now that he has taken the life of the woman who was so dear to him.    

Patna, March 20 
Showing utter disdain for Bihar?s state machinery and the threat perception of its law enforcing agencies, the Ranbir Sena today mapped out the strategy for a bigger, bloodier carnage.

In his hideout, Ranbir Sena chief Brahmeshwar Singh ?- who had been away ?- called a meeting which was attended by leaders of the private army. Swearing revenge for the killing of 34 Bhumihars in Senari on Thursday, the Sena discussed ways of teaching the Naxalite Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) a lesson.

Belatedly, the state was trying to get its act together. In Raj Bhavan, acting Governor Justice B.M. Lal ?- fresh from his visit to Senari ?- presided over a meeting that discussed ways to combat extremism, deployment of paramilitary forces and stringent security measures.

After the Ranbir Sena meeting, the outfit?s spokesman Shamsher Bahadur Singh issued a chilling statement, threatening reprisal and revenge. ?This time, the toll will be in three figures,? he said.

In the past, the landlords? militia has carried out such threats. Singh said the Sena had been restraining itself by not replying to the killings at Usri Bazar and Bhimpura by the Naxalites last fortnight.

Sources said the Sena may not hit the MCC directly because this Naxalite group has bases in Gaya, Aurangabad, Chatra, Palamau and Giridih districts, where the private army has almost no existence. It is planning to take on ?extremists? (sources said what the Sena meant was ?Dalits?) somewhere in Jehanabad or rural Patna.

Sources added the Ranbir Sena?s most likely target is Akbarpur village in Paligunj police station area in rural Patna. This has been on top of the Sena?s hitlist for long.

The private army treats the Dalit villagers as supporters of Naxalites. ?It will be easier for us to carry out an operation in Patna. Our organisation is still not strong in Gaya and Aurangabad,? Singh said.

After his Senari visit today, the acting Governor asked officials to take foolproof measures to check the recurrence of such an incident. He also asked the state government to immediately fulfil promises it has made for compensation and jobs to the victims? kin. Lal said he would approach the Centre for the provision of adequate strength of paramilitary forces.

Leader of the Opposition Sushil Kumar Modi said it was ironic that neither chief minister Rabri Devi nor Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Laloo Yadav had visited the carnage spot.

Seventeen bodies were brought here from Senari today and cremated at Bans ghat.

The BJP has called a 12-hour Bihar bandh on March 23, demanding Rabri Devi?s resignation.    

Washington, March 20 
Will Gwyneth Paltrow wear Georgio Armani or Calvin Klein? Can Sharon Stone afford to betray Vera Wong who designed the sexy star?s wedding gown last year? Will Roberto Benigni, the charming Italian actor and director, come from behind and shake off the yoke of Steven Spielberg? Will the camera focus on Shekhar Kapur, whom every desi will be dying to spot?

These momentous questions are weighing down millions of viewers who will tune in on Sunday night to watch the world?s most glamorous event ? the Academy Awards ? when Hollywood?s best will gather to compete for the Oscars in Los Angeles.

And this time India will have a presence. Even though Kapur himself did not get the nomination for best director, his film Elizabeth has been nominated for six Oscars, including best actress for Cate Blanchett.

To say that the stars will be out is perhaps an understatement. The nominees, the presenters, the presenters for the presenters, will rope in as many cute faces and sculpted bodies as possible for Hollywood?s biggest night out. Whoopie Goldberg, the irrepressible actress with a penchant for politics, will be the mistress of ceremonies in a departure from the standard male tuxedoed presence.

Hordes of designers, stylists, cosmetic surgeons, makeup artists, personal trainers, manicurists, jewellers, caterers and limousine drivers are vying hard for a sliver of the pie, since reflected glory means an instant boost in career. If they can help the stars find the perfect gown, the right shoes, accessories and hairdo, they can become a cog in the ever-expanding celebrity machine.

The Oscar night is the biggest barometer of fashion and if a nominee is not swathed in a Valentino, fashion critics will chew her the next day. Who will court which designer is perhaps as big a secret as who will get the awards. Only Sophia Loren doesn?t care enough to declare that she will dress in Armani.

Once it was enough to get the award ? Sally Field received her Oscar for best actress in 1979 in a simple skirt and jacket ? but today a fashion faux pas is instant death. From cuff links to shoes, everything counts.

With this cult of celebrity in full swing, the organisers are selling 30-second commercials on television for a whopping $1 million. They have dubbed the Oscars as the ?Super Bowl for women?, with an estimated 60 million people, mostly women, tuning in.

Pepsi, American Express, Revlon, Gap and lingerie-maker Victoria?s Secret are all set to introduce new ads to make the maximum impact, just as they do during the Super Bowl, the most watched sports event in the US.

But what of the actors and actresses whose talent will be showcased Sunday? There are ,of course, old favourites like Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep who will get ovations, but it is the underdog this time that many are rooting for.

A foreigner, yes, a man from outside the continental United States with his low-budget film, is giving tough competition to Spielberg, the Hollywood movie machine for whom budgets are a mere nuisance. Benigni, the writer-director-actor of Life Is Beautiful, is fighting for best picture with his jewel of a film about the Holocaust.

No foreign-language film has ever won best picture. Costa Gavras achieved the honour of being nominated in the main category with Z. Conventional wisdom has it that Spielberg?s war-epic Saving Private Ryan will walk away with the top honour because of its sheer sweep, scale and size. Oscar judges love extravaganzas. Remember Titanic last year?

But Benigni, whose fable about a father and son in a Nazi death camp was a clear favourite with the critics, is also up for best actor against Tom Hanks. And Benigni just might make it as best actor against Hanks? battle-weary army captain in Saving Private Ryan.

Nick Nolte is a dark horse in the race for his powerful portrayal of a troubled son of a cruel father in Affliction. In the best actress category, Gwyneth Paltrow is nominated for her role as Shakespeare?s sweetheart in Shakespeare in Love, Cate Blanchett for her portrayal of a steely monarch under Kapoor?s direction in Elizabeth and Meryl Streep for her role as a housewife dying of cancer in One True Thing.

All in all, a suspenseful evening ahead.    

Today?s forecast: Mainly clear sky. Not much change in day and night temperature.

Temperature: Maximum 35.5? (1?C above normal)
Minimum 22.7?C (1?C above normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 95%
Minimum 26%

Rainfall: Nil

Sunset: 5.43 pm
Sunrise: 5.46 am

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