DA gift to govt staff on poll-eve
Prize exhibit blows up on Assam police, killing fi
ABP fire probe focus on sabotage
Foreign link gives Advani red face
Sonia gets her act right at Amethi
Whatever is destined will happen, says Sachin
To Our Readers

New Delhi, Sept 10 
One day before the second phase of polling gets under way, the Union Cabinet today cleared a 5 per cent increase in dearness allowance for 4.2 million central government employees.

An official spokesperson described the decision as routine and said: ?The Election Commission does not have to be consulted on this?. The Fifth Pay Commission had recommended that DA should rise automatically with any increase in the consumer price index, he said.

But the government has in the past held back DA revisions citing various reasons. The announcement, a day before polling, could be interpreted by the Opposition as an attempt to influence the election process.

The three election commissioners were busy with preparations for the polls today, but one of them said on condition of anonymity that the panel would have to look into the dearness allowance rise before commenting on it.

Cautious not to displease government employees, Congress spokesperson Kapil Sibal welcomed the decision, but wondered why it had not been taken earlier. He said the Vajpayee government had unnecessarily delayed raising the dearness allowance.

?Coming on the eve of the second phase of polling, it appears to us that the step is motivated,? Sibal said.

The Prime Minister?s Office dismissed the suggestion that the decision had anything to do with elections. It said: ?In the first phase of polling, voters in 145 constituencies have already exercised their franchise. If we had any political motive, we could have done it on the eve of the first phase of polling.? Four phases of polling are yet to be held.

The government has, however, omitted to take another routine decision which has been pending for a long time ? an increase in domestic diesel prices in line with international prices.

This decision has been repeatedly shelved because it is politically difficult to push through just before elections.

The dearness allowance revision had become necessary as the consumer price index for industrial workers, on the basis of which DA is calculated, has gone up to 420. This is 37 per cent higher than the base year index of 306 while the current DA rate is 32 per cent.

The decision is expected to cost the already depleted exchequer Rs 978 crore this financial year and about Rs 1,467 crore in a full fiscal year. The added expenditure will tell heavily on the government?s financial position. As it is, officials in the department of economic affairs fear that the government is headed for a 6.5 per cent fiscal deficit this year.    

Guwahati, Sept. 10: 
When the Sibsagar police recovered a landmine last night following an encounter with United Liberation Front of Asom rebels, little did they know that this deadly weapon would cause a catastrophe.

During a press briefing in the district police chief?s office, a few hours later, this mine exploded killing the SP and four other persons ? an army officer, two journalists and a police constable.

This morning, the police were jubilant at having dealt a severe blow to the banned Ulfa last night by killing Jugal Phukan, a hardcore rebel, at Kakotibari, 25 km from Sibsagar town. They convened a press conference to exhibit the arms and ammunition, including the landmine seized from Phukan. Barely 15 minutes after the press conference, disaster struck as the mine went off.

Most of those who stayed back with the district police chief P.K. Lohia ? journalist Jiten Chutia, army officer Lt. Nazir and constable Dulal Neog ? were killed along with him. A photojournalist, Md. Alfred Sajjad, was seriously injured and died of his injuries at Sibsagar civil hospital.

Asked how the explosion could take place if mandatory precautions had been taken before exhibiting the mine, director-general of police, Assam, P.V. Sumant, told The Telegraph, ?These issues can be looked into later. But the fact remains that we have lost one of our most efficient officers.?

An official statement issued by the Assam Police said: ?This afternoon (5 pm) after the Sibsagar superintendent of police had held a press conference to explain to journalists the nature of the landmine recovered, apparently two journalists stayed back to get more details. While the SP was explaining the details, the landmine accidentally exploded.?

Explosives experts said there were ?two possibilities? behind the blast. The first was ?utter callousness? on the part of the police officials, while the second is that the rebels ?fixed? the mine in such a manner that it would go off ?if the police toyed with it, what they usually do?. They said it is ?not possible to defuse a mine? as it is done in case of bombs. They added that in all probability the mine which killed five persons was an anti-personnel one. ?Such a mine goes off if it receives pressure of 40 kg-50 kg. However, there is a ring which can be pressed to prevent the mine from going off but it does not mean that the mine has been defused. It is like a pin of a watch which, if pulled out, may stop the hands from moving. But it does mean that the watch would go out of order.?

When the mine was being shown to the journalists, the ring may have slipped and somebody may have exerted pressure on the mine, detonating it, the experts said. ?Since this was an army weapon, proper authorisation should have been taken from them before demonstrating it in public,? the experts said.    

Calcutta, Sept. 10 
Officials probing the blaze at ABP Ltd are now primarily investigating the sabotage angle. The five-member committee that was constituted to investigate the incident today met for the first time at Writers? Buildings to review the progress of investigations.

