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Rahul Gandhi to contest from Wayanad too

NEW DELHI, March 31: Congress president Rahul Gandhi will contest from Wayanad Lok Sabha seat in Kerala apart from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.

Announcing the decision at a news conference at the party headquarters in Delhi on Sunday, senior Congress leader AK Antony said Rahul Gandhi has accepted the demands of thousands of workers from Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to contest from a second seat in south India.

“There were many considerations while selecting Wayanad and the foremost one was that it is a tri-junction and borders both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu,” he said.

Congress’ chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said, “While Amethi remains the karmabhoomi of Rahul Gandhi, he has respected the sentiments of the thousands of workers from south India by accepting to contest from Wayanad in Kerala.”

Wayanad, a rural district, has been a Congress stronghold. The constituency was carved out from Malappuram, Kozhikkode and Kannur during the restructuring of constituencies in 2008.

The ruling Left Democratic Front has fielded CPI’s PP Suneer and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has left the seat for for BDJS (Bhartiya Dharma Jana Sangam, an outfit being floated by backward Ezhava community).

CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran had earlier said there was no question of withdrawing the party candidate.

Pressure had been building up on Rahul Gandhi to contest from south India apart from Amethi to boost the morale of the cadre with leaders from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala urging him to select a second seat of his choice in their respective state.

The Congress boss was given the option of Bangalore Central, Bidar and Mysore from Karnataka, Kanyakumari and Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu and Wayanad in Kerala.

With this decision, Rahul Gandhi becomes the third member of the Gandhi family to select a second seat from south India. Prior to him, his grandmother and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had contested from Chikmagalur in Karnataka in 1978 while his mother and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi fought from Bellary in the same state in 1998.

Indira Gandhi had contested the Lok Sabha by-elections from Chikmagalur in 1978, a year after she was defeated by Raj Narain of Janata Party from Rae Bareli post the Emergency.

One of her loyalists, DB Chandre Gowda, had vacated the seat for her. The former Prime Minister defeated former chief minister and Janata Party candidate Veerendra Patil by a margin of more than 77,000 votes.

It was a turning point in Indira Gandhi’s career and the victory gave her a political rebirth and two years later she swept back to power in the 1980 Lok Sabha elections, with the Congress winning 353 seats.

However, she contested from Rae Bareli this time and defeated the opposition candidate Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia and once again assumed the office of the Prime Minister.

Following the footsteps of her mother-in-law soon after joining the politics, Sonia Gandhi contested the 1999 Lok Sabha elections from two seats – Bellary in Karnataka and Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.

She defeated BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj from Bellary and Sanjay Singh from Amethi. Sonia Gandhi, however, chose to represent Amethi and gave up Bellary.

Out of the total 543 Lok Sabha seats, 130 are in south India with 39 in Tamil Nadu, 28 in Karnataka, 25 in Andhra Pradesh, 20 in Kerala, 17 in Telangana and one in Puducherry.

While Congress has substantial presence in Karnataka and Kerala, it is in alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) but is weak in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

In the past several weeks, Kerala unit chief Mullapally Ramachandran, former chief minister Oommen Chandy and senior leader Ramesh Chennithala had urged Rahul Gandhi to contest from their state.

Similarly, Karnataka Congress president Dinesh Gundu Rao and former chief minister Siddaramaiah had formally invited Rahul Gandhi to contest from Karnataka.

From Tamil Nadu, state Congress chief KS Alagiri and senior leader Manickam Tagore, had made similar requests to Rahul Gandhi, saying he was first proposed as the next Prime Minister by DMK chief MK Stalin.

Dad Shatrughan should have left BJP long ago: Sonakshi

NEW DELHI, March 29: Bollywood actor Sonakshi Sinha on Friday came out in support of her father Shatrughan Sinha leaving the Bharatiya Janata Party and joining the Congress and said that he should have done it long ago.

Speaking at HT India’s Most Stylish 2009 awards, Sonakshi Sinha said, “I think he should have done that long ago. He hadn’t been getting the respect he deserved.”

Lok Sabha MP Shatrughan Sinha had on Thursday ended all speculation about him joining the Congress after a meeting with the party president Rahul Gandhi at his residence in New Delhi.

Soon after his meeting with Rahul Gandhi, Sinha had announced that he would join the Congress.

“Joining will happen soon, we will give you a positive news during Navratri. I will join Congress now,” he had said.

In a tweet, senior Congress leader Shaktisinh Gohil said that Sinha is scheduled to join on April 6.

Sinha, a two-time sitting BJP MP from the Patna Sahib Lok Sabha seat, has been critical of the Narendra Modi government for the past couple of years. His utterances both in public and on social media had led to him being sidelined within the party and being replaced as the party’s candidate for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad will be contesting for the BJP from the Patna Sahib Lok Sabha constituency.

On Wednesday, in a four-part tweet, Sinha had come out in support of veteran BJP leader LK Advani and had criticised the BJP for not having fielded the veteran leader from his constituency Gandhinagar. BJP chief Amit Shah will be contesting from Gandhinagar, in his first outing in a Lok Sabha election.

In Bihar, the BJP is contesting the Lok Sabha election in alliance with the Janata Dal-United and the Lok Janshakti Party. The Congress on the other hand has tied up with the Rashtriya Janata Dal in the state. Bihar sends 40 members to the Lok Sabha.

Change in VVPAT counting method not feasible: EC to SC

NEW DELHI, March 29: The Election Commission (EC) of India on Friday told the Supreme Court that any change in the present method of counting voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) slips at this stage may not be feasible.

Responding to a petition filed by 21 opposition leaders demanding 50% of VVPAT slip verification in each assembly segment of a Lok Sabha constituency, the poll panel said, “Polling is to commence from April 11, 2019; to now seek to alter the system adopted by the Election Commission of India at this stage might not be feasible.”

VVPAT, which is attached to an electronic voting machine ()EVM, allows a voter to audit whether the vote cast has gone to the candidate he/she intended to.

Currently, the EC counts VVPAT slips from a randomly-selected polling station per assembly segment in case of Lok Sabha polls.

The Supreme Court had earlier this week favoured the suggestion by various political leaders to increase the count of VVPAT slips and had asked the EC to give its view if the same can be done for the “satisfaction of the electorate”.

A bench led by the Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi had said, “No institution, including judiciary, can insulate itself from suggestion for improvement.”

In the past, politicians and parties have approached high courts and the apex court on the issue of increasing VVPAT count, but the courts have not interfered with the poll body’s decision.

The poll panel in its affidavit filed on Friday said, “On an average, it takes one hour for VVPAT slip count of one polling station”. If the number is increased to 50% of the total assembly constituency, it would take at least 5 days, the EC said. The commission also argued that the present petition “does not raise any new or different apprehension or grievance as was raised in the earlier cases, nor brings out any grave or serious reason requiring a revamping of the system that has been adopted by the Election Commission of India for the purpose of the conduct of the 2019 elections”.

“Election Commission of India is committed to ensuring a free and fair election...,” the EC said. “

“VVPATs have been used by the Election Commission of India, since 2013, in 1628 Assembly Constituencies and 21 Parliamentary Constituencies. During this period, only once has any complaint been made by a voter alleging that his/her vote did not go to the candidate he had pressed the button in favour of,” said the poll panel.

Modi’s speech on Mission Shakti didn’t violate model code of conduct: EC

NEW DELHI, March 29: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s televised address on Mission Shakti did not violate model code of conduct, the Election Commission said on Friday evening. The commission, which had asked five officers to look into a complaint by CPM’s Sitaram Yechury, said it concurred with the findings of the committee that there had been no violation of the model code of conduct.

The model code is designed to ensure that the party in power does not get an unfair advantage in campaigning and influencing voters. The code is routinely invoked to prevent the political executive from promising financial grants, large projects or making ad-hoc government appointments.

In this case, the commission evaluated if the government had misused the official mass media Doordarshan and All India Radio “for partisan coverage of political news and publicity’. Doordarshan, however, told the committee that “the telecast of the Prime Minister’s address on 27 March was not live” and it had only played out the feed received from news agency ANI.

Election Commission officials had indicated right at the beginning that the government did not need to take permission to make security-related announcements.

Shatrughan Sinha meets Rahul Gandhi, says will join Congress

NEW DELHI, March 28: Lok Sabha MP Shatrughan Sinha on Thursday ended speculation over his joining the Congress after meeting party president Rahul Gandhi at his residence in New Delhi. After meeting Gandhi, Sinha announced he will join the Congress.

“Joining will happen soon, we will give you a positive news during Navaratri. I will join Congress now,” said Sinha.

Senior Congress leader Shaktisinh Gohil tweeted that Sinha will join the party on April 6. “BJP MP Shatrugna Sinha ji met our Congress President Shri @RahulGandhi today and in national interest has decided to join the Congress. He wil formally join Congress on April 6,” Gohil wrote on Twitter.

This came after another senior Congress leader RK Anand said that a decision on Shatrughan Sinha’s induction in the party was expected “after 2 pm”. Anand said “It will be decided after 2 pm, there is no fight on his joining or his seat, just a delay. Adjustments are happening.”

On Wednesday, Bihar Congress election campaign committee chairman Akhilesh Prasad Singh had said that Shatrughan Sinha would join the party “in New Delhi on March 28 at 11.30 am”. Singh had also announced that Sinha will be the Congress candidate from Patna Sahib.

On his part, Sinha praised Gandhi after he promised to implement a minimum income guarantee scheme if the Congress is voted to power in the Lok Sabha polls. Sinha called Gandhi a “master of situation” indicating that the Congress president has set the narrative for the Lok Sabha elections.

Shatrughan Sinha is a two-time sitting BJP Member of Parliament from Patna Lok Sabha seat and has been critical of the Narendra Modi government for past couple of years. He has been sidelined in the BJP, which replaced him with Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad as the Lok Sabha candidate from Patna Sahib constituency.

The BJP is contesting the Lok Sabha election in alliance with the Janata Dal-United and the Lok Janshakti Party in Bihar. On the other hand, the Congress is in alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal in the state that sends 40 members to the Lok Sabha.

The RJD was said to be keen on having Sinha as its candidate from Patna Sahib constituency. Sinha and RJD supremo Lalu Prasad share a cordial relation. But the Congress has always contested the Patna Sahib seat whenever it allied with the RJD in Bihar. So, the party wanted to field Sinha on its own symbol. This little tug-of-war apparently has caused delay in decision of Sinha joining the Congress.

Urmila Matondkar joins Congress, says party stands for freedom

NEW DELHI, March 27: Popular Bollywood actor Urmila Matondkar on Tuesday joined the Congress in the presence of party’s Mumbai chief Milind Deora. She earlier met party president Rahul Gandhi at his residence.

“I am here because I believe in the ideology of Congress and what the party stands for. I have not joined the party for the sake of elections,” she told reporters.

“I am here to stay,” she said, adding her entry in the Congress was not about elections.

