Sonia keeps Atal on topple edge
Consumer goods import curbs off
Nightmare of aftershocks in Chamoli
Mohali pitches in with train diplomacy
Baby-boomers in 2000 odyssey
Calcutta weather

March 31 
Amid mounting pressure from Congress hardliners to pull down the Vajpayee government, Sonia Gandhi today sent out signals that she could be positioning herself to deliver the knockout blow.

Declaring that the second phase of the budget session two weeks away will be ?very crucial?, Sonia Gandhi said in Kerala the need of the hour was to restore a good government at the Centre.

The Congress president made it clear that her party will make the Bhagwat issue the flashpoint for the showdown in Parliament. She asserted that there is no question of the party going back on its demand for a joint parliamentary committee probe into Bhagwat?s allegations.

Sonia Gandhi?s strongest yet hint that she is not averse to a change of guard at the Centre coincides with the party hawks? lobbying to convince her to spring a no-confidence motion on the government during the budget session. The Congress? topple brigade, which includes Kamal Nath, P.J. Kurien, Rajesh Pilot and Jitendra Prasada, has grown more outspoken after Jayalalitha?s hurricane tour of Delhi.

Jayalalitha?s persistent clamour for the shifting of defence minister George Fernandes as well as the reinstatement of Bhagwat as navy chief and her five-minute meeting with Sonia Gandhi at Subramanian Swamy?s tea party have breathed life back into the Congress hardliners? campaign.

However, the wait-and-watch wing in the Congress pointed out that the party neither has the numbers nor a clear-cut post-topple plan alluring enough to wean away the BJP?s allies. The doves feel Sonia Gandhi?s occasional rapier thrusts are intended more at keeping the government unsettled till fresh elections than precipitating an immediate crisis.

If Sonia Gandhi is playing to the galleries and trying to keep the BJP busy reacting to her charges, she seems to have succeeded. Over the last week, most coalition leaders have found themselves repeating that ?there is no threat to the government,? unwittingly adding to the air of uncertainty and lending credence to taunts that ?survival? is their lone preoccupation.

Today, it was the turn of Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee to belt out the refrain, but a striking difference was the ring of a clarion call to battle and the platform from which it was sounded.

In an address on the death anniversary of Chhatrapati Shivaji at the Raigad Fort, Vajpayee exhorted his countrymen to emulate the Great Maratha, who he described as the ?greatest-ever war strategist, a ruler par excellence and a champion of social and cultural uplift?.

?He knew when to attack and fight... when to withdraw,? the Prime Minister said during the speech replete with references to Shivaji?s exploits in the battlefield.

By the time he reached Mumbai in the evening to rename the Sahar international airport after Shivaji, Vajpayee, too, was in attack mode with modern-day potshots. ?Why is the Congress running away from a debate on the (Bhagwat) issue?? an aggressive Vajpayee asked, brushing aside the demand for a JPC.

Though the Prime Minister made light of the Congress build-up, he gave out signals to prime his own flock and allies for the possible showdown that lurks ahead. ?The path is very difficult... our own people are creating hurdles,? he said.

?When there is a coalition, the allies have a certain dharma to follow. But it looks as though some allies were not in a mood to follow this agenda,? Vajpayee added.

His party, too, is not taking any chances. The BJP?s national executive, beginning in Goa on Friday, is expected to be converted into a virtual brainstorming session on strategies to fight off poachers and survive.    

New Delhi, March 31 
Going beyond the call of international commitment and risking a political backlash, the government today unveiled a policy that opens up imports of a mind-boggling range of consumer goods.

With the addition of nearly 900 commodities in the export-import policy announced by commerce minister R.K. Hegde, the number of freely importable items has gone up to 1,300. The list now includes a wide spectrum of goods, starting from soaps, shampoos, cordless phones and split airconditioners to salmon and shark fillet, milk, cheese and even cabbages.

By doing so, Hegde has more than met the commitment India had made to the World Trade Organisation to allow 1,100 product categories to be freely imported by March 2000. Defending the fast-track path to foreign trade reforms, Hegde said: ?We have taken care that domestic industry is not hurt.?

The statement may not find many takers within or outside the ruling coalition. Within the BJP, the swadeshi brigade may even see it as abnegation of the party?s economic ideology.

