PM punctures trial balloons
Deterrent wave-in to nuclear club
CPM fight for war zone
Countdown to VRS in banks
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Dec. 21 
Pilloried by his allies for straying from the common agenda, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has warned BJP MPs against tabling private members? Bills on controversial issues not in the National Democratic Alliance manifesto.

Following up on Vajpayee?s warning, parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan wrote to party MPs this evening, asking them not to move individual Bills without consulting him.

??The government runs on the NDA agenda which is open and transparent. There is no hidden business. Expressing a general view on an issue and evolving a consensus are not the same. Certain issues can be raised periodically, but they should not stall business in the House,?? BJP spokesman Venkaiah Naidu quoted Vajpayee as saying at a parliamentary party meeting this morning.

Though the Prime Minister made a similar statement at the last meeting of MPs, sources said he was forced to talk tough after the ruckus last week over two Bills which, the allies alleged, were tabled to test the waters for the BJP?s ??sectarian?? agenda. The party?s Gorakhpur MP, Mahant Adityanath, moved the controversial legislation ? one for a uniform civil code and the other to ban cow slaughter.

The Bills triggered howls of protest from the NDA partners, especially the DMK, MDMK and the Janata Dal (United), which said the BJP had overstepped its mandate by resurrecting issues which threatened the country?s secular polity. In a veiled warning, DMK chief M. Karunanidhi asked Vajpayee to rein in the hardliners.

The Prime Minister does not want to annoy the DMK now as the BJP plans to hold a joint public meeting with its Tamil Nadu allies in Chennai on December 28.

By cracking the whip, Vajpayee seems to have sent the message across to BJP hawks. Jaunpur MP Swami Chinmayanand, a former VHP member, said: ??The private member?s Bills were harmless and meant only to spark a debate rather than set the government?s agenda. But if they send wrong signals and allies start doubting the BJP?s intentions, we would rather not take up such issues. Our first priority is to ensure the government?s stability.??

Vajpayee also sounded the MPs on the government taking ??tough?? economic decisions. ??The Centre?s fiscal position is not exactly optimistic and that in the states is very bad. We will have to discipline the financial sector in the budget session, and our measures must be supported by one and all,?? he said.

Suggesting that populism and popular goodwill do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, the Prime Minister said: ??In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress promised free electricity to farmers before the Assembly polls, but they did not bite the bait. In the end, the Congress lost.??

While assuring the MPs that ??people?s welfare?? would be kept in mind while taking hard decisions, Vajpayee said they should launch a mass campaign to sell the message that the ??next millennium belongs to India??.

Home minister L.K. Advani urged the MPs not to accept ??hospitality from private organisations?? or sign memos without reading them first.    

New Delhi, Dec. 21 
Laying the ground for recognising India as a nuclear power, the US has acknowledged Delhi?s right to retain a minimum nuclear deterrent if it signs the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Agency reports from Washington quoted a senior state department official as saying that India could have a minimum nuclear deterrent ??at the level it chooses?? after initialling the treaty.

The official chose to remain anonymous, indicating that the US is trying to test the waters before taking a final stand. By accepting India?s argument, Washington could antagonise the non-proliferation lobby in the US.

The statement, which comes on the eve of talks between officials of the foreign ministry and the state department, is important as it is an assurance to Delhi that by signing the pact, it will not jeopardise its right to have a minimum deterrent.

The assurance will boost the government?s campaign to build a consensus on the issue. Foreign minister Jaswant Singh is expected to make a statement in Parliament tomorrow.

The remark could also help clear the air on India?s status as a nuclear power. Since the May 1998 Pokhran blasts, Delhi has maintained that it is a nuclear state irrespective of whether it gets official recognition. Western powers, especially the P-5 nations, are reluctant to grant this status to India as it would lead to the reopening of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968.

According to the pact, only five countries ? US, UK, Russia, China and France ? are considered nuclear weapons states. But if Washington acknowledges Delhi?s right to have a deterrent, it will send the signal that it is willing to recognise India as a nuclear nation.

The US also appears to be accepting India?s argument that its minimum deterrence was without a ??fixity??. Delhi has said that in a changing nuclear environment, it is difficult to specify the number of warheads it needs to develop. By saying that it was for India to decide, the Clinton administration seems to be accepting Delhi?s argument.

Saying that it was happy with the US remark, a foreign ministry official said: ??It is a good thing that the Americans have started saying this in public, since so far it was confined to private conversations.??