Matondkar said she felt the need to join the Congress party as the freedom to express was under attack in the country and there are numerous examples in this regard in the last five years. She said the Congress party has participated in the freedom struggle and it stood for freedom.

“Today is a significant day for me as I have formally entered politics. My life has been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi from the days of my childhood,” she also said.

Matondkar also lauded the leadership of Gandhi. She said he is the one who takes everyone along and such a leader is required in today’s times.

The ‘Masoom’ (1983) child actress is said to be in the reckoning for a Congress nomination from Mumbai North Lok Sabha constituency.

If nominated, Matondkar’s formidable rival would be Bharatiya Janata Party incumbent MP Gopal Shetty in the constituency that was once regarded a BJP bastion.

Incidentally, besides Mumbai North-West (now, Mumbai North-Central) constituency, the Mumbai North is the only Lok Sabha seat in the country’s commercial capital which has ever elected a well-known film personality.

The name of Matondkar, 45, has been doing the rounds since the past few days as the Congress grappled for an effective counter to the BJP.

Mumbai’s six Lok Sabha constituencies will vote on April 29 along with 17 others in the state’s fourth phase of polling.

Matondkar started her career as a child star aged seven in a Marathi film, ‘Zaakol’ (1980), and later her first role in Bollywood in the Shashi Kapoor-Rekha starrer ‘Kalyug’ (1981).

But, it was the highly-acclaimed Shekhar Kapur-directed film, ‘Masoom’ (1983) that catapulted her to fame as a child actress and significantly boosted her film career.

Surgical Strike On Poverty, says Rahul Gandhi on Nyaay scheme

Nyuntam Aay Yojana will lift 5 crore families out of poverty

SURATGARH, March 26: Congress president Rahul Gandhi promised a "surgical strike" on poverty a day after he announced the Rs. 6,000-a-month dole plan for India's poorest families, if the party is voted to power. He also kept up his attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government.

"We will eradicate poverty in the country. This is a ''dhamaka (blast)''. No country has done this in history. There should not be a single poor person in the country," Gandhi said at a campaign rally in Rajasthan's Suratgarh.

Gandhi said his party had been working on how to eradicate it for the last six months.

Yesterday, Rahul Gandhi announced a minimum income guarantee scheme assuring Rs. 72,000 a year for 20 per cent of the poorest in the country, if the Congress is voted to power in the April-May national election.

Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) scheme, said the Congress chief, would lift five crore families or 25 crore people out of poverty.

"If (Narendra) Modi gives money to the rich, the Congress will give money to the poor," Rahul Gandhi said.

The ruling BJP, however, has slammed the Congress scheme, with Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley calling it chhal-kapat (deceit) and bluff. "Congress has historically believed in political transactions in the name of removing poverty," he said.

Rahul Gandhi, who has repeatedly accused Modi of corruption and crony capitalism in the Rafale fighter jet deal, said,"He (the Prime Minister) says, 'Main chowkidar hoon'' (I am a watchman). He did not say whose chowkidar he is. Have you seen a chowkidar at a farmer''s home? Have you seen a chowkidar at home of the unemployed youth?" he said.

"Have you seen a chowkidar at the home of Anil Ambani? How many are there at Anil Ambani's home? There is a queue of chowkidars there. Narendra Modi did not tell you that he is not yours, but the chowkidar of people like Anil Ambani and Nirav Modi," Rahul Gandhi said

The government recently implemented the a scheme for farmers that promises Rs. 6,000 a year to small and marginal farmers. It aims at 12.5 crore beneficiaries.

Congress' Rs 72,000 per annum plan for 5 crore families will eradicate poverty for 25 crore Indians

NEW DELHI, March 25: Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Monday pledged to roll out a monthly income guarantee scheme, if his party comes to power at the Centre, to ensure India’s 20 per cent poorest families make at least Rs 12,000 every month. The scheme would cover 5 crore families and benefit nearly 25 crore people, said Gandhi after the Congress Working Committee cleared the plan that party president described as the “final assault on poverty”.

This is about justice for the poor, said Gandhi at a press conference to announce the contours of the guarantee scheme that will make its way to the Congress manifesto ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

“We are going to give you justice. Remember the number… The Congress guarantees that 20 per cent of India’s poor would make at least Rs 72,000 annually,” he said, describing it as a historic move.

The Congress chief insisted that the plan was “fiscally prudent” and implementable.

This does not mean everyone would get the Rs 12,000 dole. Gandhi explained that if a family makes Rs 6,000, the government would chip in the rest to raise the monthly family income to Rs 12,000.

Back in January, Rahul Gandhi had announced the guarantee scheme but hadn’t spelt out its broad contours. The government’s think-tank NITI Aayog had then run down the plan, declaring that India neither had the kind of fiscal space, nor the kind of complete data needed to implement such a scheme.

Gandhi insisted the Congress had done its homework.

“We have checked it again and again and again. It is fiscally, perfectly possible. We committed MGNREGA (rural job guarantee scheme), we did it. We will eradicate poverty from India,” he said. The Congress leader said the job guarantee scheme had pulled out 14 crore people out of poverty. That, he said, was the first phase.

“In the second phase, 25 crore people will be pulled out... It is an extremely powerful, dynamic and extremely well thought-out idea… We have done the calculations,” he said.

The income guarantee plan fits with Rahul Gandhi’s campaign pitch that targets Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling BJP, accusing them of working for the rich.

“This country has one flag. The prime minister’s politics creates two Indias,” he said.

The scheme will be called “nyay” or justice, he said, adding that it would be rolled out in phases.

The scheme is widely seen as a version of universal basic income (UBI), a concept that entitles families to a certain threshold sum of money regardless of whether they work or not.

UBI first became part of the official discourse when the country’s then chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian proposed it in the Economic Survey 2016-17. But the government did not pursue it.

Imperative to Defeat BJP and its Allies

By Sitaram Yechury

NEW DELHI, March 25: The country has entered into the electoral battle for the 17th general elections. This is not an ordinary election where the ruling party of the day is judged on the basis of its delivery of its promises made at the time of the last general elections alone. The balance sheet of its betrayals is often the main issue of electoral discourse.

These elections, however, are the most crucial one in the history of independent India. Why is it so? Because, what is at stake is the very future of the secular democratic republic, as enshrined in our constitution. The future is at stake, because, the BJP-led NDA government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has mounted an unprecedented assault on all constitutional authorities and institutions during these last five years. These attacks continue. The BJP’s continuation to head the central government is undermining the basic fundamental pillars of our constitution. Hence, the primary task before India’s electorate is to ensure the defeat of this government and give a mandate for the establishment of an alternative secular democratic government that must defend our constitutional republic and, then, proceed further to consolidate it. This can, however, succeed only if the policy direction adopted by the current Modi government is radically shifted in people’s favour. This, in turn, requires a stronger presence of the CPI(M) and the Left in the 17th Parliament of India.

The four fundamental pillars of our constitution – secular democracy; economic self-reliance; social justice; and federalism – have all been systematically weakened during the last five years.

SECULAR DEMOCRACY

Both secularism and democracy are being severely assaulted. The alarming growth of communal polarisation; the RSS-sponsored private armies mounting vicious attacks in the name of cow protection or in the name of moral policing are systematically targeting dalits and the Muslims. The sharpening of communal polarisation has created a pervasive atmosphere of hate and violence throughout the country. All public spaces are being communalised, leading to a severe destruction of the social harmony amongst our people.

All educational institutions, in fact the country’s educational system itself, is being communalised, particularly the institutes of higher learning and research bodies. Likewise, all the cultural bodies and academies in the country are being infiltrated with the appointment of RSS people with mediocre qualifications, in both educational institutions and cultural bodies. The effort has been to systematically replace the study of rich Indian syncretic history with Hindu mythology. Likewise, India’s rich philosophical traditions are sought to be straightjacketed into Hindu theology.

This eminently suites the advancing of the RSS ideological project of seeking to convert the secular democratic republic of India into a rabidly intolerant fascistic ‘Hindu Rashtra’, as the RSS defines it. This undermines the very foundations of the Indian republic and spells insecurity for religious and other minorities apart from the brazen growing attacks on their livelihood. This is severely endangering the unity and integrity of our country.

Democratic rights considered inviolable by the Indian constitution are being severely eroded. The curtailment of democratic rights, in the name of “security concerns”, is on the rise. The fundamental right to privacy is being encroached upon. The rights of the working class, peasantry and other sections of the people for organising protests etc are being curtailed. Such are some of the attacks on the secular democratic foundations of independent India.

ECONOMIC SELF-RELIANCE

Regarding economic self-reliance, this Modi government has moved India much further away from achieving this objective. These five years have seen an unprecedented opening up of our economy for profit maximisation by international capital and domestic big business. The twin assaults of demonetisation and GST have ruined large sections of economy activity resulting in an economic slowdown. The GDP growth recorded during these five years, despite the data manipulation, has been the worst amongst decades. Unemployment levels have risen to their highest during the last five decades. Crores of people eking their livelihood from the informal economy have been ruined.

Agrarian distress continues to deepen with growing distress suicides by the farmers. All promises made to rural India and agricultural sector have been betrayed; the kisans betrayed on the promise of a remunerative minimum support price, which is one half more than production costs, for their produce; the destruction of the MNREGA has deprived rural jobs leading to a decline in the real earnings of people in the rural India. This is unprecedented. The overall slowdown of economic activity accompanied by rising prices of essential commodities has made the life of vast majority of Indians more miserable.

The aggressive pursuit of neoliberal economic policies and the ruination of the economy has resulted in an exponential rise in the growth of economic inequalities. Of all the additional wealth created in the country, 73 per cent is cornered by the top one per cent of our population.

MODI’S SELF-RELIANCE

Prime Minister Modi is practicing a new interpretation of self-reliance, meaning self and reliance. The levels of crony capitalism under this government have reached heights never seen before. Public and people’s money is allowed to be looted mercilessly by profligate clearance of loans to a chosen few who have taken humongous amounts and fled the country. One estimate of loans that are not being returned to the banks shows the amount to be over Rs 15 lakh crores. Favourite corporates of Modi are cornering deals leading to many scams like the Rafale fighter plane deal.

In order to not reveal to whom the benefits of such crony capitalism are reaching, the Modi government has legislated new laws for political funding. Amongst others, this allowed “electoral bonds” to come into existence. No one knows who has brought these bonds from the banks, to which political party they had given them, and who encashed these bonds for their party fund. By maintaining such secrecy, the Modi government hopes that the fallout of such crony capitalism will escape public scrutiny. Despite this, it has been revealed that in the first tranche of electoral bonds, 95 per cent has reached the BJP! Such is the legalisation of political corruption.

FEDERALISM

Federalism, which is a basic feature of our constitution, has come under severe attack. Apart from deteriorating centre-state relations, where there is brazen favouritism for the BJP state governments and hostility towards opposition state governments; the abolition of the Planning Commission has deprived the states to take up their issues and demands legitimately. They have now been reduced to be at the mercy of the central government’s largesse in getting funds to meet national disasters or specific projects to improve people’s livelihood. The National Development Council has ceased to exist. This deprives the state governments of any platform where the needs and necessities of the states can be articulated and adequate financial allocations obtained.

