EC courts legal leash with gag
Atal calms nuke nerves
Army in home ministry line of fire
Joint operation hint in Bengal report
Calcutta weather

Aug. 20 
Shovelling fuel into the raging controversy over some of its pre-poll restrictions, the Election Commission today barred political parties from advertising on television and radio and imposed a month-long ban on opinion polls.

The decisions coincided with calls from the ruling BJP for legally circumscribing the commission?s powers. Already unhappy with the bar on screening a film on Kargil and the denial of permission to the Prime Minister to take reporters on his campaign tours, the party said the commission?s functions should be more clearly defined under law so that its decisions can be challenged in court.

In Mumbai, information and broadcasting minister Pramod Mahajan suggested that an all-party meeting be called after the elections to debate the issue.

The Constitution now defines the role of the commission in general terms, only saying that it is responsible for ensuring ?free and fair? elections.

The commission, however, justified the decisions announced today as part of its efforts to create a ?level playing field?.

Arguing that only a few big parties can afford to advertise on television, the commission said: ?In this process, in a poor country like India, democracy will be totally disturbed by money power.?

Even though the restrictions unveiled today are a reiteration of the orders issued by the commission in the 1998 elections, the ban on television advertisements appeared to have taken political parties as well as the electronic media and spin doctors by surprise.

Many of the campaign flicks ? with durations varying between 2 minutes and 10 seconds ? have already been made.

Amid a frenzy of lobbying by channel executives with the big political parties, negotiations had started with sponsors to buy slots in programmes with a high viewership.

Electronic media sources said banning ads is a self-defeating step since it will only encourage the government to use the official medium, Doordarshan, to project its viewpoint through news and current affairs programmes.

The BJP, planning saturation media bombing, reacted with anger. Party spokesman Arun Jaitley said: ?The Election Commission is clearly overstepping its brief. What is there now to prevent them from saying there should not be any kind of ads in the print medium? Any kind of gag is totally unacceptable.?

The Congress, which had decided to unleash its media campaign in phases, was restrained. Its spokesman, Kapil Sibal said: ?The decision is perfectly fine with us. The Election Commission has all the authority to take such decisions in the interest of a level playing field. Smaller parties would have been hurt if television advertising was allowed.?

Advertising sources estimate the size of the campaign ad pie at about Rs 40 crore. They suggest the decision will cost even a regional channel like Eenadu about Rs 1.5 crore in ad revenue.

Richa Sharma, corporate communications manager with Zee TV, said: ?In elections, every party should get an opportunity to propagate its views. We will incur a financial loss, but that is not what we?re worried about.?

The ban on electronic media campaigns was clamped last year after consulting a wide range of people. ?The commission has gone into the question of advertising on electronic media in detail and sees no reason to review the policy followed in the last elections,? the statement issued today said.

The poll panel recalled that in 1998, it had introduced a ?time voucher? scheme for all recognised parties on Doordarshan and AIR.

?The commission provided extensive time on the electronic media of the public broadcasting system.... This provided indirect state funds to parties which could not be misused,? it said, adding the decision was then welcomed by all parties. This facility continues.

In another order, also a repeat of last year, the commission has barred the media from circulating opinion polls for one month from September 3 till October 3, when voting ends. The poll panel said the media can conduct exit polls but the results can not be made public till the elections are over.

The commission added that pollsters would have to indicate the sample size of the electorate and the geographical area covered by the surveys. They would also have to spell out the methodology followed, the likely margin of error and the credentials of the organisation involved in the conduct and analysis of the poll.    

New Delhi, Aug. 20 
Rattled by the strong US criticism of its draft nuclear doctrine, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee today said the document released on Monday was for ?consultation?, and India was willing to discuss it with all countries, including Pakistan.

Vajpayee?s comments are an attempt to reassure Washington that the document is only a reiteration of India?s nuclear policy without any new element.

By saying he is ready to discuss the document with all countries, particularly Pakistan, Vajpayee is trying to prove that Delhi is committed to the Lahore dialogue process and to allay US fears that the draft will lead to an arms race.

