Dal loser in Atal balancing act
Hegde camp sees George hand in omission
Pay to see a file, security only bar
Home truth makes Bengal open window to Delhi
Govt mulls army role in Tripura
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Nov. 22 
Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee today expanded his jumbo ministry with the induction of four new faces, but bypassed Janata Dal (United) leader Ramakrishna Hegde once again.

Uttar Pradesh BJP chief Rajnath Singh, Akali Dal Rajya Sabha MP Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa and MP from Patna C.P. Thakur have been given Cabinet berths. Journalist-turned-politician Arun Shourie also finds a place as minister of state.

The strength of the council is now 74, including Vajpayee. The ministers were sworn in by President K.R. Narayanan this evening.

This is the first expansion since Vajpayee assumed office on October 13. The exercise reflected a mix of political expediency and administrative compulsions.

Rajnath and Thakur were absorbed keeping in mind heartland equations. Dhindsa, a member of the Shiromani Akali Dal, will be the first Sikh representative in the Vajpayee Cabinet. Shourie, former editor of The Indian Express, is to help the Prime Minister look after some key portfolios he has kept with himself.

Vajpayee also reshuffled portfolios. The communications ministry was sliced to create a department of information technology. The department has been given to Pramod Mahajan, who will continue to look after parliamentary affairs as well. The move has curtailed to a great extent the jurisdiction of communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan of the Janata Dal (U).

Thakur has got the water resource ministry, held so far by Mahajan. BJP sources said he was brought in before the Assembly elections in Bihar to appease upper caste Bhumihars.

The move to give Mahajan infotech, regarded as the ministry of the millennium, marks his rehabilitation. His earlier assignment was interpreted as a sign that he had fallen out of favour with the Prime Minister.

Dal (U) heavyweight Nitish Kumar has been shunted from surface transport to agriculture to make way for Rajnath. BJP sources said Rajnath?s appointment meant two things: getting the Thakur faction leader out of Uttar Pradesh and giving him a ?reward? for helping the leadership get rid of Kalyan Singh.

Today?s reshuffle has hit another Dal (U) member, minister of state for railways Digvijay Singh. He now has to contend with Bangaru Laxman, the BJP?s Upper House member who has been given the same rank in the rail ministry.

The rail ministry was the only one not under the BJP?s direct control, as Union minister Mamata Banerjee and Digvijay both represented allies. Laxman?s induction will give the BJP a greater say in its running.

Dal (U) veteran Ramakrishna Hegde has again missed a berth. Vajpayee went out of his way to stress that he was not even in the reckoning, telling reporters after the oath ceremony: ?He was not considered for this expansion.?

While Hegde denied seeking a Cabinet berth, today?s exercise was seen as a means to rein in the Dal (U) without touching its big guns ? defence minister George Fernandes and civil aviation minister Sharad Yadav. A stoic Hegde said: ?I am not disappointed because disappointment comes only when you desire something.? Neither Paswan nor Nitish has reacted so far.

BJP sources said senior party leaders as well as the RSS had made it clear that Hegde should not be inducted. ?Why should we nominate a person who sabotaged our prospects in the Karnataka Assembly elections by forcing us to have a pact with J.H. Patel?? asked a leader.

Observers see the reshuffle as a denial of key economic portfolios to Dal (U), which has four Cabinet ministers and two ministers of state.

Minister of state for defence Bachi Singh Rawat, a BJP leader, has been shifted to science and technology apparently after his recent gaffe of announcing the government?s intention to test the Surya missile ? a statement promptly denied by Fernandes.

Among other changes was the creation of a separate ministry of works and estates out of the urban development ministry for Dhindsa. Urban development minister Jagmohan was recompensed with the additional responsibility of looking after poverty alleviation. .    

New Delhi, Nov. 22 
Samata Party president George Fernandes once again played his cards in denying Lok Shakti chief Ramakrishna Hegde a Cabinet berth, much to the consternation of a section in the Janata Dal (United).

