Mahajan stuck in Monica mud
Priyanka replies to Sushma?s Kannada
Pak soldiers freed minus PoW tag
Witness to Dara death dance
Road romeos sing into police net
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Aug. 27 
The bitter ballot battle between the BJP and the Congress has taken an ugly, personalised turn following information and broadcasting minister Pramod Mahajan?s remarks likening Sonia Gandhi to Monica Lewinsky.

Apart from demanding Mahajan?s dismissal and an apology from the Prime Minister, Congress leaders have threatened to ?expose? top BJP leaders in retaliation. A Congress team will also call on the Election Commission to lodge an official protest.

As the Congress outrage spiralled, the BJP leadership rushed to control the damage. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, who came under a barrage of questions on the issue in Lucknow, said personal attacks should not be made.

His colleague Murli Manohar Joshi echoed him, saying he neither subscribed to the comparison nor believed in a campaign in which ?sub-standard comments? were used. However, Joshi said he was not yet aware of Mahajan?s exact statement.

Congress leaders expressed ?deep dismay? and a ?sense of hurt? at Mahajan?s allusive remarks in Amravati yesterday that if Sonia was fit to hold public office, Monica Lewinsky could also be considered eligible.

Terming Mahajan?s comment an ?insult to Indian womanhood?, several Congress leaders, including Ambika Soni, Najma Heptullah, Mohsina Kidwai and Margaret Alva, urged Vajpayee to sack Mahajan. ?Otherwise, we will hold demonstrations all over the country. Indian women will also give a fitting reply in the ballot battle,? they said.

Congress leaders said Mahajan?s remarks ?epitomised? the BJP?s moral bankruptcy. ?Mahajan has affronted the dignity of women by his tasteless and depraved comments,? a leader said.

At a public meeting in Amravati yesterday, Mahajan reportedly questioned Sonia?s move to join politics after Rajiv Gandhi?s assassination. ?Many of you have made your husband?s home your own and stayed put even after he died unfortunately. But did any of you insist that you be made the queen of Pandharakawada or Rajura (local areas) because of your personal misfortune?? he was quoted as asking the audience.

The Congress sought to turn the heat on the BJP by seeking clarifications from the Centre on journalist Shivani?s murder.

Quoting from news reports, Congress spokesman Kapil Sibal referred to the alleged involvement of a Union minister. ?The Congress would like the Prime Minister to name who this Central minister is,? Sibal added.

The surge in mudslinging and the flurry of innuendos came amid charges that the political dirty tricks departments are back in business in full throttle.

Yesterday, the Congress had levelled allegations of misuse of official media and campaign leaks. Pranab Mukherjee chaired a meeting of the Congress campaign committee to discuss the freak incident of counter-advertising in a national daily in which a BJP-backed outfit rebutted the Congress? allegations in the same edition of the paper.

Congress media managers are convinced that the government had ?engineered? a leak. Today, the party sent a letter of protest to the newspaper and the advertising agencies concerned, asking how the two ads had similar layout and design.

The Congress has already approached the poll panel, challenging the BJP campaign against Sonia?s foreign origin. The party has drawn the panel?s attention to the BJP?s alleged xenophobia and Sushma Swaraj?s constant reference to her Bellary rival as a ?foreigner?. The Congress wants the commission to intervene as it feels the campaign violates the Representation of People?s Act.

In Lucknow, the Prime Minister tried to tread with caution on the foreigner issue. He said there was ?no doubt? about Sonia being an Indian citizen. ?Only her foreign origin is an issue. The National Democratic Alliance is of the view that a person of foreign origin who has gained Indian citizenship can contest the elections but should not occupy any high position,? he added.

Mahajan tonight said that by no stretch of imagination did he insinuate that Sonia Gandhi could be equated with Monica Lewinsky.

Dubbing the controversy as a ?last-ditch? attempt by the ?frustrated? Congress, Mahajan?s office said in a rejoinder the party had taken affront when none was intended.

Quoting from the minister?s speech, the statement said Mahajan had asked: ?If we are so keen on having a foreigner as a Prime Minister, why not have Tony Blair or Bill Clinton, or even Monica Lewinsky??

?The names of Blair and Clinton were taken in the same breath. Why then, did Mr Sibal (Congress spokesman) choose Ms Lewinsky alone?? the rejoinder asked.    

Bellary, Aug. 27 
The big question in Bellary was whether Sonia Gandhi would pick up Sushma Swaraj?s Kannada gauntlet.

She did not. Priyanka did.