The team comprising municipal affairs secretary Ashok Mohan Chakraborty, municipal commissioner Asim Barman, deputy commissioner (DD) Narayan Ghosh, fire services director B.B. Pathak and deputy director, fire services, B. Sen discussed the cause of the blaze and reconstruction of the building.

Chakraborty, who heads the committee, said: ?Forensic experts have examined the gutted third floor thoroughly and collected several samples of the rubble. They visited the spot even today to gather information.??

The entire committee will visit the building tomorrow for the first time to examine the building.

Chakraborty said the state government had given the team six weeks to submit its report, but he stressed that they will give it in much before the deadline.

Early on Friday, a massive blaze destroyed the top floor of the building. The third floor, which was reduced to ashes, housed the editorial office of Anandabazar Patrika and accounts, advertisement and circulation departments of the company.

Preliminary forensic investigations revealed that the fire had started from the accounts department located on the northwestern side of the building.

Chakraborty said the committee is of the opinion that the fire-fighting system in ABP Ltd is modern. Hence, it is unlikely that the blaze occurred because of negligence.

?There was no short circuit and neither did a burning cigarette start the fire. There are several unanswered questions, which, when sorted out, will solve the puzzle,?? Chakraborty said.

According to the panel, the sabotage angle is uppermost on their minds. ?The whos and the whys will be looked into,? he said.

Ghosh had earlier said what was strange was that the smoke alarm did not go off even though the power connection was intact. He too said that the sabotage angle had to be probed deeper. Ghosh had also ruled out short circuit as the cause of the fire.

The smoke alarms were tested at the office today and detectives said they functioned normally.

Detectives today spoke to the private company that had supplied the fire alarm system to ABP Ltd.

According to engineers of Calcutta Municipal Corporation, the first and second floors of the building are stable. But it can only be declared safe officially after the structural engineer has submitted his report.    

New Delhi, Sept. 10 
L.K. Advani had rejected a proposal 10 years ago to bar persons of foreign origin from becoming Prime Minister. The admission, which came from Advani himself at a press conference this evening, has considerably weakened the ?Sonia-as-Italian-born? plank, one of the BJP?s main campaign themes.

The Union home minister was reminded that as a member of the 1989 Dinesh Goswami Committee for electoral reforms, he, along with CPM leader Somnath Chatterji, had turned down a suggestion to prohibit persons of foreign origin from being allowed to head the nation. The proposal had come from former Janata Dal leader Era Sezhiyan, who, it was pointed out, had issued a press release a month ago giving the details of the particular session during which this proposal was made. Sezhiyan is now a senior office-bearer of the Tamil Nadu unit of the Janata Dal (United), a BJP ally.

Asked to comment on Sezhiyan?s remarks, an embarrassed Advani said: ?If Era Sezhiyan has said so, I am not disputing it. At that time I did not think the Congress would have a person of foreign origin as its prime ministerial candidate.?

Advani denied that the BJP?s campaign against Sonia?s foreign antecedents was a personal one. But in a clear dig at the Congress president, who has said in a Doordarshan interview that the debate on her foreign origin is a ?technical matter?, Advani said: ?If that is her standpoint, then what we are saying is also a technical suggestion. In Italy, a person of foreign origin cannot become a councillor or a legislator, far from heading the country.?

The minister also denied having called for a law prohibiting candidates from contesting more than one Lok Sabha or Assembly seat shortly after the Congress announced its decision to field Sonia from Bellary as well as Amethi. The Congress had reminded Advani that he had fought from two places in 1991 as had Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

?I merely said there was a time when MPs were allowed to contest from as many places as they wished to. Later, it was amended to two seats, but I never said it should be further modified to just one seat,? Advani asserted.

He claimed the BJP?s campaign this time had been ?entirely positive? and centered around three factors, the ?sterling leadership qualities? of Vajpayee, his government?s focus on economic development, and the ?all India presence? of the National Democratic Alliance. He described the Congress? campaign as ?singularly negative? and based on a ?policy of shooting and scooting, of hurling a lot of mud in the hope that some of it will stick?.

Advani tried to brush aside the various Congress charges against the Vajpayee government on Kargil and the ?wheat and sugar import? scams. ?The Congress started off with Kargil but after some time it sensed its campaign was becoming counterproductive. After that it tried to make stability its core issue,? he said.

Stressing there was a ?strong pro-incumbency wave?, Advani said the Congress in its ?desperation? was looking for issues and trying to ?unearth various scams?.

He reiterated that even if the BJP got a majority on its own, it would run a coalition.    

Sultanpur, Sept. 10 
Amethi finally has a Gandhi as its Congress candidate after eight years. And if the mammoth response in Sultanpur, where every inch of space was packed, is an indication, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi?s battle is more than won.

Sonia, who had stayed away from Amethi all these years, reached the district collectorate to file her nomination at 1.50 this afternoon. She was draped in the same brown silk saree she wore on her first public visit after Rajiv Gandhi?s death in August 1995, when she attacked the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao for going slow on her husband?s assassination probe.