Vajpayee told reporters the only new element in the draft is the proposal on the command and control system being in the hands of the elected Prime Minister.

The US criticism has been the sharpest so far. Not only has Washington expressed fears of an arms race, it has also said that the Group of Eight decision to defer non-human assistance to India and Pakistan, taken soon after the nuclear tests last year, will remain in place. Earlier, there were indications that the G8 stand may be reviewed.

Indian foreign ministry officials were surprised by the US reaction. They argued that during their eight rounds of talks, Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh and US assistant secretary of state Strobe Talbott had reached the understanding that Delhi will possess nuclear weapons, but it will be based on a policy of minimum nuclear deterrence.

?This is precisely the reason why the two sides were now discussing the numbers India requires to maintain its minimum nuclear deterrence,? an Indian official said.

There is a feeling that the US stand is ?public posturing?. It is believed Washington too has its constituencies, like the peaceniks, to take care of and its tough stand on the draft will imply that the US was not going easy on India.

However, South Block officials think a clear picture will emerge only after Singh goes to New York next month for the UN General Assembly session and meets officials of the Clinton Administration.

Vajpayee?s remarks do not compromise India?s position. The Prime Minister?s thrust is on telling the international community, particularly the US, that perhaps there has been a ?misunderstanding? in reading the draft document, which India is willing to clarify.

Vajpayee dismissed as ?hypothetical? the suggestion that there was possibility of a change in India?s nuclear policy.

He said India was committed to no-first-use of nuclear weapons. ?We are for a world without nuclear weapons, but while framing our policy we have to look at the situation in its totality,? he said, adding: ?Let other countries come forward and say that they will not make first use of nuclear weapons.?

India has said earlier that it is willing to enter into a no-first-use agreement, but Vajpayee?s statements now seem to have been made with an eye on Pakistan. Despite prodding by India, Pakistan is yet to make any no-first-use commitment.

This February, the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding in Lahore to take steps on confidence-building measures. It is unlikely, however, that Islamabad will agree to get into a no-first-use agreement with India.

The reluctance stems from its realisation that India has supremacy in conventional warfare.    

New Delhi, Aug.20 
The home ministry is blaming security forces for the spate of deadly militant attacks on troops in Jammu and Kashmir.

In memo after memo for the past three weeks, the home ministry has been stating that the Rashtriya Rifles, the Border Security Force (BSF), other Central paramilitary forces and the state police are not following a pro-active policy against militants.

The militant strikes on Rashtriya Rifles camps in Kupwara have jolted the army which, home ministry officials said, has reluctantly agreed to release some battalions for counter-insurgency operations.

Following the Kargil conflict, the army had refused to be tied down to fighting militancy in the state. But the losses suffered by the Rashtriya Rifles and the coming elections have forced a rethink.

A high-level team of the home ministry, which visited Srinagar on Wednesday to assess the preparedness of paramilitary forces, said in its report ?it is imperative that the security forces adopt a pro-active policy? while dealing with militants.

In an earlier report, the ministry?s Jammu and Kashmir department had said that ?instead of a pro-active policy, the security forces have continued to be reactive?.

Since the war ended, militants have been targeting security forces with an alarming regularity. Yesterday, they struck at the infantry brigade headquarters in Kupwara and, in a fierce gun-battle, killed five soldiers.

The Rashtriya Rifles, a wing of the army, has been the principal target of the attacks. In the first-ever strike by militants on an army camp, a major and six soldiers were shot dead in Kupwara on August 7. In another attack, a colonel, the commanding officer of 4 Rashtriya Rifles, and two jawans were killed.

Stunned by the attacks, the Centre ordered a ?seek-and-destroy mission?, which was to be more intense than the ?hot pursuit? operation launched last year.

?Hot pursuit? is a euphemism for tracking down the terrorists and eliminating them.

The home ministry team visited Srinagar primarily to finetune modalities for launching the ?seek and destroy operation?. The government is planning to use Pawan Hans helicopters to track down militants.

The team held meetings with state chief secretary Ashok Jaitley and members of the Unified Headquarters.