The GST has deprived the state governments of any source of revenue generation. The manner of implementation of the GST has led to the states losing a substantial part of their revenues, thereby crippling them from delivering to the people promises they have made and upon which they receive the mandate.

In sum, the BJP is moving towards the creation of a unitary State structure as opposed to the federal structure laid down by the constitution. This suits the RSS agenda for advancing its fascistic ideological project.

SOCIAL JUSTICE

The constitution guarantees to deliver justice to the people – economic, social and political. These five years have seen the heaping of greater injustices on all these counts. The murderous attacks on the dalits and Muslims, the depriving of the entitlements to the tribals provided in the Forest Rights Act, are accompanied by a dilution of legal instruments aimed at ensuring social justice like the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the roster system for appointments of SC/STs in educational institutions etc. When the Scheduled Castes organised themselves to protect their rights, these protests are cracked down mercilessly and vicious attacks are mounted by private armies patronised by the RSS fraternity. The BJP state governments set the perpetrators of such crimes against Scheduled Castes free while slapping prosecution and false cases on the victims.

Women have borne the brunt of attack. The crimes against women and sexual assaults have alarmingly grown. De-humanisation of our society is being seen in the most gruesome brutal gang-rapes and murders of young girls, even children. Never before has India witnessed such large-scale expressions of de-humanisation.

GROWING STRUGGLES

The recent years have seen the upsurge of people’s struggles against this Modi government and its policies. Huge working class strike actions have taken place. The kisans, along with the agricultural labourers went on a war path in many parts of the country. The workers, kisans, agricultural labourers and other sections of the working people have come together under a single banner to protest these policies that are assaulting their livelihood and demanding alternate policies that are pro-people.

These growing protests are sought to be disrupted and diverted by rousing communal passions and other emotive issues aimed at hostile polarisation amongst the people.

NATIONAL SECURITY

During the course of these five years, the Modi government’s policies towards Jammu & Kashmir have further alienated the people of the state. The incidents of terror attacks have grown exponentially. Between 2009-14 and 2014-19, the number of terrorist attacks increased from 109 to 626; the number of security personnel martyred increased from 139 to 483; the number of civilians killed increased from 12 to 210 and the number of ceasefire violations increased from 563 to 5596. The Modi government’s Kashmir policy has resulted in the alarming rise of youth joining militant groups from 16 in 2014 to 191 in 2018. The promises made to the people of Kashmir of initiating a dialogue with all stakeholders and confidence building measures have been betrayed. Its policy towards talks with Pakistan was marked by pendulum swings. The post Uri terrorist attack surgical strike was projected to end this curse. But the terrorist strike continued with the killing of 44 CRPF personnel by suicide bomb at Pulwama. The Indian Air Force struck the terrorist targets inside Pakistan at Balakot. Terrorist attacks, however, continued with more security persons being martyred. The country as one rose to meet and defeat the terrorist challenge. However, this government and the BJP are politicising this issue which is posing a graver danger to our country’s unity and integrity.

It is clear that notwithstanding all efforts to divert the people’s attention away from the innumerable problems that they had faced during these five years, the people’s resolve in these elections would be to reject a government and forces who have ruined their livelihood. There are, of course, dangers of the RSS/BJP sharpening communal polarization and rousing jingoistic nationalism in order to escape from the fury of the people against the ruination of their lives. These efforts have to be defeated. For the dangers lurking in the future is that if these forces return to government, then whether this constitutional order will survive at all is the question.

As a prominent BJP leader and MP, now seeking re-election, Sakshi Maharaj, had infamously said recently that 2019 elections would be the last general election in India. This has not been contradicted by the BJP or PM Modi. The people must convert this forewarning into forearming to defeat these forces in order to save India today and change India for the better through a shift in the policy direction that will be people-oriented and oriented to strengthen India’s economic sovereignty and integrity.

The CPI(M) and the Left are committed to realize this objective in the forthcoming elections.

Cross-check more votes on VVPATs, Supreme Court tells Election Commission

NEW DELHI, March 25: The Supreme Court on Monday told the Election Commission to file an affidavit listing its stand on increasing the proportion of EVM votes to be verified with paper trail. But the judges also indicated that they felt the Election Commission should increase the percentage of votes randomly verified against the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT).

“We would like you to increase,” observed a bench led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi that is hearing a petition by leaders of 21 political parties that want at least 50% of votes cast with voting machines to be matched and cross-checked with VVPATs slips.

The Supreme Court also nudged the election body to be open to suggestions. The bench said no institution including the judiciary should insulate itself from suggestions or improvements.

At present, the Election Commission matches the VVPAT slips for only one polling booth in each constituency.

The 2019 Lok Sabha election would be the first where all voting machines would be attached with VVPAT machines but the poll body has not specified yet how many of these would be counted. It had engaged the Kolkata-headquartered Indian Statistical Institute for its recommendation.

VVPAT machines, attached to EVMs, display the name of the candidate and his/her symbol on a piece of paper after a vote is cast. The voter can see the paper through a glass display for seven seconds before it drops into a sealed container. While announcing the schedule of this summer’s general elections, the EC announced that VVPATs will be used in all polling stations along with EVMs.

The Election Commission had earlier rejected demands that 30 per cent of the VVPAT slips should be counted. It had then argued that counting paper slips for a third of the country’s 87 lakh electors would be a logistical nightmare.

Many opposition parties claim that EVMs are susceptible to tampering and initially wanted that the government go back to use of paper ballots. After the Election Commission ruled it out, opposition parties demanded that at least 50 per cent votes be verified.

In a 2013 judgment, the Supreme Court had held that VVPAT was an indispensable requirement of free and fair elections. This judgment, argue the petitioners, made the VVPAT system inherent and intrinsic to the very basic structure of the Constitution.

‘BJP busy marketing T-shirts, while people suffer’: Priyanka

NEW DELHI, March 25: Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra on Monday took a dig at ‘Namo Again’ and ‘Chowkidaar’ T-shirts, being sold as a part of poll merchandise for the Lok Sabha election 2019.

“BJP leaders are busy marketing T-shirts, if only they could pay attention to those suffering,” tweeted the general secretary incharge of Uttar Pradesh East.

“The hard work of Uttar Pradesh’s ‘shiksha mitras’ is insulted every day. Scores of sufferers committed suicide. Those who took to the streets to protest were beaten with lathis, National Security Act was registered against them,” Priyanka tweeted highlighting the issue of UP’s Shikshamitras, or contractual teachers.

Hundreds of ‘shiksha mitras’ have been protesting and pressing for better pay and appointment as assistant teachers in the state.

The BJP has been marketing the ‘NAMO AGAIN’ T-shirt on the NaMo App, a mobile application that takes its name from the first two letters of the PM’s name and surname. NaMo merchandise also has a Twitter handle that promotes the sale of such article, with tweets and re-tweets of those posting their picture with items purchased on the NaMo App.

The app started offering the merchandise from September, and has since rolled out several items such as coffee mugs, stickers and T-shirts.

Anurag Thakur, the BJP’s chief whip in the Lok Sabha, first made the NAMO AGAIN hoodie popular by wearing it to Parliament.

‘Main bhi Chowkidar’ T-shirts have also hit the stores, following the BJP campaign with the similar slogan being launched sometime back.

Jammu and Kashmir Police arrest three Jaish militants

SRINAGAR, March 24: Jammu and Kashmir police on Sunday said they have arrested three Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorists in Kashmir.

“Three terrorists affiliated with the proscribed terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) were arrested today based on a credible input. Incriminating material including ammunition and live rounds recovered. A case has been registered,” Jammu and Kashmir police said in a tweet late Sunday evening.

It was not immediately clear where and how the three were arrested but residents in city’s outskirts near Parimpora witnessed security forces intercepting and detaining some youth from a vehicle during the day.

Security forces have been aggressively pursuing JeM terrorists after a suicide car bomber of the outfit rammed a truck in a CRPF convoy in south Kashmir’s Pulwana on February 14 killing 40 troopers.

Since then many JeM members have been killed in various gunfights across the valley.

Eight JeM members were killed since Thursday in four gunfights with security forces.

Goa CM minister Manohar Parrikar no more

PANAJI, March 17: Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar died at his residence in Panaji on Sunday, prompting the Centre to announce a national mourning even as tributes flowed in from across the political spectrum for the 63-year-old former defence minister who was widely considered the tallest Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader from the state.

Parrikar was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer in February last year and was repeatedly admitted to hospitals in Goa, Mumbai, New Delhi and New York. His mortal remains will be cremated in Panaji on Monday evening after they are kept at the BJP’s state headquarters for political leaders and the public to pay their finals respects, according to an official statement.

Shortly after the Goa CM’s Twitter handle announced on Sunday evening that he was “extremely critical” and that doctors were trying to improve his condition, President Ram Nath Kovind announced that the senior BJP leader had passed away.

“Extremely sorry to hear of the passing of Shri Manohar Parrikar, Chief Minister of Goa, after an illness borne with fortitude and dignity. An epitome of integrity and dedication in public life, his service to the people of Goa and of India will not be forgotten #PresidentKovind,” President Kovind tweeted a little before 8 pm.

After the President’s tweet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi led a chorus of tributes to Parrikar, calling him an “affable leader” and “admired” leader.

“My condolences to his family in this time of grief.S hri Manohar Parrikar was the builder of modern Goa. Thanks to his affable personality and accessible nature, he remained the preferred leader of the state for years. His pro-people policies ensured Goa scales remarkable heights of progress,” the Prime Minister tweeted.

Gandhi said he was “deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Goa CM… who bravely battled a debilitating illness for over a year.” “Respected and admired across party lines, he was one of Goa’s favourite sons,” the Congress president added.

Parrikar is survived by two sons – Utpal and Abhijeet. He lost his wife to cancer in 2001.

Goa appeared headed for political turmoil after Parrikar’s death, with the BJP’s strength in the state assembly going down to 12 MLAs. The Congress staked its claim to the government in Goa a day earlier on Saturday, as reports of Parrikar’s deteriorating health prompted the BJP to go into an emergency huddle to consider alternatives.

The Congress said on Saturday that the BJP’s strength had diminished to 13 following the death of its legislator Francis D ’Souza last month. After Parrikar’s death on Sunday, the BJP’s strength in assembly stood at 12.

The Congress has 14 MLAs in the assembly that has a current effective strength of 37. Since the state elections in 2017, three Congress legislators have resigned and joined the BJP. One of them was re-elected on a BJP ticket and bypolls for other two seats are still to be held.

Parrikar, who was an Indian Institute of Technology graduate, made a mark as chief minister of Goa when the politics in the state was hit by defections and unstable governments. He became the Goa CM for the first time in October 2000 after a split in the ruling Congress. Parrikar projected himself as a leader who reached out to people across religious boundaries, attempting to woo the state’s 26% Catholic community.