?I have brought my mother here. She belongs to you. Love and protect her as your own,? declared a beaming Priyanka in Kannada at the Siruguppa rally, to thunderous applause.

?Will you give me an assurance that you will elect her? If yes, demonstrate by clapping,? she continued, evoking a deafening response from the people who rose to their feet to answer her. Sonia quietly stood by.

On Sunday, Sushma had kicked off an election speech in Bellary with a few sentences in Kannada.

Priyanka again hogged the limelight later on a hopping flight between rallies. Asked if Sonia would learn Kannada to keep up with Sushma, Priyanka quipped: ?How many languages will my mother learn? Tamil, Telugu, Kannada....?

She deftly stepped in on another occasion when a reporter asked Sonia if she was considering fielding her daughter against the Prime Minister in Lucknow. ?How many things do you want me to do?? Priyanka asked.

Leaving Priyanka to steal Sushma?s language thunder, Sonia ignored her adversary completely in her speeches. Instead, she played on the south?s equations with her mother-in-law, invoking Indiramma?s name frequently and promising to live and die for India, her home for the last 31 years.

Sonia recalled how the people of Karnataka had backed Indiramma in her hour of crisis by electing her from Chikmagalur, and asked them to vote for her with the same kind of feeling.

?I will follow Indiramma?s path of sacrifice. I gain strength from the service and sacrifice of Indiramma and Rajivji. I will discharge whatever responsibility is entrusted on me. I will spend my energy doing this till my last minute,? she promised, before breaching the security cordon to mingle with the crowd.

Addressing a series of meetings ? she also spoke at well-attended rallies in Sandur, Hadagali, Kattur, Chitradurg and Tumkur ? Sonia accused the Opposition of having a one-point programme of pointing an ?accusing finger? at her family. ?But I am not perturbed,? she said.

She also launched a scathing attack on the BJP-led government, charging it with seeking votes ?on the pain and anguish of soldiers who suffered in Kargil?. She claimed that parties which had come together because of ?lust for power? could not provide a stable government, and the Congress was the only option.

Later, speaking to reporters on board an aircraft, Sonia for the first time said the Congress might consider forming a coalition government in case of a hung Parliament. ?We will have to rethink. If the situation arises, we will have to cope with it,? she said.    

New Delhi, Aug. 27 
After days of wrangling over their status, eight Pakistani soldiers who were in Indian custody were handed over to the Red Cross for repatriation. The soldiers left for Lahore this evening on a Pakistan International Airlines flight.

The dispute was over terming the soldiers prisoners of war. Delhi argued the men were PoWs since they were captured on the Indian side of the Line of Control during the Kargil conflict.

Islamabad countered by saying Indian security forces captured the soldiers on the Pakistani side of the LoC while they were defending their country.

The controversy ended today after Pakistani officials confirmed that each of the eight soldiers ??belonged to the regular armed forces of Pakistan??.

But the contentious issue of whether they were PoWs was left out. Pakistan did not accept them as PoWs, neither did Delhi insist they will have to be termed as such. India wanted Pakistan to ??verify and confirm?? the eight soldiers individually as their own. Pakistan obliged this morning.

In a statement issued this afternoon, India said: ??the Pakistani authorities had verified and confirmed the identities of eight prisoners of war as belonging to the regular armed forces of Pakistan.??

Pakistan deputy high commissioner Akbar Zeb, who was present when the prisoners were handed over to the Red Cross, clarified their identities were verified and confirmed, but they were not accepted as PoWs. ??How can we have PoWs when we didn?t even have a war??? he asked.

But Indian foreign ministry spokesman R.S. Jassal said: ?The eight Pakistani soldiers are PoWs since they were captured in action on the Indian side of the LoC in Kargil. Irrespective of what Pakistan says they are PoWs.?

On August 13, the eve of Pakistan?s national day, India announced its decision to release the soldiers as a ??goodwill gesture??. Though Pakistan foreign minister Sartaj Aziz described the move as a ??positive step??, Islamabad refused to respond formally. Subsequently, the Red Cross was involved in their release.

India?s decision, which followed the air clash over the Rann of Kutch, was aimed at arresting international concern over escalating tension in South Asia.

The decision was also meant to put Pakistan in a spot. With the release of the eight soldiers and describing them as PoWs, India wanted to prove that Pakistan?s army regulars were involved in Kargil. But Delhi appears to have relented after questions were raised about the sincerity of its ??goodwill gesture??.

Along with the release of the PoWs, the India army said today that it has handed over the bodies of five Pakistani soldiers killed in Kargil to Islamabad.    