Some senior BJP leaders had yesterday confirmed that Hegde would be inducted into the Vajpayee Cabinet. His omission, therefore, came as a surprise to many in the party as well.

While Hegde played down the snub, saying he had never demanded anything, a Lok Shakti leader assailed Fernandes and said the government would not last more than one-and-a-half years as the Prime Minister had become captive in the hands of a few. He said Fernandes was ??scared?? of a parallel leader of Hegde?s stature.

The Lok Shakti leader alleged that Fernandes had even threatened to quit the government if Hegde was taken in.

Sources close to Hegde said he had turned down Vajpayee?s request to accept the chairmanship of the Indo-French forum, a post of Cabinet rank. The Prime Minister, the sources added, even said ??it was a mistake not to have inducted him into the Cabinet??.

Samata general secretary Jaya Jaitley scoffed at charges that Fernandes was settling political scores. ??There is no question of vendetta. George has not blocked (Hegde?s chances). He is not the Prime Minister,?? she said.

While Jaitley is happy with Nitish Kumar?s transfer to agriculture, the minister is believed to be miffed at the change. A Dal(U) leader said Kumar was shifted out because he did not encourage corrupt lobbyists.    

New Delhi, Nov. 22 
India will begin the new millennium by matching the Western countries which guarantee right to information on most subjects, barring those related to national security.

The government has decided to introduce a freedom of information Bill, which will provide citizens with information for a fee. Every ministry will have an officer in charge of an information bank to clarify questions on any aspect of governance.

?Under this law, every citizen will have the right to go through any file by paying a fee,? a law ministry official said. The ban on information on security-related issues will, however, continue.

In all probability, the Bill will be brought in the budget session of Parliament.

In a meeting today, home minister L.K. Advani, finance minister Yashwant Sinha, human resource development minister M.M. Joshi and law minister Ram Jethmalani discussed the outlines of the Bill and considered amending the 1923 Official Secrets Act.

Underpinning the freedom of information Bill are accountability and transparency of those governing the country.

Officials said a liberal and democratic culture of information was an intrinsic part of economic globalisation. Having chosen to open up the market, India could not deny access to information, they said.

At present, information on even the most innocuous decisions or policies is hard to come by. ?For instance, even if there is a new train from Delhi to Sealdah, no one will give any information till the government announces the decision,? an official said.

During the Narasimha Rao government, Forward Bloc leader Chitta Basu had introduced a private member?s Bill on right to information. Basu later withdrew it following an assurance from then home minister S.B. Chavan that the government would bring such a Bill in the House.

The Rao government, however, took no action. The issue was raked up again by the United Front government.

During 1996-97, the Deve Gowda government began a computerised system to give information on ministries and departments. But though there is an information counter outside Shastri Bhavan, there is no law to back up the policy of right to information.

Amendments to the Official Secrets Act have been suggested by several organisations and parties, which have pressured successive governments to encourage transparency.    

New Delhi, Nov. 22 
Red Bengal is in business with saffron Delhi. And, all the self-satisfied smiles are on the other side.

The last time the BJP government (in its previous avatar) sent law-and-order observers to Bengal, they were treated like pariahs. Chief minister Jyoti Basu told bureaucrats not to talk to them.

Today, chief minister-expected-to-be Buddhadev Bhattacharya and home minister L.K. Advani agreed to launch joint action against what they called subsersive activities of the ISI in Bengal.

Quietly, the Left Front government is developing a working relationship with the BJP-led government following realisation that it may last five years.

The Advani-Buddhadev meeting comes within a week of Basu?s talks with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and the home minister.

Although the strategy for joint operation is yet to take shape, the hour-long meeting at North Block today was described as ?politically significant?.

This is the first time in 22 years that Advani and Bhattacharya came face to face. Bhattacharya, home minister (police), has not attended the ministerial conferences convened by the Centre over the past 21 months.