He was appointed the country’s defence minister between November 2014 and February 2017. However, Parrikar returned to Goa politics after the BJP failed to win a majority in the state assembly in 2017. In the 40-member assembly, the Congress emerged as the largest party with 17 MLAs and the BJP stood second with 13.

However, regional parties Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and Goa Forward Party (GFP) – both with three MLAs each – and three independent legislators decided to support the BJP on the condition that Parrikar would head the coalition government.

In February 2018, the Goa CM was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was treated at hospitals in India and the United States. Despite his failing health, Parrikar continued to head the fragile coalition government as there was no consensus on a leader for the post of the CM.

After the Goa CM’s death was announced on Sunday, BJP MLAs in the state held a meeting along with party leaders from Delhi at a Goa hotel, a person with knowledge of the developments said on condition of anonymity. The agenda of the deliberations, however, was not immediately known.

There was no response from alliance partners MGP and GFP till the time of going to press.

The Union home ministry has announced national mourning on Monday and a state funeral will be accorded to Parrikar. Top BJP leaders from across the country including Modi and BJP president Amit Shah are expected to be present for the last rites.

Will reach out on boat, bus, train: Priyanka’s letter ahead of Ganga yatra

LUCKNOW, March 17: A day before she begins her river journey from Prayagraj to Varanasi to launch poll campaign, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra targeted BJP government for ‘neglecting’ youth, women, farmers and working class and said she was reaching out to people with the help of Ganga that was a support to people of Uttar Pradesh.

“As a soldier of Congress my responsibility is to join hands with you to change the politics of Uttar Pradesh. The youth, farmers and working class are facing problems and they want to share their pain. In the din of political calculations the voice of youth, women, farmers and workers has disappeared from state’s policies,” said Priyanka, the AICC general secretary for east UP in an open letter to people before the scheduled launch of her poll campaign.

She is embarking on a river journey from March 18 to 20 and will travel from Prayagraj to Varanasi beginning Monday.

Priyanka arrived here this morning to interact with partymen, meet delegations and get feedback about the prevailing political situation.

“I will undertake journey by river route, bus, train and also go on padyatra and reach out to you through all the means. Ganga is a symbol of truth and equality and is an embodiment of ganga-jamuni culture. Ganga does not discriminate among the people. Ganga is a support for people of Uttar Pradesh and I am taking help of Ganga to reach out to you,” she said in her letter.

“I am closely attached to this land of UP. I am reaching out to you for a direct dialogue as no political change can begin without listening to you and sharing your pain. I assure that we will bring this change on the foundation of truth and your resolve and move ahead together to solve your problems,” said Priyanka.

Congress’ alliances firmed up, united against Modi govt: Rahul Gandhi

CHENNAI, March 13: Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday said his party is firming up its alliances with different parties in various states to “defeat” Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Lok Sabha election. Gandhi asserted that the opposition is “united” against the Narendra Modi government.

“Alliances have firmed up in a number of states like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Jharkhand. Talks on alliance in Bihar have practically concluded. Conversation on alliance in J&K is close to the final stages,” Gandhi told a press conference in Chennai.

“Entire opposition is united and fighting Narendra Modi and the RSS…We will defeat Mr Narendra Modi,” Gandhi said.

This comes on a day when the leaders from the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal are holding talks in New Delhi to reach at an agreement for the parliamentary polls. The Congress and the RJD are alliance partners in Bihar, where they had defeated the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in 2015 assembly polls. The Janata Dal (United) of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was then part of the grand-alliance.

Since the JD(U) parted ways with the grand-alliance in 2017 and went to go back to the NDA fold, the RJD-Congress alliance have cobbled up tie-ups with the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party of former Union minister Upendra Kushwaha, the Hindustan Awam Morcha-Secular of former Bihar Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, the Loktantrik Janata Dal of Sharad Yadav and Vikassheel Insan Party of Mukesh Sahni.

The Congress and the RJD are yet to finalise a seat sharing pact for the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar among the alliance partners. AICC general secretary KC Venugopal and senior Congress Ahmed Patel are expected to seal the seat sharing deal with Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD, Kushwaha, Manjhi, Yadav and Sahni at their Delhi talks.

The Congress intends to contest 12 to 13 seats in Bihar. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Congress had contested on 12 Lok Sabha seats. The RJD had fielded its candidates on 27 seats while one seat was given to the Nationalist Congress Party, whose Tariq Anwar had won from the Katihar Lok Sabha constituency. Anwar is now with the Congress.

Congress Will Reserve 33% Government Jobs For Women: Rahul Gandhi

CHENNAI, March 13: Congress President Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday said the UPA will reserve 33 per cent government jobs for women and pass the Women's Reservation Bill giving 33 per cent of seats in the Lok Sabha if it wins the Lok Sabha battle.

Interacting with students of Stella Maris College for Women here, Mr Gandhi also said that the UPA government would simplify the procedures in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and have a low single tax rate.

Wearing a jeans and T-shirt, Mr Gandhi faced a range of questions from the students about the Congress-led UPA's plans for economic growth, bringing peace in Jammu and Kashmir, on charges against his brother-in-law Robert Vadra, views about the Modi government and the reason for hugging Modi in Parliament.

To a question on the status of women in the country, he said the situation was better in south India than in north India. There was the cultural aspect, he said.

"There is still a lot needed to be done in Tamil Nadu," he quickly added.

He said that if the UPA formed a government, the Women's Reservation Bill would be passed and 33 per cent of jobs in central and state governments would be reserved for women.

The Congress leader said he had no hatred towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

"Love is the foundation of every religion whether it is Hinduism, Islam or Christianity. I was watching the Prime Minister speech in Parliament where he was criticizing my father, grandmother, great grandfather and the Congress," he said.

"Inside me, I was feeling affection for him. He was so angry that he was not able to see the beauty of the world."

Mr Gandhi said he felt that Modi didn't have the love he wanted. "I wanted to show affection and hugged him."

He said the UPA defeat in 2014 taught him several lessons.

"I learn from Modi. I don't hate him. Do you hate the person who teaches you?" Gandhi asked to students and got a big "No" as the answer.

"The biggest teacher are the people who attack. The more you are attacked, the more you give love and affection back."

On bringing peace back in Jammu and Kashmir, he said the first step was to build the bridge to the people there. It was built between 2004 and 2014 during the UPA government.

As a result, terror attacks came down drastically and power was given to the people by holding elections.

Pakistan will carry out terror attacks, he said. "But we have to engage with the people of Jammu and Kashmir."

He criticized the central government for facilitating businessmen like Nirav Modi, Vijay Mallya and others to leave the country after defrauding the banks.

"The money deposited in the banks by people during demonetization was given to these businessmen," he said.

When a student queried why he did not mention the name of Robert Vadra along with these businessmen, Gandhi said: "The government has the right to investigate. The law must not be applied selectively. I am the first person to say investigate Vadra."

He asked the students how many times they had seen PM Modi taking any question.

According to him, the current central government was North India centric and he believed that all parts of India should have an equal say.

Gandhi said the world was moving from being US centric to US-China-Russia centric and India should not lean right or left but should stand straight.

The Congress President said that the biggest hindrance for economic growth was crony capitalism and corruption.

On the education system, Gandhi said there should be space for the government and everything cannot be left to the hands of the private sector.

There were lighter moments during the interaction with Gandhi asking the students to address him as Rahul and not as sir -- which was applauded by the students.

Mr Gandhi maintained that he was still a young politician.

Modi tags top politicians, industry leaders and actors urging them to spread awareness about voting

NEW DELHI, March 13: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday tagged top politicians including Congress president Rahul Gandhi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, celebrities including Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh, and other prominent personalities on Twitter urging them to “encourage” people to vote in record numbers in the upcoming Lok Sabha election.

“I appeal to @RahulGandhi, @MamataOfficial, @PawarSpeaks, @Mayawati, @yadavakhilesh, @yadavtejashwi and @mkstalin to encourage increased voter participation in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. A high turnout augurs well for our democratic fabric,” reads one of the tweets posted by Modi.

Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav responded to Modi’s tweet with a dig urging people to elect a new prime minister in the Lok Sabha election. “I felt happy that the prime minister appealed to mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) for mahaparivartan (grand change). I will also appeal to all Indian citizens to vote in large numbers and elect a new prime minister,” Yadav said in his post.

The prime minister also tagged actors Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhatt, Anushka Sharma, Ranveer Singh and Varun Dhawan among others saying, “I am sure their message will have a positive impact on our citizens.” He also urged actors Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan, and filmmaker Karan Johar to “creatively ensure high voter awareness and participation in the coming elections.”

He also named industry leaders Ratan Tata and Anand Mahindra in his posts on the micro-blogging site for “ensuring maximum participation in voting.”

Modi reached out prominent personalities from a wide spectrum of society soon after posting a blog in which he made “four requests for democracy”. This comes barely four weeks ahead of the first phase of the Lok Sabha election.

In his blog, PM Modi said election is an “occasion for celebration” while asserting that “not voting causes great anguish”.

“Would you want a situation where something happens in the country that you disapprove of and you are forced to think - because I did not go vote that day, this unfortunate situation has arisen and the nation is suffering,” reads PM Modi’s latest blog.

“Spare yourself from that regret and go vote,” advises the prime minister, who also said that by voting, people connect themselves with the country’s dreams and aspirations.

The “four requests”, as put out by PM Modi, are for the eligible voters to get themselves registered, make sure their names figure in the list of electoral rolls, plan their voting schedule to make sure they use franchise and to mobilise friends and families to vote in large numbers.

“Dear @srikidambi, @Pvsindhu1 & @NSaina, The core of badminton is the court and the core of democracy is the vote. Just like you smash records, do also inspire a record-breaking voter turnout. I request you to increase voter awareness & motivate youth to vote in large numbers,” reads another tweet of PM Modi

He also sought participation of spiritual gurus Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhguru for “greater voter awareness.” The prime minister also tagged chief ministers of several states in his series of tweets seeking support for “improving voting across the country”.

Nitish Kumar of Bihar, Naveen Patnaik of Odisha, HD Kumaraswamy of Karnataka, N Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh and Pawan Chamling of Sikkim are among the chief ministers PM Modi tagged in his posts on Twitter.

“Higher voting means a stronger democracy and a stronger democracy means a developed India,” writes he prime minister. The Lok Sabha election will be held for 543 seats between April 11 and May 19. The counting of votes would take place on May 23.

Secret documents in Rafale review plea jeopardize national security: Centre to Supreme Court

NEW DELHI, March 13: The widely-circulated review petition against the Supreme Court’s December verdict in the Rafale deal that includes leaked defence ministry documents jeopardizes national security and should be dismissed, the defence ministry has told the Supreme Court in an affidavit filed on Wednesday

The Centre has also argued that the documents presented a “selective and incomplete picture of internal secret deliberations” on a matter relating to national security and defence.

It reasoned that the petition should be dismissed and the documents removed from the top court’s records.