Officials said they expected fireworks within the BJP and among its allies as well as from Opposition parties.?The Cabinet itself is divided on the issue, with hardliners like human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi taking a stand against this move,? they said.

BJP ideologue Jay Dubashi, no longer the darling of the inner circle of power, said: ?I would have thought it would have been more prudent to relax imports of capital goods and raw materials for our domestic producers before opening up the consumer goods market.?

The initial response of industry has been cagey. The industry body, Ficci, known for its proximity to the BJP, has sought a study to assess the impact of this opening-up. The Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation, which sells the Amul brand of dairy products, came out strongly against the policy.

Hegde has also made the import of 414 more products easier than it has so far been by moving them out of the restricted list.

Some of these commodities are food items and consumer products, like watches, pens, toys, microwave ovens, coffee- or tea-makers, toasters and amplifiers.

The minister announced a series of measures to boost flagging exports. These include another move with the potential of getting mired in controversy ? transforming export processing zones into free trade zones, with its own set of separate labour laws.    

Chamoli, March 31 
Nights are an unending wait for the next tremor. Days are an unending wait for relief to arrive.

People in Chamoli and Rudraprayag are learning to live with the nightmare of aftershocks visiting them a second and a third time to destroy whatever is left of their lives.

At 2.30 am, an earthquake measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale rocked Gopeshwar, Chamoli, Rudraprayag and Srinagar. A series of smaller tremors, almost one every hour, kept the residents awake and in panic through the rest of the night. At least 50 people were injured in Chamoli with fears of more casualties in Rudraprayag.

Even three days after the killer quake struck Chamoli, relief has not reached some places. The administration claims to have stepped up operations, but far-flung areas like Nitighati ? a valley 135 km from Gopeshwar ? have yet to be visited by rescue teams. Even voluntary agencies are operating mostly in towns.

Unhappy with the relief work, chief minister Kalyan Singh today suspended Garhwal commissioner, B.M. Vohra, who did not make the effort to receive him when he visited the area yesterday.    

Chandigarh, March 31 
Amritsar in 1979. Jalandhar in 1983. And, now, nearby Mohali. It?s a memorable hat-trick for the Punjab Cricket Association ( PCA ).

Taking a cue from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the PCA revived its own brand of diplomacy a fortnight back, putting the train from Pakistan on track.

Actually, the train which brought the 1,000 Pakistani fans from Attari to here was run by the Indian Railways, but the PCA?s promos have labelled it Train from Pakistan. It?s that much more catchy.

Though Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Pakistan?s Punjab province, will not be around with his entourage during tomorrow?s game, Wasim Akram?s team won?t be short on support.

The train has ensured at least 1,000 will root for Pakistan in the 42,000-capacity stadium.

Sharif, brother of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was invited by Parkash Singh Badal, his Indian counterpart, but ?compelling reasons? made him decline the invitation. He could still surprise everybody, but odds on that are heavy.

According to PCA president Inderjit Singh Bindra, Punjab governor Lt.-Gen. B.K.N. Chibber took the lead in inviting fans from across the border. Chibber, the PCA patron, set the ball rolling by writing to foreign minister Jaswant Singh. Later, Bindra himself got into the act.

In keeping with the current mood, Islamabad raised no objections when New Delhi sought the Pakistan government?s views. All this was sweet music to the PCA?s ears, only it couldn?t set aside more than 1,000 tickets. ?Perhaps, had things begun months and not weeks ago, we could have earmarked more seats for Pakistan. As it turned out, we couldn?t renege on commitments here,? Bindra told The Telegraph.

The tickets, sent to the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) HQ in Lahore, were picked up within hours. Each is priced at Rs (Pakistani) 1,200, the equivalent of the PCA members? stand tickets (Rs 1,000). Dinner, by the way, is covered by the charge.

It is understood the PCB will remit sales proceeds to the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, which in turn will have the amount sent to the PCA.

For reasons of security, Pakistani fans will be accommodated in specific areas only. But should they feel hemmed in by security, the traditional hospitality of these parts should overwhelm them. Both the Punjab government and the Chandigarh administration intend hosting receptions for the select 1,000.