But South Block appeared a little cautious while reacting to the remark in public. Foreign ministry spokesman R.S. Jassal said that if the agency reports have correctly quoted the US official, then the remarks are ??self-evident truths?? as India has always said it will define its security requirements.

Two joint secretaries ? Alok Prasad and Rakesh Sood ? are in Washington to hold talks with state department officials. The discussions are being described as an attempt to ??tie up the loose ends?? before the January talks between Singh and Strobe Talbott.    

Calcutta, Dec. 21 
A day after their peace meeting with Jyoti Basu, strong signs emerged today that the CPM dissenters were trying to pave the ground for a plenum to engage hardliners in an ideological showdown.

As of now, the party has no plans for a plenum, but, according to senior functionaries, it cannot be ruled out given the pace and nature of certain developments.

Saifuddin Chowdhury, the arrowhead of the dissenters, mouthed predictable rhetoric after his meeting with deputy chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya.

?He is our minister for culture. So we discussed ways to produce a new idiom of culture in regard with our society and institutions,? Chowdhury said.

But, party sources said, Chowdhury and other dissenters have indicated to Basu and Bhattacharya that they would seek to take their campaign for a new outlook, greater internal democracy and modernity to a plenum. The last plenum took place 21 years ago in Salkia, Howrah.

?We will consider ourselves successful if we could force a plenum,? a dissenter said. ?If the plenum leads to another split (in the CPM), so be it.?

At the talks with Basu at his Salt Lake residence yesterday, Chowdhury and Samir Putatunda, secretary of the CPM?s South 24-Parganas district unit, are believed to have pointed out that the party?s approach to the issue of participation in a central government, despite growing demands, has not substantially changed.

In the last meeting of the programme commission early this month, there was no qualitative change in the party line on the issue, they said.

The dissenters reckon that the situation will shortly be ripe for the plenum once the central committee finalises the draft report on this and other issues and seeks the opinion of politburo, central committee members and state committees and secretariats.

If one-third of the opinions ? must be in for appraisal, analysis and debate by February ? favour a change in the programme, the plenum will become unavoidable, a dissenter said.

?We know for sure that a huge chunk of our comrades want a change, but they can?t speak because there is no forum available,? he added

On Friday, Basu and Bhattacharya will brief the state secretariat on talks with dissenters.    

Calcutta, Dec. 21 
The Union finance ministry has asked chief executives of all nationalised banks to quickly prepare a voluntary retirement scheme to cut their massive surplus manpower.

In a notification issued by Shekhar Agarwal, joint secretary in the department of banking in the finance ministry, bank chiefs have been told that VRS may be offered to any employee who has completed 20 years of service or is 50 years of age.

The government is distressed by the low productivity and high establishment costs of public sector banks because of excess manpower. Establishment cost is 20.13 per cent of total expenses in public sector banks compared with 7.66 per cent in foreign banks and 3.04 per cent in new private banks. At the same time, the business per employee in public sector banks is only Rs 89.20 lakh as opposed to Rs 4.46 crore in foreign banks and Rs 8.85 crore in new private banks.

Nearly half a million employees of nationalised banks are in the age group of 40 to 50 and will be eligible for the proposed voluntary retirement programme.

Under the existing compensation formula generally applicable to public sector enterprises, retiring employees are given normal terminal benefits on the date VRS comes into effect in addition to an amount equivalent to one-and-a-half months? emolument for each completed year of service or monthly emolument at the time of retirement multiplied by the months of service left before the normal date of superannuation, whichever is less.

The ministry has given bank managements freedom to prepare their own schemes. They have been asked to send their suggestions for funding VRS programmes without delay.

Unions, which have already got wind of the finance ministry communication to bank chiefs, have said: ?The issue of VRS is not negotiable with the management.? ?The banks have already stopped fresh recruitment. They do not fill vacancies created either by retirement or promotion of existing employees. We shall resist if they now introduce job cuts in the name of VRS,? said a senior leader of the CPM-affiliated Bank Employees? Federation of India.

The terminal benefits to an employee opting for VRS are: the balance in his provident fund account payable according to the contributory provident fund regulation, cash equivalent of accumulated earned leave, gratuity and one month?s pay/three months? notice.    

Temperature: Maximum: 28.1?C (+1) Minimum: 15.2?C (+1) Rainfall: Nil Relative humidity: Maximum: 93%, Minimum:33% Today: Mainly clear sky. Not much change in night temperature Sunset: 4.51 pm Sunrise:6.19 am    

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