The government also claimed privilege over the documents presented under the evidence law for courts and insisted that the court could not take them into consideration without the government’s permission.

Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra told the top court that the petitioners had attached documents relating to war capacity of India’s combat jets. “This information is now available to our adversaries...This puts the national security in jeopardy,” the top defence ministry official said.

The government also told a bench headed by Chief Justice of India Rajnan Gogoi that an internal inquiry into the leaks had started.

The petitioners are guilty of leakage of sensitive information, which offends the terms of the agreements for purchase of the fighter jets, the government said. Additionally, those who have conspired in this leakage are guilty of penal offences under the Indian Penal Code including theft by unauthorized photocopying and leakage of sensitive official documents affecting national security.

In the last Supreme Court hearing, the Centre’s top law officer, attorney general KK Venugopal, had asked the court to reject petitions seeking review of the Rafale verdict claiming that the petitioners’ case rested on stolen papers acquired from “present or former employees” of the defence ministry.

Brandishing the British-era Official Secrets Act, Venugopal had said that it was a “criminal act” on the part of petitioners to bring the documents with them. “They have come with unclean hands,” he had said.

In today’s India, SC judges seek justice: Rahul Gandhi

GANDHINAGAR, March 12: Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday targeted Prime Minister Narendra while addressing a public rally in his home state, Gujarat saying the institutions of the country are being attacked under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre. Gandhi said the judges of the Supreme Court are seeking “justice” complaining that they are not being allowed to function.

“In today’s India the judges of the Supreme Court seek justice in front of people…This is not happening only with the Supreme Court…The institutions are under attack everywhere,” said Gandhi hitting out at the Modi government.

“For the first time in history, four judges of the Supreme Court went to the press and said we are not being allowed to work, and take the name of judge (Brijmohan) Loya immediately after that,” Gandhi said at the Jan Sankalp rally of the Congress in the Gujarat capital.

CBI judge Loya was hearing a case pertaining to alleged fake encounter of Sohrabuddin Sheikh at the time of his death in 2014. His death led to a huge political row last year following a media report claiming foul play behind his death. BJP president Amit Shah was an accused in the case.

The Congress president said the government doesn’t talk about the real issues. “The biggest issue in the country is unemployment, which is at 45-year high but the government doesn’t talk about this,” he said.

Gandhi made the remarks at an election rally in Gujarat’s Gandhinagar after attending the Congress Working Committee meet at Ahmedabad. He said the decision to hold CWC meet in Gujarat after nearly six decades was taken in the view of the “fight between two ideologies” in the country.

“Both ideologies are seen here in Gujarat. On the one hand, there is an ideology of Mahatma Gandhi that ideology has built this nation…Today, the other powers are trying to weaken this country,” said Gandhi.

The highest decision making body of the Congress met in Ahmedabad earlier in the day to prepare final strategy for the Lok Sabha elections that will be held between April 11 and May 19 spread over seven phases. This was the first CWC meeting in Gujarat since 1961. It was also the first CWC meeting attended by Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

At the Congress strategy meet, the party leadership decided to corner the BJP-led ruling National Democratic Alliance over the issues of demonetisation, GST (goods and services tax) rollout, unemployment, agrarian distress and corruption. The Congress has alleged corruption in Rafale deal.

At his election rally, Gandhi reiterated his charge that Modi scrapped the Rafale deal being negotiated by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and signed a new agreement with France to “benefit his friend Anil Ambani”. Both the government and Reliance Defence have, on several occasions, denied the allegations levelled by the Congress and Gandhi.

Your vote is a weapon. Use it: Priyanka Gandhi debuts at Gujarat rally

GANDHINAGAR, March 12: Priyanka Gandhi Vadra launched her first ever political rally after taking over as Congress general secretary with a stinging attack on the ruling national coalition led by BJP and a concerted effort to steer the public debate ahead of the Lok Sabha elections to bread and butter issues.

This election, she said in an eight-minute speech at the Congress’s anniversary event of the Dandi March in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state Gujarat, is in no way less than the struggle for Independence. “In this, you are going to decide your future,” she said, urging people not to get distracted by “needless issues”.

“I want to speak from my heart. There is no bigger patriotism than to be an aware citizen, your awareness is a weapon, your vote is a weapon… Only you can protect the country”, the Congress leader, who recently joined active politics as general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh East, said. But this weapon, she added, is not used to harm anyone.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi were also present at the event in Gandhinagar district hours after the Congress Working Committee meeting.

In a resolution, the party’s top policy panel had resolved “to defeat the RSS, BJP ideology of fascism, hatred, anger and divisiveness”.

“No sacrifice is too great in this endeavour, no effort too little, this battle will be won,” Rahul Gandhi tweeted hours after the strategy meeting started.

At the rally, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra accused the BJP of practicing divisive politics.

“What is happening in country today makes me sad,” she said, accusing the BJP of spreading hatred and destroying institutions.

“Our institutions are being destroyed. Wherever you see, hatred is being spread. Nothing matters more to us that you and I protect this nation, work for it and move forward together,” she said.

Priyanka Gandhi said there will be attempts to distract the electorate but people must ask the right questions.

“Think hard before taking a decision,” she said.

Priyanka Gandhi also gave her audience a few questions that they should be asking.

“Those who talk big in front of you, where are the 2 crore jobs he promised? What about the Rs 15 lakh he promised? What about women’s safety?” she said.

Met Rakesh Asthana in Dubai, he threatened to make my life hell: Christian Michel tells Delhi court

NEW DELHI, March 12: Christian Michel, the alleged middleman in AgustaWestland chopper scam case, claimed in a Delhi court Tuesday that former CBI special director Rakesh Asthana met him in Dubai and threatened to make his life hell inside jail if he did not toe the line of the agency in its investigation in the scandal.

“Sometime back Rakesh Asthana met me in Dubai and threatened that my life would be made hell and that’s what is going on. My next door inmate is (gangster) Chotta Rajan... I don’t understand what crime I have committed to be put along with those who have killed several people,” he said.

Michel, who was present in the courtroom, also told the court that he was put in the prison with 16-17 Kashmiri separatist leaders.

The statements were made by Michel before Special Judge Arvind Kumar allowed the Enforcement Directorate to interrogate him inside Tihar Jail in Delhi.

The court said the agency will quiz him tomorrow and the day after.

A jail official will remain present and Michel’s lawyer is also allowed a limited access during interrogation, for half an hour in the morning and in evening, it said.

The court took note of Michel’s submission alleging mental torture inside the jail and directed Tihar jail authorities to produce the CCTV footage and reports by Thursday based on which he was shifted to a high-security ward.

On Monday, the court asked the jail authorities to submit their reply on the agency’s plea and issued a production warrant for Tuesday for Michel after his lawyer alleged mental torture inside the jail.

Michel was arrested by ED on December 22 last year after his extradition from Dubai.

The court previously lashed out at the jail authorities for failing to justify the shifting of Michel to a high-security cell in isolation, saying it will start an inquiry if it does not get a proper response.

Michel is among the three alleged middlemen being probed in the chopper scam by ED and Central Bureau of Investigation. The others are Guido Haschke and Carlo Gerosa.

Rahul Gandhi says Congress to win all 7 seats in Delhi

NEW DELHI, March 11: Congress chief Rahul Gandhi on Monday scotched any hopes of a tie-up with the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi for the Lok Sabha elections as he urged booth level workers to win all seven seats in the capital.

“Congress has to win all the 7 seats in Delhi. The booth level workers have to ensure it,” he said.

The grand old party had drawn a blank in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Delhi with the BJP sweeping all seven seats.

Earlier Monday, AAP leader Gopal Rai said that his party is not in talks with the Congress for an alliance in Delhi and it will contest all seven seats in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections on its own.

Rai said Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) supremo Arvind Kejriwal will hold a meeting with all state unit chiefs of the party and MLAs to discuss the strategy for the parliamentary polls later in the day.

“The party is not in talks with the Congress for an alliance in Delhi and it will contest all the seats on its own,” the AAP’s Delhi unit convenor said. “Kejriwal would be holding a meeting this evening at his residence to discuss the strategy for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.”

Talks of an alliance between the Congress and the AAP evaporated last week after Delhi Congress chief Sheila Dikshit announced that the party will not form an alliance with the AAP in the national capital and contest the Lok Sabha polls alone.

Delhi votes on May 12, the sixth phase of the seven-phase general elections.

Sharad Pawar exits Lok Sabha race, makes way for family’s generation next

PUNE, March 11: Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar on Monday stepped back from his earlier decision to contest the Lok Sabha elections from Madha in Maharashtra and has decided to make way for his grand nephew to fight the polls.

Announcing his decision in Pune after meeting senior party members, the 78-year-old NCP boss said he has decided not to contest Lok Sabha polls after discussing the issue within the family.

“After holding talks with family, we were of the opinion that next generation members should be given a chance. There is demand from various party leaders and workers for Parth Pawar’s candidature from Maval,” said Sharad Pawar, clearing way for Parth, his grand nephew and son of Ajit Pawar.

Sharad Pawar said that he felt it was the right time to take decision to not contest since he already contested 14 times in the past. “I thought that already two members of my family are contesting polls this time, ” he said. Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule, a sitting MP, will contest the Lok Sabha polls. Parth Pawar, the son of Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit, is the second family member contesting the elections.

Last month, Sharad Pawar had said that besides him, his daughter Supriya Sule would also contest the Lok Sabha polls. “Parth, Rohit and Ajit will not contest the election. I am going to contest,” Pawar said, in response to a question that suggested he was drawing criticism from other political parties for “dynastyic politics”. Rohit Pawar is the grandson of Sharad Pawar’s elder brother Appasaheb and is a member of the zilla panchayat.

Sharad Pawar is a three-time chief minister of Maharashtra and a former union agriculture minister in the UPA government.

India polls start from April 11 in 7 phases, results on May 23

NEW DELHI, March 10: Voting for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will start on 11 April, the Election Commission said on Sunday, announcing a 7-phase schedule for the world’s biggest democratic exercise. Four states, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, will also vote for new provincial governments.

The contest for 543 Lok Sabha seats pits the ruling BJP’s Narendra Modi against Rahul Gandhi-led Congress party which is attempting to work with regional parties to try stopping Modi’s return to power. Modi - the second non-Congress Prime Minister after Atal Bihari Vajpayee to complete a full term in office – is making a strong pitch for his re-election.

How it pans out in the end, will be known on 23 May when the Election Commission says, the votes will be counted. Nearly 900 million voters are entitled to vote, many of them will be voting for the first time in the national elections and have been the focus of Modi and Rahul Gandhi’s campaigns.

“The festival of democracy, Elections are here,” tweeted Narendra Modi minutes after the Election Commission announced the poll schedule, urging people to participate in the poll process. “I hope this election witnesses a historic turnout. I particularly call upon first-time voters to vote in record numbers,” Modi said, reinforcing his outreach to young voters.

