Cult of bullet dips ballot in blood
BJP gains grow in second survey
Speedbreaker in Sonia roadshow
AC explosion sparks fire in city shopping mall

New Delhi and Patna, Sept. 18 
Violence unleashed by Naxalite groups in Bihar today bloodied the third phase of Lok Sabha elections, killing 50 people, including two magistrates in the state. At least 36 persons were injured.

Seven persons died in poll-related violence in Jammu and Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh, taking the toll on a single day of polling to 57.

?There was substantive violence and this was a social and ideological violence,? chief election commissioner M.S. Gill said. Threatening a poll boycott, Naxalite groups ? the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and People?s War Group (PWG) ? set up landmines in Palamu, Hazaribagh and Rohtas districts in Bihar. There were reports of ballot boxes and ballot papers being snatched in Sasaram, Bikramganj, Jehanabad and Chatra.

The Naxalite groups holding sway in pockets of Bihar have been routinely calling for a boycott of polls before every election. This time, however, they were successful in striking terror in a big way. ?The MCC and the PWG seem to have made a serious effort this time,? said Gill.

The rapidity of serial landmine blasts unnerved the state government, which admitted that the violence was because of ?stepped up Naxalite activities, especially in the forests of Palamu and Hazaribagh?.

Twenty four persons had died in the first phase of polling in Bihar in February 1998. But most of the deaths were related to intra-party clashes and incidents of booth capturing. This time, the Naxalites seem to have unleashed a wave of organised violence. ?We were anticipating trouble but landmines ? when planted on the road ? are difficult to detect,? said Bihar home secretary Umesh Narayan Panjiyar.

The BJP leadership aggressively pitched in and piled blame on the Bihar state government and the Election Commission for the violence. ?The commission and the state government were utterly unsuccessful in checking the violence,? said BJP leader Sushma Swaraj. The BJP has demanded repolling in a number of booths. The Bihar home secretary said he was sending a report on the violence to the state?s chief election officer A.K. Basu. In the evening, Basu said a decision on repolling will be taken tomorrow.

In the evening, 16 CRPF personnel and policemen were shot dead by MCC activists at Chando Anchal in Palamu district while returning after conducting polls. Inspector-general of police Rameshwar Oraon said MCC men, waiting in ambush in the dense forests of Chando, opened fire at the van carrying the policemen and the CRPF personnel.

As he faced the television cameras, the chief election commissioner mourned the dead policemen. He said the policemen worked hard to uphold democratic institutions in the country.

In the worst-hit Palamu district, a single landmine blew up a truck carrying police personnel, killing eight Central Reserve Police Force personnel, one assistant sub-inspector and a chowkidar on the spot. The truck was on its way to Chainpur in the same district to ensure the presence of these personnel.

Seven persons, including five Bihar Military Police personnel, were blown up in another powerful landmine blast near Barhi in Hazaribagh constituency, from where Union finance minister Yashwant Sinha is contesting. Sinha is on the Naxalites? hitlist. In his constituency, four incidents of violence took place between 5.30 am and 8 am.

In neighbouring Chatra district of south Bihar, the helper of a bus carrying CRPF jawans was killed and seven CRPF jawans were injured when a bomb went off at Shalgi village.

Also in Palamu district, four Bihar Military Police personnel were killed in a landmine explosion near Nawagarh. Two polling officers on their way to the polling station in Balumath police station under the Chatra parliamentary constituency.

In Sasaram, two more policemen were killed and three injured near Dabua. At Vishnugarh in Hazaribagh, two persons, including a magistrate died in a blast.

In Jammu and Kashmir, militants hit out killing six people ? four civilians and two men of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. Eight were injured in the sensitive Baramulla constituency where the turnout was low.

The ITBP jawans were killed when militants opened fire on them while they were on duty outside a polling station 40 km from Srinagar.

State housing and urban development minister Iftikhar Hussain Ansari narrowly escaped a militant attempt on his life.    

New Delhi, Sept. 18 
The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance continues to maintain its lead in the Lok Sabha elections, according to the second exit poll telecast tonight on Doordarshan.

Of the 344 Lok Sabha seats which went to polls in three phases, the DRS-sponsored exit poll has given the NDA 191 seats. The Congress and its allies came a poor second with 126, while the third front seemed to head for decimation with just 27 seats.

According to the poll, of the 76 seats where voting took place today, the NDA secured 46, the Congress 21 and the others only nine. On the whole, the BJP and its allies have added 23 seats to their 1998 tally. The Congress has gained eight seats while the third front has suffered a loss of 31 seats, according to the exit poll.

Although the three crucial heartland states ? Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar ? held their first round of polls today, the Doordarshan exit poll did not give state-wise figures, which are expected to be telecast after the final round of polling.

However, the seat count for Andhra Pradesh, which completed its polling today, gave the Telugu Desam-BJP alliance first place with 22 seats, while the Congress got 18 seats. One seat was picked up by a third front constituent.

There was an elaborate preamble to today?s exit poll telecast. G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, chief anchorperson and DRS psephologist, was at pains to counter the Congress? charge that his earlier forecasts were ?inaccurate and did not reflect ground realities?.

Rao showed his 1998 projections, which were more or less correct, but avoided revealing the 1996 figures which were wide off-the-mark. He also did not show the 1998 Assembly election results where he went completely wrong on Madhya Pradesh.