Back in 1979, the PCA had welcomed around 5,000 Pakistani fans during the North Zone vs Pakistan match in Amritsar. The PCA again took the initiative during the 1983 Test series. Then, around 1,500 Pakistanis were accorded VIP treatment in Jalandhar.    

Calcutta, March 31 
Move over midnight?s child. Millennium?s baby is here.

Lured by hype, buoyed by hope, couples are planning the most precious present they could give each other on the first day of the new century: a child.

?Like couples in the West, we too want a baby on the first day of the next year. Please make it happen. The expense is not a factor,? Sunil Ringsia ? a contractor from Hooghly ? and his wife Sarita told their gynaecologist, Dr Sudarshan Ghosh Dastidar.

If couples in the West are doing it, the yuppies of Calcutta cannot be far behind. But unlike in the West ? where hotels are now offering champagne and caviar as part of a package for them to try and make a millennium baby ? Calcutta holds out no incentive for would-be parents. Other than a date with history.

?We are trying for a baby on that date. It is being part of history,? said Tapasi and Gopal Sen of Lake Gardens. For some like Sarita, a baby in the new year is a good omen for the family. ?My family will prosper if a baby is born on January 1, 2000,? she said.

Alo Banerjee, another of Dr Ghosh Dastidar?s patients, is expected to deliver a child between December 25, 1999, and January 1, 2000. Said Alo?s brother Anil Roy: ?I am praying that my sister?s baby is born on that auspicious day.?

Doctors said couples are willing to fiddle with the delivery to time it with the millennium.

?They are ready to bring forward or postpone dates. They don?t care that it is dangerous. It started as a request but has now turned into a demand,? Dr Ghosh Dastidar said.

Sanjoy and Jhuma Sarkar of New Alipore are also planning a millennium baby. ?My wife began consulting a gynaecologist from last month so that we get the date right,? Sanjoy said. ?Birth on that day will bring good luck to the child and the family.?

Doctors ? who say they are used to requests to deliver a baby on a particular date ? are swamped by more requests than they can handle this time.

Sci-fi guru Arthur C. Clarke might call 2001 the real millennium and many might dismiss the millennium mania as misdirected niche marketing, but the fever is catching on.

?I am getting too many requests,? said gynaecologist Dr Sova Ghosh. Her assistants said such requests had increased since last year. Dr Ghosh Dastidar agreed. He said 20 of his patients had a good chance of delivering on New Year Day.

A survey carried out by the Bengal Obstetrics and Gynaecological Society revealed about 30,000 women are trying for a child on the special date. ?About 10,000 babies are born in the city every day. The number will at least be doubled on January 1, 2000,? said Dr Ghosh Dastidar.

Sources at Belle-Vue and Woodlands nursing homes admitted there had been calls about availability and booking procedure. ?There is an excitement in the air. We will get a clear picture by August,? said Woodlands medical director S.K. Sen.

For the birth that can conjure that special whiff of millennium magic, conception within ten days from now is what the doctor has ordered. ?It takes 38 weeks to complete pregnancy. We can control the time of the baby?s delivery through a Caesarean section,?? Dr Ghosh said.

?Some might take recourse to administering syncocium drip to induce labour after completion of 38 weeks. Doctors might use protraglandine gel to mature the cervix for a smoother and faster delivery of the baby,?? Dr Ghosh Dastidar said.

Some doctors, though, are exploiting the current craze. ?They are asking patients for several consultations. The demand for Caesarean sections later this year will definitely increase,?? a senior gynaecologist said.

Some couples complained that a few doctors are charging double the usual fees.

Everyone wants a slice of the millennium cake. A Kochi clinic will gift sovereigns of gold, free medicare and a lavish birthday bash for the first baby to be born in the nursing home in 2000.

Salim Sinai ? Salman Rushdie?s protagonist in his Booker-winning novel ? was the face of midnight?s child. Some Calcutta couples are ready to name millennium?s baby if she is a girl: they will call her Milli.    


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

Temperature: Maximum 36.8?C (2?C above normal)
Minimum 26?C (3?C above normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 90%
Minimum 36%

Rainfall: Nil

Sunset: 5.47 pm
Sunrise: 5.33 am

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