The Election Commission said 91 constituencies spread across 20 states will see polling on April 11, 97 constituencies in 13 states on April 18, 115 seats in 14 states on April 23, 71 seats in 9 states on April 29, 51 seats in 7 states on May 6, 59 seats in 7 states on May 12 and 59 constituencies in 8 states on May 19.

The poll process will be stretched across seven phases in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. In 22 states, it will be held on a single day.

“While finalizing the election dates, exam schedules of state examination boards, CBSE, various festivals including festivals which have religious, harvest season in other department are also adequately factored in,” said Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora at a media conference.

The announcement of the poll schedule kicks in the ground rules for the contest, called the model code of conduct designed to create a level-playing field for opposition parties.

The code prohibits governments from making any announcement that could influence the voters and gives the poll panel, the power to transfer any official associated with the election process across India.

Rajesh Griglani exhorts Congress workers to expose BJP lies

By Deepak Arora

AMBALA, March 10: The Congress organised a workers meet to boost the morale of booth level workers at BPS planetarium here on Sunday.

Rajesh Griglani, a Master Trainer, who reached here from Delhi to motivate the party workers, said Prime Minister Narender Modi and the BJP had been doing the politics of lies.

Rajesh Griglani exhorted the Congress workers to expose the BJP lies with all might. He also asked them to focus in strengthening their respective booths.

He said that the BJP was playing the victim card with the help of the media.

Rajesh Griglani said the BJP has been trying to show that the Congress government was corrupt and also defame it.

Citing a conversation with a CBI officer, Rajesh claimed that the officer told him that there was no coal scam and it was just the propaganda of the BJP during the previous Lok Sabha elections.

He called upon the workers to decrease the credibility of sold (refered to as Godi) media. Following these comments, a section of media boycotted the event.

Later on, Rajesh claimed that he was not referring to the entire media but the only media "which was and is corrupt".

Congress leader Nirmal Singh, who had organised the event, said "it was a workers meeting and such thing (criticising the media) was unfortunate.

He said "the prime objective of the meeting was to boost the morale of the workers and the Congress workers would expose the lies of BJP in the ensuing elections."

Who freed Masood Azhar, asks Rahul Gandhi

BANGALURU, March 9: Congress chief Rahul Gandhi Saturday asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to tell the nation that it was the BJP government which released terror outfit JeM chief Masood Azhar from an Indian jail.

Addressing a public rally in north Karnataka, Gandhi said, “Let Modi make me understand who sent Masood Azhar from Indian jail to Pakistan.” The Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) had claimed responsibility for the Pulwama terror attack in which 40 CRPF men were killed.

“I have a small question for Modi. Who killed CRPF jawans? What is the name of JeM chief? His name is Masood Azhar,” the Congress chief said, adding it was the BJP government in 1999 that sent him from Indian jail to Pakistan through Kandahar in Afghanistan.

“Why are you not speaking about it. Why are you not saying that the person who killed CRPF jawans was sent to Pakistan by BJP... Modiji we are not like you. We don’t bow in front of terror. Make it clear to people to India who sent Masood Azhar,” he said.

Pakistan-based Azhar was released by India in exchange of passengers of the hijacked Indian Airlines plane IC-814 in 1999 during the Vajpayee government.

Gandhi also alleged that while Modi talked about corruption, the whole country knew he was corrupt.

He said the ruling alliance of Congress and JD(S) in Karnataka would fight the Lok Sabha elections together and win it.

Gandhi also accused Modi of “fooling” the people of the country for the last five years with his programmes like “Make in India, Stand Up India and Sit Down India”.

We kept quiet, but Pakistan began crying at 5am: Modi on Balakot strike

NOIDA, March 9: Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it was Pakistan which “cried” after the Indian Air Force (IAF) carried out a strike at terror camps of Jaish-e-Mohammed deep across the Line of Control. He said Pakistan had done its preparation after Pulwama attack expecting a post-Uri style surgical strike, but “we went by air”.

“When surgical strike happened, we informed the country about it. After Pulwama, we did what we had but we were keeping quiet. It was Pakistan that started crying at 5 am on Twitter. Pakistan started crying ‘Modi ne maara, Modi ne maara’ (Modi hit us, Modi hit us)…But some people, who eat of India but make statements to help Pakistan,” Modi told a public rally here.

The prime minister said, “After Pulwama attack, the brave soldiers of India did what had not been done in decades. They hit the terrorists and their patrons.”

“Pakistan expected that Modi will carry out another surgical strike. They made heavy deployment along on the ground. But we went there by air,” he said.

Modi targeted the opposition leaders once again for seeking clarification from the government over the IAF strike in Balakot terror camps belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammed, the terror outfit which claimed responsibility for attack in Pulwama killing 40 CRPF jawans on February 14.

He said, “Pakistan has admitted that IAF strike happened there. The IAF has stated that they carried out a strike at terror camp. But some people still have doubts and raise questions…They are just helping Pakistan.”

“Should they have any doubt who have Indian blood flowing in their veins?...Should they have any doubt who chant Bharat Mata ki jai (Hail Mother India)? Who are these people who raise doubts? Will you trust the words of these people,” Modi said in his speech after inaugurating development projects from Noida.

Modi blamed the previous governments for adopting policies that allowed the menace of terrorism turned into a “naasur” (canker).

“After the surgical strike and air strike, the patrons of terror have understood this is not the India of old…Terror attacks and blasts even earlier were linked to Pakistan. But the previous governments just changed the home minister. Should such situations be dealt with by changing home minister or policy? We changed the policy,” Modi said.

Stating the terrorists are in panic after strict action taken by India, Modi said it is the time to stay “alert” against those “trying to break the nation”.

Election strategist Prashant Kishor, JD(U) exchange fresh fire after ‘kingmaker’ remark

PATNA, March 9: Two days after telling a youth gathering that he had helped “people make CM and PM”, JD(U) national vice-president Prashant Kishor has again set off a minor storm in the party by saying he did not concur with party chief Nitish Kumar’s method of realigning with the BJP and the exit from the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance), which should have ideally been followed by a fresh mandate.

The poll strategist-turned-politician made the observations during an interview with a news portal, which uploaded the over-an-hour video on Thursday. Kishor’s remarks have ruffled some feathers within his own party as the interview went viral on the social media on Friday.

In the interview, Kishor has, however, pointed out that U-turns by politicians were not unique to Kumar.

“You can look at Chandrababu Naidu, Naveen Patnaik and parties like the DMK. Looking back further, we have the example of the V P Singh government, which was supported both by the Left and the BJP,” he said.

Kishor also said there was no yardstick to measure if Kumar was right in taking the drastic decision of walking out of the “Mahagathbandhan,” comprising the RJD and the Congress, in July, 2017.

“For those who saw in him (Kumar) a potential challenger to (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi, the move was a let-down. But those who were of the view that he had begun to compromise on governance in his zeal to take on Modi would feel he was right,” he said.

Asked to comment on the episode, Kishor said, “Keeping in view the interests of Bihar, I think it was okay. But I do not agree with the method adopted. I have said this earlier and I still hold the view, upon taking the decision to return to the BJP-led coalition, he should have ideally sought a fresh mandate.”

Kishor had earlier worked with Kumar as a poll strategist during the 2015 Bihar Assembly election, wherein the latter was the chief ministerial candidate of the Mahagathbandhan, which came into being as a result of his forging an alliance with arch rival Lalu Prasad’s RJD.

Corruption cases against Prasad’s younger son Tejashwi Yadav, then the deputy chief minister, made Kumar queasy and he ultimately resigned as chief minister, but was sworn in again in less than 24 hours as the BJP?came up with its offer of support on a day of dramatic developments.

Reacting to Kishor’s remarks, RJD MLA and the party’s chief state spokesman Bhai Virendra said, “The JD(U) national vice-president’s statement is tantamount to admitting what has been our charge. Nitish had got the mandate as a candidate of the Grand Alliance, which comprised the RJD as well as the Congress, and his act of crossing over to the NDA without seeking a fresh mandate was tantamount to stabbing the Mahagathbandhan in the back.”

JD(U) MLC and party spokesman Neeraj Kumar sought to remind Kishor, who was inducted into the party in September last year and elevated to the post of national vice-president weeks later, that he was taking baby steps in politics.

“I do not wish to comment on his utterances but would like to show him the mirror,” he said.

“He is offering ‘pravachan’ (discourse) on seeking a mandate. Where was his ‘gyan’ (wisdom) when the party took the decision to realign with the BJP? Moreover, does he not remember that his own formal entry into the JD(U) came after the development which he is raising questions about now,” the JD(U) leader said.

Ensure India’s forces aren’t used for political gains: Ex-navy chief to EC

NEW DELHI, March 9: Former chief of naval staff, Admiral L Ramdas (retired), has written to the Election Commission of India (ECI) expressing “concern” and “dismay” over what he sees as the misuse of the air strike in Pakistan to “influence the electorate”.

Admiral Ramdas led the Indian Navy from 1990 to 1993 and was part of naval blockade of East Pakistan during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. The operation, one of the most effective naval blockades, prevented Pakistan from evacuating over 90,000 soldiers from Bangladesh. They eventually surrendered before the Indian Army. Ramdas was awarded the Vir Chakra for his role in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

Criticising the use of armed force to garner votes, the former admiral has said the “recent instances of using the Armed Forces for political gains, especially in the aftermath of both Pulwama [in which 40 CRPF jawans lost their lives] and the strikes in Balakot” is against the ethos of the armed forces.

The armed forces, Ramdas has said in the letter, are “a-political” and have always followed “secular” ethos.

He has also asked the Election Commission to ensure that armed forces are not used for political gains. “With elections due a few weeks from now, it is particularly important that there should not be any misuse of these recent events by any political party to send triumphalist or jingoistic messages,” Admiral Ramdas has said in his letter.

SC sends Ayodhya case to 3 mediators

NEW DELHI, March 8: The Supreme Court on Friday ordered mediation in the Ayodhya title suit. A five-judge Constitution bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi passed the order to this effect.

Mediation will start within a week at Faizabad and state of UP has to make arrangements, the Supreme Court ruled. Mediation panel has to give its report within four weeks.

The mediation will be done by a three-member panel, which the Supreme Court said, will be at liberty to induct more mediators or seek legal assistance. Justice FM Khalifulah, the retired Supreme Court judge is the chairman of the panel.

Art of Living head Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and senior advocate Sriram Panchu are the other mediators on the panel. Panchu is a trained mediator.

The top court directed both parties to maintain utmost confidentiality during the process of mediation, which will be held in-camera. There ought not to be any reporting in print or electronic of the mediation process, the court said.

The mediation panel will revert to the Supreme Court registry if there are any hurdles in the process of mediation, the five-judge bench ruled. The other judges on the bench are justices SA Bobde, DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and SA Nazeer.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday reserved its order after hearing both sides on the proposal to try out mediation as an alternative to litigation to settle the decades-old dispute.

The suggestion was opposed by the Uttar Pradesh government and the Hindu parties, except the Nirmohi Akhara, a religious denomination that is one of the main parties to the civil suit, but was welcomed by the Muslim side.

