Sonia?s No-never turns tame Yes
Pawar guarded on BJP
Salary hike for PSU executives
Party versus union over Haldia Petro
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, May 24 
A week after Sonia Gandhi quit as Congress president, she returned to the helm tonight, giving gasping followers a fresh lease of life, but handing her adversaries another chance to dub her a power-hungry sensationalist.

A triumphant Pranab Mukherjee announced Sonia Gandhi?s return at a hastily summoned press conference, saying: ?We told Soniaji that she was indispensable and she has withdrawn her resignation.?

Sonia Gandhi will preside over the AICC session tomorrow. Initially called to deal with the crisis triggered by her resignation, tomorrow?s session will now provide indications of Sonia Gandhi?s future course. Her speech is likely to be a response to the Sharad Pawar-led clique?s charges against her.

Sources said she will address the issue of her foreign origin tomorrow and indicate how she views the Congress? projection of her as Prime Minister.

Party sources said Sonia Gandhi decided to take back her resignation after this evening?s CWC instead of tomorrow because she was told by leaders that they were expecting trouble if she did not preside over the AICC session.

In a show of helplessness and loyalty, senior CWC members admitted they had even failed to resolve elementary issues such as who should hoist the flag and who should preside over the AICC in her absence.

?Congress delegates are extremely charged and they would not settle for anything less than your presence,? AICC general secretary Ambika Soni told Sonia Gandhi, handing her fax messages from all over the country.

But Sonia Gandhi?s return has been prompted by reasons other than just shows of loyalty to 10 Janpath over the past week. She apprehended that the Congress will quickly disintegrate without her, robbing her of an opportunity to keep the Nehru-Gandhi stakes alive in Indian politics.

Soon after Mukherjee?s announcement, 10 Janpath and 24 Akbar Road burst into jubilation. Party workers hugged each other, burst crackers, distributed laddoos and exclaimed: ?Hamari bhookh hartal safal hui(Our hunger-strike has been a success).?

Sonia Gandhi?s adversaries pounced on the announcement and hit out at her. While the BJP said it was the ?end of Sonia Gandhi?s theatricals?, expelled leader Sharad Pawar said: ?It was only expected. The resignation and withdrawal were aimed at diverting attention from basic issues raised by us. The entire show seen in the past few days seems to have been stage-managed.?

The drama ended in a bit of an anti-climax when the CWC met in the evening and passed a resolution requesting her to withdraw her resignation. As if on cue, Sonia Gandhi responded positively to the appeal.

Party leaders said once they got the feeling that Sonia Gandhi was willing to attend the AICC meet, they stepped up pressure on her to announce the decision today. ?Now the AICC session will be business-like and send a clear message to the nation and the party workers that the Congress under Sonia Gandhi is all set to lead the nation,? a leader said.

He said Sonia Gandhi was against the drama being planned for tomorrow. The Congress leaders had thought of keeping a vacant space for the party president and then marching to her residence. They had also planned to lay siege to 10 Janpath.

Many non-political persons had also urged Sonia Gandhi to fight her battle politically. ?Let the people of India decide about your foreign origin,? a well-known historian had told her.

By withdrawing her resignation, Sonia Gandhi has taken a calculated risk. She may have succeeded in containing rebellion in the aftermath of the revolt by the trio, but she has the formidable task of leading the party at a time when the BJP?s campaign against her Italian roots seems to be gaining currency.

If the Congress fails to win in the polls, her leadership will come under attack. Barring her own party, its allies and the Left twins, all other parties plan to make her foreign origin a poll issue. Even former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, who was seen as being increasingly soft on Sonia Gandhi, has questioned her credentials.

A revamp of the Congress, including the CWC, is on the cards as Sonia Gandhi has been advised to head a ?new Congress?.    

New Delhi, May 24 
The Sharad Pawar roadshow rolled into Delhi today, but he remained evasive on his proposed party?s equation with the BJP.

Dodging repeated queries on a possible alliance with the BJP, Pawar said: ?We are talking to everyone. No decision has been taken.? The issue of tie-ups and adjustments in some states would be discussed and finalised in the next few days, he said. He, however, did not rule out a possibility of a tie-up with the BJP at the national level or in Maharashtra.

The BJP, too, reacted cautiously. Senior BJP functionaries said they would not like to rule out any truck with the trio. ?We were in touch with them even before these developments,? a BJP leader said.

After day-long deliberations with P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar today, Pawar said they were preparing a constitution for the party which is likely to be named All-India Nationalist Congress or the Indian National Congress (Nationalist). They will meet the Election Commission to get the party approved.

Pawar and Sangma said the new party would reflect secular thinking. They said electoral tie-ups with like-minded third force and Left parties top their agenda.

Pawar claimed many CWC members and senior party leaders were in touch with him. ?They are with us, but cannot join us at this point due to some compulsion,? he said.

Hinting that a tie-up with the ADMK was also being considered, Pawar said: ?This will be one of the alternatives before us.? Before he broke ranks, Pawar was deputed by Sonia Gandhi to negotiate with ADMK chief Jayalalitha.

He said former Lok Sabha Speaker Sangma would head the small group which will draft the new party?s constitution.

The breakaway group will hold its convention in Mumbai on June 10. Sangma said the new party will be federal in nature and in terms of economic thinking, focus on liberalisation with a humane face. He said his party?s constitution will be ?compact and practical?.

In Mumbai, two more former Congress ministers today joined Pawar?s ranks.    

