Jaya gifts Atal twin breathers
Sonia soft on Left, hard on own flock
Delhi disconnects Trai on rural rates, free calls
Bengal?s cause blurs politics
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, March 27 
Much to the relief of the BJP leadership and government, ADMK chief Jayalalitha today toned down her demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the dismissal of navy chief Vishnu Bhagwat and even went to the extent of asserting that she had no plans to meet Congress president Sonia Gandhi to discuss the crucial Bhagwat issue.

Sonia Gandhi had indicated in Calcutta during the day that she was willing to discuss the JPC probe issue with Jayalalitha. Asked if she would meet the ADMK chief, she said: ?Why not??

Jayalalitha kept the BJP leadership on tenterhooks through the day. BJP strategists, though relieved after her statement on not having any plans to hold talks with Sonia Gandhi, are keeping their fingers crossed about Subramanian Swamy?s tea party on Monday.

Though Jayalalitha has ruled out a formal meeting with Sonia Gandhi, the two could exchange pleasantries and views on politics at the party.

After the crucial coordination committee meeting, Jayalalitha told reporters that she had raised the issue of a JPC, but felt she should not push it since none of the other coalition partners were in favour of it.

?I have already expressed my unhappiness over the way he (Bhagwat) was sacked. I raised the issue at the coordination committee meeting. My party?s view is that it would have been best to have a JPC probe. But other parties did not agree. We have a right to express our view. The Prime Minister ruled out a JPC. It is the prerogative of the Prime Minister,? she said.

Asked to react to Sonia Gandhi?s statement, the ADMK chief said: ?I have no such plans to meet Sonia Gandhi. The ADMK cannot function in isolation.? It was as if she was explaining that the Congress leadership would have to woo her with more determination than it was doing now.

Yet, the government was not prepared to leave anything to chance. Soon after the meeting, the government took the unusual step of releasing four documents ? including a letter by a joint director of Intelligence Bureau ? to the media to debunk Admiral Bhagwat?s charges.

The coordination committee itself decided to speed up constitutional safeguards for reservation for Backward Classes, to give all languages in the Eighth Schedule the status of national languages to honour her demand of making Tamil a national language, expediting Sethusamundram project, ensuring passage of the Bill to provide 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and state legislatures, and a Bill to set up a national judicial commission.

At the meeting, Jayalalitha clashed with defence minister George Fernandes and MDMK leader Vaiko for opposing the JPC. She also criticised home minister L.K. Advani for not being serious about ISI activities in Tamil Nadu.

She snubbed Fernandes on his ?doublespeak? on Article 356. She criticised Fernandes for taking a strident anti-China stand. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee intervened and pacified the ADMK chief.

She was also unhappy with Fernandes for insisting before reporters that the coordination committee had taken a ?unanimous? decision not to have a JPC.

Later, at a reception hosted by BJP MP Vijay Goel, Vajpayee amended Fernandes and told reporters that it was a ?collec- tive? decision.

At the reception for the ?dynamic leader Dr J. Jayalalitha?, Goel invited the BJP?s top brass. He left out home minister Advani, Vaiko and Union petroleum minister Vazhapadi Ramamurthy to please Jayalalitha.

Fernandes, however, downplayed the bitterness of the ADMK leader, merely saying: ?Improvement in relations with China also figured in the discussion?.    

Calcutta, March 27 
Congress president Sonia Gandhi today deflated hopes of the state party by refusing to hit out at the ruling communists, giving credence to the view that she is not averse to Left support for a Congress government at the Centre.

For the record,however, Sonia Gandhi ruled out the communist offer of collaboration in toppling the Vajpayee government, saying it appeared to be going down under the weight of its own weaknesses.

?It (the Central coalition) will collapse on its own,? she told her party functionaries in an exclusive meeting. ?So, the question of acting with Left support does not arise,? she said. She also launched into a severe criticism of the Vajpayee government.

Congress leaders, who expected Sonia Gandhi to take a tough stand on the Jyoti Basu government on her maiden visit to Bengal as party president, found themselves at the receiving end of a ?behave well, work together? line.

?You have to forsake egos, stop fighting, be disciplined and learn not to visit Delhi to lobby for positions or complaint against colleagues . Only then you can hope to become an alternative to the communists who have been in office for 22 years,? she lectured the glum-faced party functionaries.

The Congress members felt had their chief spelt out a stringent stand, it would have helped retrieve the ground lost to Mamata Banerjee?s Trinamul Congress over the past couple of years. Apparently, compulsions at the national level prevented the Congress chief from mounting a full-scale campaign against the Left.

In today?s 30-minute meeting at the Assembly?s old council chamber, state Congress president A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury, working president Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, and leader of the legislature wing Atish Sinha described in detail what they termed the CPM?s ?reign of terror?.

Das Munshi was the most vocal as he listed the CPM?s alleged misdeeds. He claimed nearly 20,000 party activists were killed in the past 22 years of Left rule.

Reacting to the Congress chief?s stand, Basu said: ?I am happy to know that she has made it clear to her people that the BJP is the main enemy for all of us.?

He said the CPM has extended the offer of support in anticipation of a situation where Sonia Gandhi might require help to muster enough numbers.

