Death and dust in Amethi storm
Sonia show in rain and slush
India fights shy of ban test-ground
Panja aces & joker in the pack
Calcutta Weather

Gouriganj (Amethi), Sept. 30 
At dusk, Congress microphones, perched on jeeps draped in tricolours, were blaring out a new slogan: Even God does not buy the argument that Sonia Gandhi is a videshi. Despairing tractors loaded with despondent BJP faces ploughed their way back past the jeeps. Atal Behari Vajpayee and the rains have let them down. The Prime Minister?s Air Force chopper could not land on the flooded paddyfield in Gouriganj.

The BJP had advertised the event as the most significant political rally of this election. Sushma Swaraj has beaten Sonia hands down in Bellary, Sanjay Singh in Amethi was not such a fierce competitor. But the Vajpayee magic was infallible. It would turn the tide. The waves being made by the confident Priyanka would ebb outside Amethi?s polling stations.

But the gods had willed otherwise. The darkness that enveloped Gouriganj around midday spelt doom for the BJP functionaries. News trickled in that Sonia had made it. Her smaller helicopter, without Vajpayee?s security paraphernalia, had reached Solon, Amethi town, Jais ? only 10 km from Gouriganj. The heavy showers had lasted an hour. They had soaked all of Sonia?s venues as much as they had drenched Amethi. If Sonia could make it, why couldn?t Vajpayee.

Around 2.30 pm when the downpour had petered out and only a fading drizzle lingered on, there were smiles all around. On the dais, a local BJP legislator was euphoric: ?The Gods are with us.? He was expounding on his theory that Jawaharlal Nehru was the greatest traitor and had meekly ceded Indian territory to the Pakistanis, the Chinese... when lightning struck.

It struck barely a hundred metres away from the dais where a scattered crowd was loitering about. A clutch of policemen had been charred, it transpired later.

There was panic as the crown scrambled for safety. Ambulances rolled in across the slush and knee-deep puddles. Official confirmation came through that only two of the five grievously hurt had died. Others were battling for their lives in the local hospital. Unofficially, policemen whispered among themselves about the loss of four lives.

?Inauspicious,? agreed Ram Avatar Singh wading through the muddy water. ?Don?t be irrational,? said his brother Ram Pujan.

It was past 3.30 pm. And fears that Vajpayee may not arrive at all were taking the menacing shape of the black clouds hovering above. A senior IPS officer, Devendra Pathak, borrowed from a neighbouring district by the local police establishment, was emphatically dismissive of the idea of Vajpayee landing in the middle of this inundated rice-field. ?Are you mad?? he asked the still hopeful BJP functionaries.

But they kept coming. A procession of tractors that jerked, twisted and turned unexpectedly. Gentle collisions set off a barrage of abuses. A few rounds of mild lathicharge brought back discipline. Rajaram Pandey, a school teacher from Amethi town, persisted in putting down all suggestions that Vajpayee may not come at all as blasphemy.

Around 4.30 pm, a 50,000-strong fidgety audience climbed from the bog of a paddyfield and headed for the mobile food kiosks that jammed the narrow lane. On the dais, the local BJP leadership was furious. Sheer muck was flying out from the microphones in the garb of campaign speeches.

A sample: Rajiv Gandhi had committed the first grave error by marrying a videshi. As if this kalank was not enough, the kalankini Sonia had egged on her daughter to marry an Isahi, Robert Vadra. Sonia Gandhi still retained her dual citizenship. Once the Amethi electorate taught her a lesson after Bellary, she will pack her bags and take the first flight back to Italy.

It was around 5 pm. The SPG wireless sets had fallen silent. The crestfallen BJP leadership refused to accept the district magistrate?s advice about the need for a formal announcement on Vajpayee?s inability to attend the rally. Sanjay Singh was fuming on the dais.

A local BJP leader had introduced him as a member of Parliament who has been able to do much for the constituency in the past 18 months.

The chaos continued beyond dusk.

Congressmen danced in Gouriganj town.

?Bhagwan BJP se rooth gaye (God has turned away from the BJP).?

In Rae Bareli, Vajpayee took a dig at Priyanka. Priyanka in her speeches had asked the people how they had allowed Arun Nehru to enter the constituency, adds UNI. Vajpayee said: ?When I set foot on the soil of Rae Bareli, I was a little hesitant, thinking, I might be taken to task for visiting the place.?    

Jais (Amethi), Sept. 30 
The storm came before Sonia Gandhi could but it did not steal her thunder.

By the time the Congress candidate?s chopper party descended on this flyblown town, four hours behind schedule, the ground was ankle-deep in slush and the crowd was drenched to the bone in pelting rain. But it was still there, gathering in the Mohammed Jayasi park like the clouds gathering in the sky.