The court is hearing petitions challenging a 2010 Allahabad high court order that trifurcated the 2.77-acre-site between the Nirmohi Akhara, the Sunni Central Waqf Board, and Ram Lalla (the child deity).

The court is also considering a petition by the Centre, which wants to release 67.7 acres of land acquired in 1993 around the site — except for .303 acres on which the actual disputed structure stood — to its original owners.

The court mentioned mediation as a possibility to resolve the contentious dispute in a hearing on February 26. The judges suggested an amicable resolution while telling the parties that they were seriously “giving a chance for mediation” in an attempt to “heal relationships”.

The verdict may assume political signifiance because it comes just weeks ahead of the general elections this summer. With the dispute having been referred to mediation, the outcome is likely be known only after the polls.

Many of the Hindu parties opposed mediation saying it would only delay the case, and that previous attempts to mediate the dispute had failed.

In its last hearing on Wednesday, the judges urged lawyers on both sides to exercise restraint and not argue on history.

“Don’t tell us history. We have also read history. Do not tell us what we already know. We have no control over what happened in the past...we have no control over the past. We can only undo the present, which is the dispute before us,” Justice Bodbe said.

Justice Chandrachud, however, aired his doubts over the binding nature of mediation and whether it would work in a dispute that has taken the nature of a representative suit.

“It’s no longer a dispute between just two parties but a wider dispute between two communities. Even if we go through mediation how would it be binding on all?” he asked.

In Congress first list, Sonia to contest from Rae Bareli, Rahul from Amethi

NEW DELHI, March 7: The Congress on Thursday released a first list of 11 candidates, including Congress president Rahul Gandhi and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi, for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from Uttar Pradesh at a time when functionaries say back-channel talks are on over joining the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance in the state.

The re-nomination of Sonia Gandhi from Rae Bareli ends speculation that she may sit out of the elections to make way in the Gandhi family bastion for party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is also the party’s east Uttar Pradesh incharge. The Congress also announced four candidates from Gujarat.

While Rahul Gandhi will contest from Amethi, the party will field former Members of Parliament Salman Khurshid (Farukkhabad), Anu Tandon (Unnao), RPN Singh (Kushi Nagar), Jitin Prasada (Dhaurahra), Nirmal Khatri (Faizabad), and Salim Iqbal Shervani (Badaun).

The party has also named Rajaram Pal as its candidate from Akbarpur, a seat won by BSP supremo Mayawati in 2004; Imran Masood from Saharanpur, and Brij Lal Khabri from Jalaun, a reserved constituency for Scheduled Caste candidates.

Party functionaries, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the 11 candidates from UP have still left scope for the possibility of some understanding between the Congress and the SP-BSP combine, which now also includes the Rashtriya Lok Dal.

A senior Congress leader indicated that the last word on the arrangement was yet to be said. Though the BSP and the SP did not tie up with the Congress over an apparent disagreement over how seats should be shared, back-channel talks are on between them to prevent division of anti-BJP votes through triangular contests after the February 14 Pulwama terror attack, he added.

In any case, the SP-BSP combine left Rae Bareli and Amethi for the Congress. “This shows the Congress is a part of the mahagathbandhan (grand alliance),” SP leader Akhilesh Yadav said on Tuesday, when asked of a possibly of a larger alliance.

The Gujarat list includes Raju Parmar from Ahmedabad West, former state Congress president Bharatsinh M Solanki from Anand, Prashant Patel from Vadodara, and Ranbjit Mohansinh Rathwa from the reserved tribal seat of Chhota Udaipur.

Political analyst N Bhaskara Rao said the move could be pressure tactics on the part of the Congress to force a tie-up with the SP-BSP in the politically important state of UP.

“Congress has given a message that it is a serious player in UP and that it has some winnable candidates to force the SP and BSP to reconsider their decision,” he said.

Why MLA Baghel getting all contracts, asks BJP MP Tripathi after shoe fight

GORAKHPUR, March 7: A day after BJP MP Sharad Tripathi and party MLA Rakesh Singh Baghel were involved in a shoe fight during a meeting in Sant Kabir Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh, the two leaders engaged in a fierce war of words on Thursday.

Before leaving for Lucknow after being summoned by the party high command, Sant Kabir Nagar MP Sharad Tripathi, who is also the son of former BJP state president Ramapati Ram Tripathi, alleged that Mehndawal MLA Rakesh Baghel was involved in illegal activities.

“All contracts, including those of sand mining and road construction, are awarded to him (Baghel) or his men as he resorts to pressure tactics. Why only he is getting contracts? Are other contractors dead?” Tripathi asked and said he would report the Baghel’s illegal activities to the leadership.

Baghel, a former member of the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) and a prominent Thakur leader considered close to CM Yogi Adityanath, however refuted the allegations and said: “All charges against me are baseless. You can check with the officials that I have never forced them for anything.”

Attacking Tripathi, he said there are four MLAs in his parliamentary constituency.

“You ask the MLAs how much work has been done in my area and in his (Tripathi’s) constituency,” he said.

When asked why the tension escalated so much over the mention of names on the stone plaque, Baghel said: “The plaque was for a two-lane road worth Rs 25 crore which was inaugurated on March 5. The plaque was not even put up as its inauguration was to be done by the CM (Yogi Adityanath). Tripathi did not attend the programme. He wants his name but does not want to work.”

Baghel said the MP’s words at the meeting showed his arrogance.

UP BJP president MN Pandey said both the leaders have reached Lucknow. “I will try to make them understand about the indiscipline that we witnessed there and give them strict directions on how to behave.”

One killed, 32 hurt in Jammu grenade attack; Hizb suspect caught

JAMMU, March 7: The Jammu Police, with the help of CCTV footage and eye-witness acounts, arrested terrorist Yasir Javeed Bhat, who had lobbed a grenade at the Jammu Bus Stand around 11.50 am on Thursday.

Bhat is also known as Yasir Arhan of Kulgam.

Addressing media persons here, Jammu region IGP, MK Sinha said, “Around 11.50 am on Thursday, a grenade blast took place at the bus stand in which civilians were injured.”

Sinha said that as soon as the police got the information, they rushed to the spot and shifted the injured to the Government Medical College and Hospital where one of the injured - 17-year-old Mohammed Sharik from Haridwar - succumbed to his injuries.

The IGP said that of the 32 people who were injured in the attack, 10 belonged to Jammu, 11 to Kashmir and nine were from other states. “Two of the injured are still unidentified,” he added.

“During evacuation of the injured, some police teams were tasked with collecting information from witnesses. We also accessed CCTV footage from the area. Based on the CCTV footage and oral testimonies, we identified a man who was wearing jeans and a jacket and had a red rucksack,” said the IGP.

“He was seen fleeing the area immediately after the blast. We immediately shared the CCTV footage and other details of the suspect with the police check posts and instructed them to thoroughly check the vehicles leaving Jammu City. The man was spotted at the Ban Toll Plaza and was immediately apprehended,” said Sinha.

During preliminary questioning, the man identified himself as Yasir Javeed Bhat, son of Javeed Ahmed Bhat of Kulgam in South Kashmir. “He is also known as Yasir Arhan,” said Sinha.

“He disclosed that Farooq Ahmed Bhat, district commander of Hizbul Mujahideen in Kulgam, had given him the task and had provided him a grenade. On Wednesday, Yasir left Kashmir and reached Jammu in the morning where he lobbed the grenade at the bus stand,” Sinha said.

The officer also said that it was not possible to say at the moment if any other person was also involved with Yasir.

Decide on meeting to select first Lokpal in 10 days, Supreme Court tells Centre

NEW DELHI, March 7: The Supreme Court on Thursday directed Attorney General KK Venugopal to submit with 10 days the date of meeting of the prime minister-led panel on the appointment of Lokpal and at the same time it turned down advocate Prashant Bhushan’s plea to make public the names proposed by the search committee.

Turning down Bhushan’s plea to put the proposed names in the public domain, the bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said the matter should be left to the search committee.

“We have considered the provisions of the act and it’s our considered view that no directions are required by this court and the matter should be left to the search committee,” it said.

Bhushan submitted that further steps were required to be taken for the constitution of the Lokpal and at this stage the names of the panel should be put in public domain. Bhushan said it was the government’s duty to provide the names to the court today.

The Chief Justice of India, however, said that the court cannot perform the job of the selection committee.

“Transparency is a subjective term. You have done good work but there has to be a limit somewhere. You have to stop. We don’t think the names are required to be put in public domain,” the Chief Justice of India told Bhushan.

“As and when we have the names we will give them to you,” the Supreme Court told Bhushan orally.

Attorney general KK Venugopal told the court that he was informed by the chairman of the search committee that three names had been forwarded on February 28 to the selection committee that comprises the chairperson, a judicial member and a non-judicial member.

The attorney general told the court that the search committee’s deliberations had been completed and that the matter now rested with the selection committee. The attorney general also said that the search committee needed another 10 days’ time to finalise the names.

Earlier, at the onset of the hearing, Prashant Bhushan had asked Justice Arun Mishra to recuse from hearing the contempt case against him. The judge asked Bhushan and those who have filed applications in his support to move a proper application. The contempt case was initiated on complaints by the attorney general and the Union of India over Bhushan’s tweets allegedly criticising Court on appointment of M Nageswara Rao as interim CBI Director.

Jay Panda joins BJP

NEW DELHI, March 4: Former Biju Janata Dal (BJD) MP Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda, who was first suspended and then quit the party last year after being marginalised in the organisation, has joined BJP on Monday.

Panda took to Twitter to announce his joining BJP, saying he had made the decision after nine months of introspection and widespread consultations with colleagues and the public. He would now work under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

He joined the ruling party in the presence of Union minister and BJP leader Dharmendra Pradhan in New Delhi. He later met BJP president Amit Shah at the BJP headquarters in the capital.

At a press conference, Panda tore into his former party, saying the governance under Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik had deteriorated sharply in recent years.

“I have admired Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership and direction in which he is taking the country and also BJP president Amit Shah’s leadership that has made this party not just the largest in the country, but the largest and the most effective party in the whole world,” he said.

“In the early years, when it (BJD was an ally of the BJP, there were certain norms that had been followed which have been lost in the recent years,” he said.

Panda stressed on the crimes against women and children and corruption in Odisha and recalled “disappointing sights” which needs changing and said BJP is the only party that can change this.

Panda, who won from Kendrapara Lok Sabha constituency in 2014 on BJD ticket, was first suspended in January last year over charges of anti party activities. He subsequently resigned from the party as well as Lok Sabha in May and June last year following serious differences with chief minister.

The articulate and widely networked MP became the most visible face of BJD’s dissenters in mid 2017 after he called for ‘introspection’ in the wake of BJP’s sterling performance in 2017 panchayat elections. Since Modi became PM, Panda has been heaping praise on him while questioning Patnaik’s working style.