Mamata said Sonia Gandhi?s soft line towards the communists vindicated her oft-repeated claim that Congress in Bengal was not interested in taking on the CPM. Without naming Mamata or the Trinamul, Sonia Gandhi had said efforts must be made to bring back the ?breakaways? as they are in a ?vulnerable? position.    

New Delhi, March 27 
The Centre today decided to partially roll back the telephone tariff hike, sidestepping objections by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai).

The government announced that rural telephone rentals and local call charges will be frozen at existing rates. Local call charges for urban users making less than 200 calls a month will also remain the same. The number of free calls for all consumers will be retained at 75 a month.

However, to end its tussle with Trai in what had become a test case for the fledgling regulatory system, the government chose not to supercede the regulator?s order on the tariff revision. Instead, it used an escape clause in the order which allows it, as a service provider, to charge less than the ceiling rate.

Trai recommendations to raise charges for urban users making more than 200 calls and slash rates for long-distance and cellular calls have been accepted.

Private companies are not bound by the Centre?s decision. They can charge the ceiling rates or even less than what the government is charging. But since the state-owned Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd and department of telecom (DoT) are the bigger players, private operators are expected to follow their lead.

Trai had hiked local call rates by 20 to 60 per cent and reduced the number of free calls from 75 to 60 a month in an order passed on March 9.

However, after loud protests in Parliament, the government decided to put the hike on hold. This led to a face-off with Trai, which went ahead and notified the tariff revision.

Communications minister Jagmohan stressed that the decision had been taken as a service provider. As a policy-maker, the government had made only two directives to Trai: 1. To reduce the life of the new rates to one year, after which they would be reviewed; 2. To implement these rates only after April 15, instead of April 1.

Trai has called a meeting of private and cellular operators on Monday to decide when to implement the order.

Rural subscribers will now continue to pay a rental of Rs 50 a month and 80 paise for each local call. Trai had recommended that they pay Rs 70 as rental, and a differential rate of 80 paise for the first 500 calls, and Re 1 for any additional calls.

Urban users will pay Rs 250 as rental, 80 paise for the first 200 calls a month, Re 1 for each of the next 300 calls and Rs 1.20 for any additional calls. Trai had recommended charging Re 1 for the first 500 calls and Rs 1.20 for remaining calls.

Jagmohan said the decisions were taken after several meetings with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. He stressed that ?these are not Cabinet decisions.?

Mamata Banerjee, whose protest was instrumental in forcing the government rethink, today said: ?I am happy with the government?s decision.?    

Calcutta, March 27 
Cutting across party lines, the Left Front?s sharpest critics and some of its friends today took an unprecedented step, offering Jyoti Basu a helping hand to form a lobby in Delhi for Bengal?s development.

Trinamul?s Mamata Banerjee and BJP?s Tapan Sikdar joined hands with CPI?s Indrajit Gupta and Congress? Saugata Ray to urge the chief minister to take the initiative to create of forum of parliamentarians from West Bengal. The MPs would pressure the Centre to clear projects meant for the state and pursue development issues.

The proposal by Bengal National Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Bhaskar Sen at a seminar was readily endorsed by prominent figures from all parties in the state. So vehement was the support that Indrajit Gupta, one of the seniormost parliamentarians in the country and a friend of the chief minister, was critical of Basu for not having acted on a similar suggestion earlier.

?Chief ministers of other states discuss with the MPs ? irrespective of parties ? their problems and development agenda before taking up the matters with the Prime Minister. But unfortunately, Jyoti Basu had never organised such a meeting with the MPs, though he is a regular visitor to Delhi. I myself had given him this proposal. The state government should understand unless there is pressure on the Centre from all quarters it becomes difficult to pursue an agenda.?

In a small way, though, Basu and Buddhadev Bhattacharya did take a step in this direction earlier this month. They invited Bengal-cadre bureaucrats based in Delhi to a meeting on March 13. It was decided over dinner that a ?core group? would be formed so that the bureaucrats would do their mite to accelerate Bengal?s development agenda in Delhi. The group would be coordinated by Leena Chakraborty, former state home secretary, who is now secretary in the Minorities Commission. Bhattacharya is likely to hold periodic meetings with the group starting next month.

But today?s development is significant because even the Trinamul and the BJP have committed themselves to a lobby of Bengal MPs. Even two months ago, sceptics scoffed at a similar suggestion by consultants McKinsey. At a Bengal government meet with industrialists in Raichak in January, McKinsey had mooted the idea of an effort on the lines of the ?Pittsburgh Pledge?. The response to that was: ?Can the CPM, the Trinamul and the BJP ever sit across the table, let alone work together for the state??

But today, the BJP?s state unit chief and the party?s lone MP from Bengal, Tapan Sikdar, appealed to Basu to forge a workable unity of MPs in Delhi.

?We have always said that all the parties should rise above sectarian politics to recover the past glory of West Bengal. If we have to take the state ahead, all the parties should cooperate and work out a common agenda which can be pursued at the Centre jointly,? Sikdar said.

The views were echoed by Mamata Banerjee who is the Left Front?s bitterest foe. ?None of the political parties are ready to discuss about the state across the table. We cannot sell the state outside if we cannot sell it inside,? she rued.    


Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky. Not much change in day and night temperature.

Temperature: Maximum 36.4?C (1?C above normal)
Minimum 26?C (3?C above normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 93%
Minimum 24%

Rainfall: Nil

Sunset: 5.46 pm
Sunrise: 5.38 am

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