It was only three in the afternoon but it was dark enough for the helicopters to have their landing lights on. Makeshift pads of bricks had had to be laid with the help of local boys; they couldn?t put the choppers down on the inundated field.

For a while, in fact, when lightning was streaking the sky and the rain was coming down hard, it seemed unlikely Sonia would be able to make it.

But neither the rain nor the mounting doubts over the Congress president?s arrival would drive the crowd away. As time went by, it only seemed to grow. ?Aayegi aayegi, Sonia Gandhi aayegi,? went the chant from a section of particularly boisterous youngsters. They kept looking skywards for the choppers, wet and expectant.

Sonia was running late and quite obviously in a rush. She took the microphone without too many preambles and came straight to the point: ?You want a stable government, vote Congress. You want a government that works for everyone, vote Congress.?

The ripples caused by her arrival had barely settled, but Sonia was shifting into high gear. ?The BJP is not only incompetent and dishonest,? she said, ?it is also directionless. You all have seen where they got you with 18 parties. Now they have 24 in that alliance of theirs. Where will they take this nation? You can well imagine.?

Exuding homegrown confidence and giving a fag-end thrust to Campaign ?99, Sonia gave up pleading for votes at her four chopperstop meetings in Amethi today; she demanded them, as if by right. ?You belong to the karmabhoomi of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. You have the responsibility to change things, you will have to change things, you will have to vote for the Congress, you will have to defeat the BJP. The country?s fate is in your hands.?

And wherever she went in Amethi today, hands rose in unison to respond to her appeal.

Sonia was moving with a prepared text which she kept going back to, but mostly spoke extempore, thumping the lectern, Priyanka-like, and pausing to measure the crowd?s response; it is, perhaps, her familiarity with Amethi that made her more interactive, less programmed. ?Every time I come here, old memories come back to me,? she said, her tone modulated to cause an emotional hush in the crowd.

?I remember the death of Sanjay Gandhi and I remember Indiraji bringing my husband to work with you. I did not want to enter politics after the death of my husband but his dreams and Indiraji?s dreams concern me, that is why I?m here.?

Even her opposition to the BJP, she said, was rooted in the family?s ideology. ?I have seen Indiraji and Rajiv fight the BJP all their lives and I decided to come forward in politics when I saw that their hands were being strengthened. I know that all sorts of attacks are being made on me, my nationality and patriotism are being questioned, but I am not going to quit this fight because it very close to my heart.?

Her attack on the BJP was on both ideology and performance. ?There is no government under the BJP, neither at the Centre, nor here,? she said, ?the poor are suffering, women and children are being bypassed by policy-makers, the minorities are cowering. This has to be fought and I am vowing to fight.?

The thunder was now on the ground. Jais rang with applause. A Muslim pocket, it reacted with particular thrill to Sonia?s assurances on bringing minorities? issues back to the centrestage.

The muddy park overflowed. The Rae Bareli-Amethi road was blocked; policemen gave up trying to clear the highway of a human flood they could not hold back.

Young boys hung precariously on the boundary walls of the maidan, the terraces and balconies of surrounding buildings were packed, as were the lanes leading out from the township.

Stuck in the jam was a little flotilla of vehicles bound for the Prime Minister?s rally in neighbouring Gauriganj, a rally that rain would wash away.

They flew BJP flags and Sanjay Singh banners but the caravan?s people were engrossed in the Sonia show.

If they were diehard BJP supporters, they didn?t make too much of a show of it; that, this afternoon, would have been too much of a risk to take. Amethi was quite ready to give Sonia?s opponents a good beating.    

New Delhi, Sept. 30 
India is reluctant to participate in the review conference of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to be held in Vienna next month.

The meet, scheduled from October 6 to 8 and being chaired by Japan, has been convened by UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to help the treaty come into effect. India and Pakistan are among the 44 nations whose signatures are required to bring the treaty into force. Both have been invited.

But India is unlikely to take part. Delhi?s reluctance stems from a portion of the draft statement ? to be passed after the conference ? which refers to the May 1998 nuclear tests in South Asia, without naming either India or Pakistan. South Block officials feel that the paragraph concerned could give the peaceniks another opportunity to blast the nuclear twins.

India argues that since it has neither signed nor ratified the CTBT, it does not need to participate in the review conference.

Delhi has said that the decision to sign the test ban pact will be taken once a new government takes office and after creating ??the broadest possible consensus??.

Participation in the meet now could imply that the Vajpayee regime is willing to sign the treaty.

Though the global community will cheer the move, the BJP?s opponents at home could pick on the issue and charge the government with yielding to pressure from the West.

Annan has convened the review conference to consider and decide on measures to facilitate the early entry into force of the test ban treaty

Till September 23, 154 countries have signed the treaty and 45 have ratified it. The pact was opened for signature on September 24, 1996, but it can come into effect once the remaining 44 nations ? all possessing nuclear reactors ? sign and ratify it.

