Monday, July 20, 2009

Snippets / Mail Today, July 20, 2009

OUR lawmakers who sit in the twin houses that constitute Parliament are faced with challenging tasks every day but their attention of late has turned from legislation to personal safety. Like any 82 year old, the building has seen much wear and tear and if your job as a minister, MP or even secretariat staff takes you to Parliament House, there is a good chance that you may end up at the nearby dispensary to be treated for minor abrasions or hypertension.
About two weeks ago, chunks of concrete and bricks came off the ceiling of the room of Petroleum Minister Murli Deora. Fortunately, the minister was not in office.

Last week, half a dozen secretariat staff who had got on to an elevator were trapped inside for close to three hours and none heard their shrieks for help from the deep bowels of that cavernous building. The seat of our democracy should not be such a health hazard.

I FIRST sat in a train more than fifty years ago and one thing I know for sure is that they haven't changed a bit in the last half century. While going through the railway budget papers I was therefore a bit surprised to notice that of the total investment of Rs 40,745 crore envisaged in this year's budget, Mamata Banerjee has earmarked Rs 12,393 crore for “ research”. I don’t know what kind of research goes into gauge conversion or for switching from steam or diesel to electric engines but the money set aside for research is the kind that would enable global auto majors, for example, to design half a dozen new hybrid cars. Forget hybrid trains, they have not been able to provide us decent toilets. There is Rs 12000 crore plus for research when less than half that amount has been set aside for safety that would save several hundred lives every year, Rs 1797 crore for machinery and plants, and Rs 2054 crore for restoration of lines.

Much has been written about it being a railway budget for Bengal. A letter I got from an irate reader in Orissa sums up the neglect, betrayal and the sense of letdown after Mamata's budget, particularly among people living outside Bengal. After going through the Railway budget papers with a toothcomb, he has discovered that while Orissa generates more than Rs 5000 crore for the railways, the minister sanctioned just Rs 715 crore for railway development in the state.

What’s more, that is about Rs 235 crores less than what Lalu had sanctioned in the 2008- 09 budget. One of the prerequisites of a good minister is the ability to be responsive to different groups and constituencies and to make decisions that are in the best interests of the people as well as the ministry.

In theory this sounds good, but in practice it seldom works. Ministers keep an eye on the next election and shower bounties on their constituency/ state at the expense of others. Much has been written about the goodies Mamata has showered on West Bengal at the expense of other states. Such largesse for her home state is not surprising considering that she hopes to replace Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in Writers Building in about two years’ time.

POOR Nitish Kumar. He has been taking one wrong step after another ever since newspapers, in the runup to counting day in May, painted him as a kingmaker. He actually believed all those reports and positioned his JD( U) as a secular outfit, in the NDA, but independent of the right- wing BJP and willing to do business with the government, if requested.

He must be ruing the day. True, Manmohan Singh sang Nitish’s praise, but that was before the results gave the UPA a clean sweep. Since then, the Congress party has dealt with him the way it treats its other allies — with a take it or leave it attitude. News reports say that for more than a month now, he has been trying to get an appointment with the prime minister and every time he is told Manmohan is busy.

Ever since the flooding of River Kosi ravaged large parts of Bihar last year, he has been knocking on the Centre’s doors. It was bad enough that help wasn’t forthcoming. But the speed with which New Delhi sanctioned crores of rupees and rushed relief measures for those affected by Cyclone Aila in West Bengal was really rubbing salt into his wounds. More embarrassments could be in store if newspaper reports suggesting a rift between him and the JD( U) chief Sharad Yadav turn out to be true.

BJP gets a life- saving injection
RIVEN by dissension and infighting, the BJP’s chances of long term survival seemed remote as late as a week ago. But suddenly there is a spring in its leaders’ steps and who should they collectively thank, but Manmohan Singh, just back from Egypt. With opinion gaining ground that Manmohan gave away more than he got when he clasped hands with Gilani at Sharm- el- Sheikh, the BJP sees a window of opportunity.

Take a random poll among ordinary Indians and a majority of them would say that Pakistan’s leaders are not to be trusted. But devious as they are seen to be, our leaders seem to go weak in the knees in their presence.

LK Advani, who led the BJP walkout of the Lok Sabha on Friday, learnt this four years when he sang Jinnah’s praise and was roundly stung by his party. Manmohan met Gilani in neutral territory, yet got so carried away that he is now accused of having capitulated on India’s known stance on the issue of cross border terrorism. So eager was he to display bonhomie that he even traded his trademark namaskaar for an aadaab. There is much mystery over why he did what he did. With an election won, he had no domestic compulsions.

In parliament Manmohan said things that seemed inconsistent with the joint statement issued in Egypt. The mystery is not likely to be solved soon either. And how did Balochistan, which has never figured in any round of talks over the years, finally find a place in the joint statement? Islamabad can fling that ball back at us and accuse India of fomenting trouble in the province.

A month ago, I had written about the absence of the RoD ( record of discussion) of the PM’s “ chance” meeting with Asif Ali Zardari at a multi- lateral summit in Russia. Is there an RoD of the Manmohan- Gilani meeting? If so, the people have a right to know. Meanwhile, Advani should thank Manmohan for bringing BJP out of its comatose state.

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