During the talks, Bhattacharya is believed to have reminded Advani under what circumstances they met 22 years ago. At the time, Advani was information and broadcasting minister in the Janata Party government while Bhattacharya was his counterpart in the Left Front regime that had just come to power in Bengal.

?Once, on your arrival in Calcutta, I had received you at the airport,? Bhattacharya reminded Advani. Quite a change from not-so-endearing terms like ?criminal? and ?barbaric? Basu has used to describe Advani and his party.

The meeting gave an opportunity to Bhattacharya to discuss security problems caused by what the administration believes to be the silent but large-scale penetration by the ISI, particularly into districts on the borders with Nepal and Bangladesh.

Bhattacharya requested Advani that once the action plan is devised, the Centre should view the ISI menace in Bengal in the context of its policies vis-a-vis Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast.

Bhattacharya explained that Bengal was experiencing the ?spill-over? effect of ISI?s activities in the Northeast. He promised intelligence-sharing with the Centre.

Advani shrugged and told him that he had been insisting on the existence of the problem in Bengal for a long time and that he was happy the state had finally come forward with an offer of co-operation.

The other issue discussed in detail was infiltration. Home secretary Kamal Pandey requested Bhattacharya to help acquire land on the border to facilitate construction of barbed-wire fences.

The ministers reviewed anti-infiltration surveillance measures and identified sectors where more watch towers, searchlights and better manning by the Border Security Force were necessary. Bhattacharya urged the home minister to take up the issue with the Bangladesh government.

Advani smiled and said the issue had been politicised in Bengal.    

New Delhi, Nov. 22 
Rattled by repeated attacks on security personnel by the All-Tripura Tiger Front and National Liberation Front of Tripura militants, the Centre and the Tripura government are thinking of sending in the army for counter-insurgency operations.

Senior officials of the Union home ministry and Tripura government and the directors-general of the BSF, CRPF and Assam Rifles met today at North Block to discuss beefing up security and to chalk out a blueprint for giving more teeth to counter-insurgency operations in Tripura.

The meeting comes in the wake of 18 people being gunned down and 11 injured in an attack by militants at Panchabati market on November 14. This morning, militants ambushed security personnel in Banduar killing eight of them.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has summoned Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar here to discuss law and order and the spate of attacks on security forces. Vajpayee has, however, ruled out imposing President?s rule in the state as suggested by some sections in the BJP, Congress and Trinamul.

Highly-placed sources in the home ministry said the Centre has agreed to send an additional India Reserve battalion. The newly-raised battalions constitute a paramilitary force under the home ministry.

A second meeting will be held this week to finalise a strategy on an enhanced role for the army. Sources said officials will also discuss whether name the ?operation? if the state government agrees to bring in the army.

Tripura chief secretary V. Tulsidas said: ?We have been impressing upon the Centre that the state needs additional security personnel and we are also keen to have the army take charge of anti-terrorism operations.?

A possible role for the army in Tripura is, however, a touchy issue since the army top brass had expressed serious reservations about jawans being engaged in counter-insurgency operations in the Northeast and Kashmir, after the Kargil war. Subsequently, the army has resumed counter-insurgency duties in Kashmir. The army is, for all practical purposes, heading and directing anti-militancy operations in the state.

The home ministry feels that the sharp increase in civilian abductions in Tripura is a ?matter of concern?.

According to available statistics, the number of militancy-related incidents in Tripura has increased from 408 last year to 466 by October this year. While the number of extremists killed was 10 in 1998, it has nearly doubled to 19 this year.

Compared to 23 security personnel killed last year, casualties have shot up to 31, excluding the 18 killed last week. Incidents of looting of weapons by militants have gone up from 5 last year to 20 in 1999. The civilian death toll stands at 165 this year.    

Temperature: Maximum: 28?C (-1) Minimum: 19?C (+2) Rainfall: Nil Relative humidity: Maximum: 89%, Minimum:43% Today: The met office predicts a partly cloudy day. Mainly clear night. Slight fall in night temperature Sunset: 4.46 pm Sunrise: 6.00 am    

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