The CTBT has been inked by 41 of these 44 nations, but ratified by only 21. France and Britain are the two P-5 members which have both signed and ratified it, while the US, Russia and China are yet to ratify the treaty. North Korea is the third country which has neither initialled nor ratified the pact.

In India, the CTBT has taken on a political hue. In 1996, when it was being negotiated, Delhi had described it as an unequal treaty and marked its opposition to its text.

But since India had nuclear capability, it, too, was made part of the group of 44.

Though the CTBT has been demonised in India, there is no reason why it cannot sign the pact now as the nuclear veil has been exploded. The BJP government has also said so, and the moratorium on further tests announced after Pokhran-II is an attempt by the government to follow the CTBT guidelines.

But India first wants the US and Japan to lift the sanctions. It also wants access to sophisticated and dual-use technologies which have been denied by the West. Till then, Delhi will want to maintain this ambiguity about its signature on the treaty.

Foreign ministry mandarins believe that if India takes part in the Vienna meet, it would fritter away its bargaining power by sending the signal that is willing to ink the treaty.    

Calcutta, Sept. 30 
Mohammed Salim went looking for Mohammed Salim. Couldn?t find him.

On Sunday, when voters turn up at polling booths, they may find him, though only his name, nestling nicely above Md. Salim I in the electronic voting machine display column.

Ajit Panja, Trinamul Congress? candidate and Md. Salim I?s rival in Calcutta North East constituency, is not in the habit of losing elections. Nor does he believe in leaving the matter of winning to chance. Md. Salim I, a relative novice, is learning what it means to be pitted against Panja. He also knows the dangers of fighting against Panja with a dummy (Md. Salim II) to boot.

Even Md. Salim I?s 9-year-old son Tipu is well-versed. In their Chittaranjan Sishu Sadan residence where he stays with his politician father and doctor mother, Tipu talks about the everywhere-present Salim and the nowhere-to-be-found Salim.

?One of the Salims is my father,? he says, ?the other, we don?t know. Even abbu (father) has not been able to figure him out.? Tipu turns to his father to warn: ?Papa, see to it that your name and symbol should come second and not third as it is now, next to the dummy Salim.?

As he fights two battles at the same time ? one with an unknown enemy and the other with an enemy he suspects to be lurking behind the first, Salim II fulminates in frustration: ?Ajit Panja has done this mischief.?

What?s ?mischief? in his book is a ?masterstroke? in someone else?s. In any case, Salim I should be elated at the importance given to him by someone who hasn?t lost an election in 15 years. Tapas Roy, the Congress candidate, is not so fortunate. His presence hasn?t even been acknowledged with a dummy.

Panja, of course, brushes aside these ?baseless? charges. He is happy not to acknowledge the compliment, too. ?My winning this seat since 1984 is rooted to the service I provide to my voters. Not anything else,? he says. ?I have a missionary team working for me, others have machinery.?

This may be his debut in Lok Sabha polls, but Salim I can match Panja word for word, if not his ingenuity. ?Panja?s sole mission is to win elections. To him a man or a woman is just a ?voter?, a ?data? in the computer. Should he be elected, Salim I promises to a more ?human approach?.

A leader of the CPM?s youth front and a Rajya Sabha member, he promises ?dedicated offices? and toll-free ?dedicated telephone numbers? for voters to contact him. ?With me, voters will have a single-window facility to solve their problems,? he says.

Did one hear these words somewhere before? Salim I, in trying to put distance between himself and his rival, is talking Panja?s language. Even Panja?s worst enemy will not deny that free ?access? and charitable services are what has made him virtually invincible here.

He doesn?t believe luck can win him elections, but disaster has unerringly struck his rivals in the run-up to the last as well this election. In 1998, a child died after falling into a manhole at the doorstep of Mayor Prasanta Chatterjee, his main contender. This time the deluge, or for Panja an ?act of God?.

Large parts of his constituency were inundated by Friday?s marathon rain. No better evidence for his constituents of the worthlessness of the Left Front government. Not to forget the opportunity thrown to him to rise above the surging flood waters with food and rations in hand to perform his ?act of God?. As he went about visiting marooned slum-dwellers, he said sarcastically: ?We didn?t even find a red flag to use for warning the people about open manholes.?

Salim knows he is up against a swelling wave of real and drummed-up resentment. ?After decades, why should the city?s canals be left to the state irrigation department instead of the municipal body? Actually, these are some of the areas where the people expect our Left Front government to adopt a more pro-active approach,? he says.    

TEMPERATURE: Maximum: 30.7?C (-1) Minimum: 25.5?C (normal)

RAINFALL: 0.5 mm

Relative humidity: Maximum: 98%, Minimum: 77%

TODAY: The met office predicts one or two showers, or even thundershowers in the city. Sunset: 5.23 pm Sunrise: 5.31 am    


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