Home ministry officials are hoping that adequate forces from the 15th and 16 corps will be deployed in the militant-infested areas. These units will be deployed to instil confidence among residents, not for poll-related duties.    

New Delhi, Aug. 20 
West Bengal director-general of police Dipak Sanyal today submitted to the Union home ministry a comprehensive report on the activities of Pakistan?s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the recent operation in which huge quantities of explosives were recovered.

An ?embarrassed? home ministry is maintaining a studied silence on the reported operation by Assam and Bengal. The team allegedly went into Rajshahi district in Bangladesh to recover RDX and Ammonium Nitrate in Fuel Oil (ANFO) without notifying the authorities in Dhaka.

Privately, however, senior home ministry sources said the operation was jointly carried out by police teams of Assam and Bengal. They have reasons to believe that Sanyal?s report contains enough indication of the joint raid.

The home ministry is annoyed with the Assam government after chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta?s Independence Day speech in Guwahati, in which he talked about how a West Bengal-Assam police team entered Rajshahi to recover the explosives.

Sources said home secretary Kamal Pande expressed his ?displeasure? at the way Mahanta made the announcement. Officially, the home ministry is tightlipped, knowing that confirmation of the joint raid will lead to a diplomatic row between Dhaka and Delhi.

Publicly, Bengal stuck to its stand and continued denying the joint operation. In Calcutta, Bengal?s home (police) minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya said: ?Believe me, there was no joint raid. I don?t know what the Assam chief minister meant. You have to ask him. But there is no tension between the two states. They have not written a letter to us asking for the RDX. I don?t know what they have told the Centre.?

Speaking to The Telegraph, Sanyal said the matter was not raised at today?s meeting with the Union home secretary, which was a broader meeting of DGPs and state home secretaries to review pre-poll arrangements.

He denied that the West Bengal and Assam police had conducted a joint raid either along the Indo-Bangla border within Indian territory or that any search and seizure operation was carried out in Bangladesh. ?There was no joint raid,? Sanyal said. But he admitted that a team of Bengal and Assam police did conduct a joint interrogation of ISI officers and agents currently under arrest.

Asked whether the Bengal government would return the explosives to Assam, Sanyal said: ?We (Bengal police) made the recoveries.? At the same time, he was not prepared to concede that the joint team recovered the explosives from Indian territory along the Indo-Bangla border.

On poll-related security matters, Sanyal said the Centre has promised to deploy 80 companies of paramilitary forces in Bengal during the elections, but added that the total strength of security forces ?might be increased?.

He said in Bengal, the forthcoming polls were likely to witness increased violence not only from the ISI and fundamentalist elements, but also from Naxalites and other Left extremist groups.

During the meeting, the home ministry released an advisory to the states and Union Territories, asking them to maintain strict vigil against possible ISI-engineered violence and disturbances on the eve of the polls, especially after a series of recent seizures of RDX and other types of explosives from different parts of the country.

The eight-point advisory to the DGPs and state home secretaries related to:

Gearing up the intelligence network
Anticipating threats to political leaders
Taking steps to prevent acts of terrorism planned to be perpetrated with a view to sparking communal and social tensions.
Mounting special watch on sensitive and vulnerable places, where polling booths would be set up
Vigilance on border and transit points
Monitoring entry of foreigners and inflow of unaccounted money.
Thwarting disinformation and propaganda
District magistrates and superintendents of police should ensure that communal flare-ups are immediately doused

The Union home secretary assured the DGPs and state home secretaries that his ministry would interact with them in the run-up to the polls and provide detailed and specific guidelines on law and order, movement and utilisation of Central paramilitary forces. It also promised proper sharing of intelligence.

The home ministry assured the states that requirements of weapons, communication equipment and bomb disposal gadgets will be judiciously met within the available resources.    

Today?s forecast: A few spells of light rain with one or two showers or thunder showers.

Temperature: Maximum 30.2?C (2?C below normal)
Minimum 26.3?C (Normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 98%
Minimum 84%

Rainfall:10.1 mm

Sunset: 6.02 pm
Sunrise: 5.17am

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