Today?s show was lacklustre as most of the time was taken up in discussing issues not related to the exit polls. The figures of the last exit poll, conducted on September 11, were repeated over and over again in a bid to project the NDA as a clear frontrunner.

Predictably, the BJP sounded happy. ?The trends are always favouring our party,? spokesman M. Venkaiah Naidu said. But a top BJP source said the feedback from the 30 seats which went to polls today in Uttar Pradesh were not ?very encouraging?.    

New Delhi, Sept. 18 

The Special Protection Group has requested Sonia Gandhi with ?folded hands? to stick to security guidelines during her campaign.

The SPG held a meeting with the Congress leaders involved with Sonia?s tour programmes and made it clear that it would not ?tolerate? frequent violation of ?blue-book? norms. The SPG officials were flabbergasted at the Congress president?s insistence on changing routes abruptly and breaking security cordon to mingle with the crowds.

In Banwaripur, Uttar Pradesh, Sonia stopped her convoy, walked up to a group of villagers and drank water from their well. At Chaubeygunj, she and Rahul Gandhi visited a hut without the approval of the SPG guards, who were left tearing out their hair.

For the time being, the Congress camp has decided to pay heed to the security group. This means that Sonia?s mass contact would be restricted to public meetings and speeches instead of ?free-for-all? roadshows. Party leaders, however, said there would be roadshows just before the last phase of elections. ?We cannot be seen as taking all guidelines on face value,? a leader said.

The Congress claims the BJP-led government, on the pretext of security, is trying to ?discourage? Sonia from her mass contact programme, which was proving to be a ?turning point? in Uttar Pradesh. But the party is unwilling to pick a fight with the government and the SPG on a sensitive matter like Sonia?s security. A leader told The Telegraph: ?We have to abide by the SPG?s advice even if it is politically motivated. The AICC chief?s security is much more precious than any other issue.?

A party general secretary added that there was no question of compromising with Sonia?s security after the assassination of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. ?We are prepared to pay any price but there is no question of any concession on security matters,? he said.

Party leaders said of late there has been a perceptible change in Sonia?s attitude towards security matters.

For the past seven years, she observed all security drills but in the past two months, she has been trying to reach out to the people. ?The emerging politician in Sonia Gandhi is throwing out caution. She is now willing to take risks in order to increase her and the Congress? ratings in Uttar Pradesh,? a party leader said.

Like their mother, Rahul and Priyanka are also willing to overlook security considerations. Both are covered under the SPG Act but the cordon around them appears to have been relaxed a little.

Congress leaders said there was a running feud between the party and the government for the past six months. After several meetings, Congress office-bearers Ahmad Patel and Oscar Fernandes were assigned to network with the security agencies on Sonia?s safety.

The first major tiff between the party and the SPG took place in Bellary, Karnataka, where Sonia and Priyanka moved about freely on the narrow streets and bylanes on September 2 evening. The SPG and local police personnel had a hard time controlling the surging crowds gathering wherever the two women went.    

Calcutta, Sept. 18 
A fire raged through the ground floor of Shreeram Arcade, an upmarket shopping hub in the heart of the city at Humayun Place, this evening, after an explosion in the airconditioning unit near its entrance.

The explosion lit up the night sky in an orange glow at about 9.40 pm. The main entrance and the first floor section above it were charred.

It was brought under control about 40 minutes later by fire brigade personnel who were helped by the shopkeepers and movie-goers who were leaving after the evening show in Lighthouse Cinema.

Alarmed staffers of the Oberoi Grand rushed to join in the firefighting efforts ? Shreeram Arcade is adjacent to the five-star hotel ? and prepare for an emergency in case the fire spread.

The shops had closed down for the day. Some shopkeepers who rushed back said it was unlikely that anybody was inside the mall when the fire broke out.

The fire singed the ornate wooden facade of Shreeram Arcade, which opened three years ago. One of the Arcade?s showpieces is a glass lift.

The fire spread to a fruit juice and coffee shop in the western wing on the ground floor just next to the entrance. It fanned out further west to two bookshops and garment stores.

The first fire engines from Free School Street arrived within minutes. The electrical mains of the shopping mall were switched off earlier. By 10.10 pm there were 12 fire engines at the spot. There was a stench of burning rubber in the locality.

?The fire services personnel had a tough time doing their job because there was no police around to control the crowd,? said Sanjay Singh, a shopowner.

Traders who rushed back had to set up ?No Entry? signs on the approach roads to restrain traffic and allow only the fire engines in. The situation worsened after the last shows at New Empire and Lighthouse Cinemas were over and people spilled out to Humayun Place.

Amol Nath, another trader, said things could get out of hand if the fire spread to the basement. Most shops on the basement stocked plastics and textiles ? highly inflammable goods. He said losses could still be heavy even if the fire was largely under control because most shopkeepers had stocked up for the peak puja season.

Debashish Banerjee, a passerby, said he tried to enter the arcade soon after the explosion. His kurta was torn and covered with soot. ?I rushed inside Lighthouse to arrange for water,? he said.

Shreeram Arcade is just west of New Market, a major portion of which was devastated in a fire a decade back. Among the first to reach Shreeram Arcade and try to douse the fire were New Market shopkeepers and helpers.    


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