Thakurmunda, Aug. 27 
Orissa director-general of police Dilip Mohapatra today admitted that Dara Singh, prime accused in the slayings of Australian missionary Graham Stewart Staines and his two sons, was ?involved? in yesterday?s killing of a Muslim trader at a crowded marketplace here.

The killing sparked demonstrations from the minority community who gathered before the sub-collector?s office in Karanjia, where the trader?s body was kept, demanding Singh?s arrest.

A shaken Mohapatra, who visited the scene of the crime today, conceded that the police had no prior information about the attack, which occurred at the Pariabeda village hat, 20 km from here, in Mayurbhanj district.

He said witness accounts and evidence suggested that Singh was ?directly involved? in the crime. A case has been registered at Thakurmunda police station against Singh after Pariabeda village guard Mukunda Nayak, who saw Singh kill the man, filed an FIR.

?Apart from the village guard, a number of other villagers also told us that they saw Singh attack the trader,? Mohapatra added.

Dara Singh allegedly hacked off the hands of garments trader Sheikh Rahman before burning him alive.

A heap of ash was all that remained of Rahman?s garment shop at the hat. Flies buzzed over patches of dried blood. ?He (Rahman) lay in a pool of blood and was terribly burnt when I saw him after I returned from the fields with my livestock at dusk. He was still alive and crying for his mother,? said Jaykrishna Mohanta, whose house stands opposite Rahman?s stall.

Mohanta said there was no one in sight as the traders had fled and the villagers were too scared to venture out of their homes.

?I did not also dare go near him in his last hour. I feel bad as he was a good man who never had any argument with anybody,? he added.

Rahman?s parents and the police reached Pariabeda soon after and took him to Karanjia hospital. He was declared dead on arrival. A general strike was called in Karanjia today to protest the killing.

The prime witness, 45-year-old Nayak, said he had gone to the market around 4.30 pm to buy rice. As he haggled over the price, he heard a commotion. ?I looked up to see Dara Singh attack the trader with a sword,? Nayak said.

?As I caught his eye, Dara chased me with the sword and I ran for my life,? Nayak, who has been village guard for the past eight years, said he knew Singh as he had ?come to my village several times before the Manoharpur incident (where the Staineses were killed)?.

The officer-in-charge of Thakurmunda police station, T.K. Das, said the villagers were too scared to reveal anything. ?Whenever we asked anything, they pleaded ignorance,? he said.

Angry Muslims from neighbouring villages demonstrated at the sub-collector?s office in Karanjia throughout last night and today demanding protection.

They refused to let the police take away the body for post mortem until Singh was arrested. By the afternoon, however, collector R. Balakrishnan and superintendent of police Pradeep Kapoor managed to persuade the protesters to allow an autopsy.

M.M. Alam, one of the protesters, said the police did not take any action even though Singh had attacked and looted a number of Muslim cattle traders and other businessmen in the area. ?We will take up arms to protect ourselves if the government cannot provide security,? said fellow demonstrator Jainal Abedin.    

Calcutta, Aug. 27 
Seventy-two eve-teasers fell into a police net cast in the city after parents and teachers raised an alarm about the menace.

Several of them were humming the chartbuster Pyar to Hona Hi Tha to mock the girls while some tugged at their clothes.

The wave of arrests were made mostly from the south and central areas in the past 48 hours. At a recent meeting, principals and parents told the police that young men parked themselves in front of schools and colleges and regularly harassed the girls.

A special squad of young policemen and policewomen in casuals went around New Market and in front of cinemas in the area, at Victoria Memorial and around some colleges on Middleton Street, Shakespeare Sarani and at Gol Park.

Three boys were caught last evening while pulling at the clothes of some girls at a cinema. Seven were picked up last night from the same area for making obscene gestures and comments. The three boys? parents were summoned. The rest were put in jail and produced in court later.

?All of them were humming the same song,? said deputy commissioner of police (south) Ranjit Pachnanda. Some years ago, another popular Hindi song, Oye Oye, evoked a similar crackdown.

?They are all in their twenties and belong to the middle and upper middle class,?? added another officer.

Girls feel a one-time action is not enough. ?The police must sustain the drive,? said Piali Banerjee, a student.    

Today?s forecast: A few spots of light rain.One or two heavy showers.

Temperature: Maximum 30.5?C (1?C below normal)
Minimum 26.6?C (1?C above normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 98%
Minimum 79%

Rainfall: 46.9 mm

Sunset: 5.57 pm
Sunrise: 5.20 am

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