With her was son Rahul. After Priyanka?s impressive performance yesterday, Rahul was introduced today as part of the dynasty?s package. Sonia appeared to be leaving nothing to chance in her bid to win back her fief.

The entire cast was present: Pramod Tiwari, Salman Khurshid, Mohsina Kidwai, Sheila Kaul and Ram Naresh Yadav. After the bungle at Bellary, the Sonia script couldn?t go wrong. All characters played their parts, including Rahul. When Sonia pulled out her spectacles before signing her papers, Rahul quickly wiped them.

Sonia then took out her pen, a lowly Luxor microtip. Pramod Tiwari quickly whipped out his Parker. ?Madam, use this,? he said. The pallu over Sonia?s head slipped for a second. An alert Mohsina almost leapt to adjust it.

As lensmen clicked, Sonia paused, smiled briefly and completed the formalities. Even this part of the programme was well played out, considering that the tense pictures of her Bellary nomination had raised eyebrows. Sonia missed no photo-ops today.

Formalities over, Sonia spoke briefly to reporters.

?Will you retain Amethi if you win both??

?Let the results be out first.?

?But the people of Amethi want an assurance that you will be their MP.?

?All assurances will be given after the elections.?

?The BJP says that it will win easily in Amethi.?

?Is that so? Best of luck to them.?

Minus the chaos and the uncontrollable crowds, which sent the Special Protection Group into a tizzy, Sonia?s performance sent all the right signals. She brought Rahul. He didn?t utter a word and looked the other way when reporters screamed questions at him.

Even if reporters were not convinced at Rahul?s deadpan silence, Mishri Lal of Gauriganj was. ?He has no need to say anything. His presence is enough.?

As Sonia came out of the district magistrate?s office, and got into her car, a sea of humanity lunged forward and blocked the gates of the office. A desperate Special Protection Group DIG told Sushil Kumar Shinde, AICC general secretary: ?Sir, we just can?t allow her to get out of the car. Her security is much more important to us. Please, please, please don?t ask her to get out of the car.?

Her convoy couldn?t move. After 15 minutes, the SPG managed to clear the way. As her convoy moved, over 20,000 people moved alongside, literally throwing themselves on Sonia?s flower-bedecked ambassador.

To the SPG?s shock, Sonia opened the door, stepped out of her car and quickly jumped on the footboard of a Tata Sumo following behind. Rahul, too, joined her, and for a full two minutes, Sultanpur had a full view of the dynasty. Shinde only smiled.

Someone missed the party. Priyanka. But she had her own party yesterday. Moving from Jais to Gauriganj to Sultanpur, she had spoken impromptu, in flawless Hindi. ?Do I look like the daughter of a videshi to you?? she had asked reporters.

To Amethi voters, she said: ?You have to make ma win, this is your responsibility and mine. Amethi has been neglected but not anymore. I am going now but will come back on the 17th,? Priyanka had said.

Congressmen believe that the Amethi campaign will be controlled by Priyanka, not her mother. An excited Salman Khurshid said: ?After she asked if she looked like the daughter of a videshi, the BJP has no answer. The issue is settled now.?

The elections are on October 3. For the Congress, springtime begins now.    

Calcutta, Sept.10 
With all of India keeping fingers crossed, the back problem-stricken Sachin Tendulkar leaves for Australia at midnight.

?I?m okay, not worried... No, I?m not tense either. You see, what has to happen, will occur... I?ve always believed in destiny so, whatever is destined, will happen,? Sachin told The Telegraph.

Sachin has finally taken a break ? his second of the year (and career) ? opting out of the three-match series versus the West Indies in Toronto, which gets underway tomorrow.

Speaking shortly before leaving for the Sahar Airport (to board a Qantas flight to Sydney), in Mumbai, Sachin added: ?While I?m not sure for just how many days I?ll be away, I suppose I?ll be there for a week at least.?

Sachin didn?t go into specifics, but top orthopaedist Dr Anant Joshi, who will be accompanying him, indicated that actual stop No. 1 will probably be Adelaide ? Sydney, for now, being a transit halt.

More to the point, the-forever-in-the-news Cricket Academy in Adelaide. Sachin could return to Sydney for sessions, with back specialists, at the North Sydney Orthopaedic Centre (NSOC).

Dr Joshi has been in regular contact with former International Wayne Phillips, the Academy?s head coach, and Phillips has pulled out all the stops to ensure Sachin?s problem is investigated by the leading specialists on call at the Academy.

It?s possible that Sachin ? who has, thankfully, decided not to rush things ? will consult specialists outside the Academy and the NSOC as well.    

The Telegraph website is a truncated edition because of the fire on Friday last. Apart from the front page there are links to the east section.   More on ABP's fire on 3rd September 1999

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