The BJP has identified Odisha as one of the priority states ahead of the polls. The assembly polls and the parliamentary elections will be held simultaneously, and the BJP hopes that Panda will brighten its prospects, especially in coastal Odisha.

Odisha has 21 parliamentary constituencies and the BJD had won 20 of them in 2014. The BJP had won only one seat — Sundargarh, represented by Union minister for tribal affairs Jual Oram.

IAF’s Sukhoi shoots down Pakistani military drone in Rajasthan near border

NEW DELHI, March 4: A fighter jet of the Indian Air Force on Monday shot down a Pakistani military drone in Bikaner sector of the Indo-Pak border using an air-to-air missile, government sources said.

The Pakistani drone was shot down by a Sukhoi-30 aircraft at around 11:30 AM, minutes after a ground-based radar station detected the flying machine, they said.

It was the second unsuccessful attempt by Pakistan to send a spy drone inside India in the last six days.

The radar station in the area detected the enemy drone following which one of the fighter jets deployed in the area shot it down, they said. The downing of the drone came in the midst of heightened tension between India and Pakistan after IAF struck a terrorist training camp in Pakistan’s Balakot and subsequent retaliation by Islamabad.

A Pakistani drone was shot down by India on February 27 along Indo-Pak border in Kutch in Gujarat.

Store nation’s urine, end urea import: Nitin Gadkari

NAGPUR, March 4: Lamenting that his out-of-box proposals often find no takers, Union minister Nitin Gadkari Sunday voiced another such idea: make urea from urine.

If it is done, India will not need to import fertiliser, he claimed, addressing a gathering of young innovators at the Mayor Innovation Awards function of the Nagpur Municipal Corporation.

Talking about importance of innovation, he gave the example of how bio-fuels can be extracted from natural waste.

Even human urine can be useful for making a bio-fuel and it can also yield ammonium sulfate and nitrogen, he said.

“I have asked for storage of urine at airports. We import urea, but if we start storing urine of entire country then we will not need to import urea, so much potential it has, and nothing will be wasted,” the minister said.

“Other people do not cooperate with me because all my ideas are fantastic,” the minister, known for his outspoken ways, said.

“Even the (municipal) corporation will not help, because in government, people are trained to be like (blinkered) bulls who walk in the rut, not looking here and there,” he said.

Some years ago, Gadkari had created a flutter by saying that he stored his own urine and used it as fertiliser for the garden at his official bungalow in Delhi.

Speaking at the function, he also gave the example of use of amino acid extracted from human hair waste, which can be used as a fertiliser.

It boosted production at his farms by 25 per cent, he claimed.

Because he could not get adequate hair in Nagpur, he had to purchase “five trucks of hair” from Tirupati (where devotees shave their head which are later sold) every month, Gadkari said.

“We are selling amino acid abroad and have order of about 180 containers of bio-fertiliser from the Dubai government,” the Union minister, who controls Purti Group of Industries, said.

On Rahul Gandhi turf, Modi’s jibe with ‘Made-in-Amethi AK-203’ rifles

AMETHI, March 3: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday stormed into the Lok Sabha constituency of Congress president Rahul Gandhi with a slew of projects and accused the Congress leadership of compromising on national security.

Announcing the launch of a joint venture between India and Russia for the manufacture of AK 203 Kalsahnikov assault rifles in Amethi’s Ordnance factory, Modi said Amethi was the perfect example of the BJP’s policy of ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas’.

“Now, Amethi will not be known for a famous family but for AK 203, ‘Made in Amethi’. These rifles will help our jawans in encounters with naxals and terrorists,” he said and added that those who cheated Amethi also ignored the country’s defence needs.

The PM alleged that the Rafale deal was bitterly opposed by the Congress for the sake of commission and added that the first Rafale jet would be seen flying on Indian skies soon.

“Despite clean chits, they opposed the Rafale deal due to their own vested interests. But Rafale jets will fly soon,” the PM said as defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman applauded.

Sitharam also read out a statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin hailing the joint venture with India.

The PM flayed the Congress for misusing the country’s resources saying that the Amethi ordnance factory, launched in 2007, was supposed to begin production from 2010 but nothing happened.

“Tall promises were made. Your local MP promised that he would ensure employment to 1,500 locals in this ordnance factory but merely 200 got jobs. Imagine those who couldn’t ensure jobs to people in Amethi are now lecturing on employment,” Modi said, adding that the AK-203 would be the best publicity for Amethi.

“AK 203 is the latest derivative of the famous AK 47 assault rifles which will help in arming the security forces besides giving Amethi a new identity,” he said.

Beginning his address with ‘Jai Ramji ki’ (a common way to greet each other in rural India) after making people chant slogans hailing the country and the security forces, Modi said the Congress leadership lied on all matters, including those of national security.

“Even demands for bullet proof jackets for our security forces were ignored. It is only now that the BJP government has begun procuring these jackets,” he said.

As he paused to have water, a section in the audience began chanting, “Rahul Gandhi chor hai (Rahul is a thief)”.

The Congress has coined a similar slogan against Modi over the Rafale deal.

Virtually pitching Union textile minister Smriti Irani as the BJP candidate from Amethi in 2019, Modi said: “We lost Amethi in 2014 Lok Sabha polls but won your hearts. Smritiji has continuously worked with you and for you.”

Amid accusations by the Congress of whitewashing its slogans hailing Rahul Gandhi as future PM, the BJP peppered the Congress bastion with hoardings and other publicity material announcing in local rural dialect, “Abki baar, Amethi hamaar (Amethi ours this time)”.

Modi also raised the issue of Samrat cycle land which he alleged was taken from farmers to set up a bicycle manufacturing unit which never happened.

Modi also unveiled projects including steel processing unit worth Rs 9,200 crore and various upgradation and repair projects.

The projects included upgradation of Amethi bus station and reconstruction of depot workshop at a cost of Rs 496.80 crore, construction of rest houses and shops at Amethi bus station at Rs 139 crore and construction of main building of primary health centre at Rs 167 crore.

IAF pilot returns home from Pak custody

WAGAH, March 1: Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman returned to India on Friday night, two days after he was captured in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, potentially capping for now a week of heightened tension that threatened to snowball into a wider military conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

Varthaman, dressed in civilian attire, crossed the border at Wagah a little before 9pm and walked across to the Indian side where hundreds of people had gathered since the afternoon to greet him on his return.

He was captured on Wednesday after his MiG-21 aircraft was downed in a dogfight over the Line of Control in Kashmir.

“Wing Commander Abhinandan has just been handed over to us. He will be taken now for a detailed medical checkup. This checkup is mandatory as he had to eject from an airplane which would have put his entire body under stress,” said Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor in a brief statement to reporters before a fleet of vehicles left the border crossing for Amritsar, from where Varthaman was set to be flown to New Delhi.

The release of the 38-year-old Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot was announced by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday in a “gesture of peace”.

This was seen as the first sign of a de-escalation after Islamabad retaliated on Wednesday to an Indian “non-military preemptive action” against a Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror camp deep inside Pakistan.

Varthaman had been expected to be repatriated by evening, but his release was delayed by the Pakistani side, which did not offer an explanation, according to Indian officials.

“We had hoped he would have been handed over sooner but it was delayed for some reason by the Pakistanis. At this point, we are happy to have him back,” Amritsar district collector Shivdular Singh Dhillon said. He added that Varthaman said “it is good to be back in my country” when he stepped onto Indian soil.

His release coincided with a heavily edited propaganda video that was released to Pakistani TV channels. The video showed the Wing Commander making certain comments, the circumstances of which were not immediately clear. Social media users criticised Pakistan for the video, with some saying it cast doubt over Pakistan’s claims of the release being a peace gesture.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed the IAF pilot’s return. “Welcome Home Wing Commander Abhinandan! The nation is proud of your exemplary courage. Our armed forces are an inspiration for 130 crore Indians. Vande Mataram!” he wrote in a tweet.

Opposition leader and Congress president Rahul Gandhi, too, welcomed Varthaman. “Wing Cdr. Abhinandan, your dignity, poise and bravery made us all proud. Welcome back and much love,” he said in a tweet, his first since Wednesday when he had last tweeted about the IAF pilot’s capture.

According to defence officials who asked not to be named, the Wing Commander was set to be flown to the Palam airbase near New Delhi in a special flight and then likely to be taken to the Army’s Research and Referral Hospital for a thorough medical examination. If his condition permits, he will then proceed to a debriefing session with senior air force officials. In between, he will get a chance to meet his family, who had earlier on Friday flown from their hometown, Chennai, to the national capital.

IAF jets on Tuesday bombed a training camp run by JeM, 12 days after the outfit claimed responsibility for a car bombing that killed 40 troopers in Kashmir’s Pulwama. On Wednesday, a fleet of Pakistani combat aircraft entered Indian territory and dropped explosives before being engaged by Indian fighter jets, including the MiG-21 flown by Wing Commander Varthaman.

According to officials who asked not to be named, the Wing Commander engaged an F-16 of the Pakistani Air Force (a jet far superior to his) and shot it down before being downed by Pakistani firing. He was captured in PoK after ejecting from his aircraft.

Shortly after Khan’s announcement of the pilot’s release on Thursday, top generals of the Indian military issued new details of the Pakistani operation on Wednesday, saying they had evidence that the targets were military installations in Kashmir. Indian and Pakistani forces are in a state of alert and both have warned of a strong retaliation if the other launches any operation. World powers have urged both to exercise restraint.

IAF pilot made to record video by Pakistan before being handed over to India

LAHORE, March 1: The handing over of IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman to India at Wagah was delayed on Friday as he was asked to record a statement on camera by Pakistani authorities before he was allowed to cross the border, according to sources.

The heavily edited video had several jump cuts apparently to fit Pakistani propaganda.

At 8.30 pm (local) time, the Pakistan government released the pilot’s video message to the local media in which he said as to how he was captured. “Recording of his video message caused delay in his handing over,” a source said.

In the video message, Wing Commander Varthaman said he entered Pakistan’s space to “find a target” but his aircraft was shot down. “I was in search of the target when your (Pakistan) Air Force shot me down. I had to eject the plane which had sustained damage… two Pakistani Army officials came and saved me. The army personnel saved me from the mob. The Pakistani army is very professional and I am impressed by it,” he said.

In the video, which has nearly 19 cuts, the IAF pilot is seen criticising the Indian media.

Wing Commander Varthaman’s plane was downed when IAF planes foiled an attempt by Pakistan Air Force to target Indian military installations in Jammu and Kashmir on February 27, a day after New Delhi had conducted counter-terror operations in Pakistan’s Balakot. He bailed out of the aircraft but drifted to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir where he was detained by the Pakistan Army.

Although there has been no official word as to what time he was brought to the Wagah border on Friday, but the sources say he reached Lahore after 4 pm. The Pakistani media reported that “his papers were being checked at the Wagah immigration” that was why he was not being “immediately” handed over to the Indian authorities. Varthaman was handed over at around 9.20 pm (IST).


 



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