New Delhi, May 24 
The Centre today cleared a hefty pay raise for officers of public sector enterprises to pre-empt an indefinite strike by oil sector employees which could have tarnished the Vajpayee government?s image before the general elections.

Officers and executives of Indian Oil Corporation, Gas Authority of India Limited, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and other public sector enterprises, including navratnas and miniratnas, will get a more than 100 per cent hike in salary.

The revised pay-scales, which will benefit about 3.6 lakh officers, will have retrospective effect from January 1, 1997, and will create an additional financial burden of Rs 2,070 crore a year.

The officers in the oil and natural gas sector said they were ?happy? with the decision and called off their strike which was to begin on Wednesday.

The decision to hike pay-scales was taken at an emergency meeting of the Union Cabinet this morning, with the spectre of an oil sector strike loom- ing large.

The strike would have paralysed the oil and power sector, leading to a loss of crores of rupees. It could also have spread to other sectors.

Prima facie, all categories of officers have got an over 100 per cent hike in pay. The government has, however, ruled out any budgetary support, leaving it to individual companies to implement the new scales, subject to their capacity to pay.

Sick companies will have to implement the revised scales only after a strategic plan of restructuring for revival has been approved.

Companies with pay-scales different from the model scales or with different rates of increment, can introduce intermediary scales with appropriate adjustments, ensuring that the minimum and maximum of individual scales are not altered.

Officers will get house rent allowance at the rates applicable to Central government employees, following the Fifth Pay Commission announcements.

They will also be given city compensatory allowance at enhanced rates.

Companies have been asked to work out a package for Mediclaim cover for retired employees and a new contributory pension scheme as an alternative to the Employees? Pension Scheme, 1995.

The new salaries are in accordance with the recommendations of the Justice Mohan Committee on pay-scale revision for public sector officers. The panel submitted its report in October 1998.

Though the government has accepted most of the Mohan panel?s recommendations, it has decided to allow a DA revision for executives every three months instead of the six months suggested by the committee.

The Cabinet also approved the setting up of a North Eastern Space Applications Centre, a joint initiative of the department of space and the North Eastern Council. The NE-SAC will establish an institution of high technology applications.    

Calcutta, May 24 
Acting chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya today gave a blank cheque to the Haldia Petrochemicals management to put down the agitation by Citu-affiliated unions, but seething local CPM leaders promised to intensify their stir demanding that sons of the soil be given permanent jobs in the Rs 5,170-crore showpiece project.

Bhattacharya told HPL chairman Tapan Mitra and managing director A. Krishnamurthy that the state would thwart any attempt to disrupt work at HPL. Despite the warning, the union of contractors? workers demonstrated in front of the project site this morning. District Citu secretary and CPM leader Lakshman Seth asked workers to prepare for a prolonged agitation. The upshot of the meeting was that no work was possible in the first shift of the day.

In another development that indicates that the CPM leadership in Calcutta is at cross-purposes with the rank and file in Haldia, state Citu chief Chittabrata Majumdar said the contractors? workers union had decided to suspend the agitation. In Haldia, on the other hand, the Citu has called for sit-ins next week.

Mitra acknowledged that the issue ? demand for a sons-of-the-soil policy ? could severely upset the project. ?It is dynamite,? he said.

Part of the reason why the issue threatens to get out of hand is that the management and the unions have adopted contradictory attitudes. Mitra thinks such a policy would invite financial disaster. He took the unusual step today of criticising the management at a press conference and said it had a ?narrow focus? in its recruitment policy. Illustrating his point, Mitra, who was nominated by the state government, said so far 183 technical persons have been recruited from the state, of whom 49 are from Midnapore district where Haldia is located. Of the 160 fresh candidates who have been shortlisted, 48 are from Midnapore district.

?HPL is not only a project of the state. It is a national company and will be competing internationally. The HPL management has to bear this in mind while recruiting,? Mitra said. But Krishnamurthy said this was nothing unusual and an analyses of the recruitment by comparable projects would reveal a similar feature.

Krishnamurthy said 250 of those whose land was acquired are working on a regular basis under the contractors. And about 7,500-8,000 workers from the locality are engaged in construction.

The management had asked the district administration for a list of the evictees for whom the company would work out a package.

Mitra?s views on recruitment run contrary to the demands by party leaders, such as Lakshman Seth, in Haldia. They argue that a government that had promised such a lot with HPL over two decades cannot now go back on its word. ?HPL is a contribution of Citu,? claimed district Citu president Dipak Sarkar. ?It is being built with our blood and sweat. But unlike the Calcutta Port Trust, the management here has never looked after workers? interests. CPT has recruited at lease 3,000 people locally. We have given HPL 15 days? notice to accept our demands. Till the demands are accepted, we will not be cowed down,? he said.

Today?s demonstration itself was a reflection of the hardline stance. The leaders practically rejected the peace effort by HPL management and finance minister Asim Dasgupta, who promised a workable package on Saturday when the agitation was launched.

Vijay Chaudhry, HPL?s president (commercial), said the company had overcome a tight spot some weeks ago that was created because the external commercial borrowings of Rs 400 crore were not available on time. ?This might have delayed the payment of EPC contractors and sub-contractors.

Mitra said so far work on the project was ahead of schedule and the management was hopeful that the Naphtha cracker and six units of the complex would be ready by September.    


Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky. Possibility of light rain in some parts. Slight rise in day temperature.

Temperature: Maximum 33.6?C (2?C below normal)
Minimum 23.3?C (1?C above normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 100%
Minimum 66%

Rainfall: Trace

Sunset: 6.11 pm
Sunrise: 4.55 am

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