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In Setback For Arvind Kejriwal, Centre's Delhi Bill Becomes Law

NEW DELHI, March 28: A controversial bill giving more powers to Delhi's Lieutenant Governor - the centre's representative - compared to the city's elected government, was cleared by President Ram Nath Kovind on Sunday, officially becoming law. The Union Home Ministry will now declare when it will come into effect.

On Wednesday, the bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha amid a walkout by the Congress and several other opposition parties including Delhi's ruling Aam Aadmi Party.

The bill is seen as a huge setback to Arvind Kejriwal's government, which has been sparring with the Lieutenant Governor since it came to power for the first time in the national capital in 2013.

The Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill makes it clear that the term "government" in Delhi means the Lieutenant Governor and his opinion has to be taken before the Delhi government takes any executive action.

The bill was passed in parliament after two days of chaos in the Upper House, where opposition MPs repeatedly said it will destroy democracy. The opposition has been demanding that the bill be sent to a Select Committee.

The legislation was passed in Rajya Sabha by a voice vote. The opposition had sought a division when the government moved the bill for consideration. During voting, 83 members were in favour while 45 opposed the bill. Just before the passage of the bill, the Congress too walked out.

The AAP government in Delhi has regularly accused the BJP of trying to rule Delhi by proxy through the Lieutenant-Governor.

Most opposition parties, including the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, Lalu Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal, Shiv Sena, the ruling YSR Congress of Andhra Pradesh, and the Akali Dal had opposed the bill. The YSR Congress had walked out in the middle of the debate.

AAP said the bill will not be accepted by the people and there will be protests, much like the farmers' protests. It also said one of the key reasons the bill was brought was Kejriwal's support for the protesting farmers.

Centre's Delhi Bill Clears Rajya Sabha Amid Protests

NEW DELHI, March 25: A controversial bill proposing to give more powers to Delhi's Lieutenant Governor -- the Centre's representative -- compared to the city's elected government, was passed by the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday amid a walkout by the Congress and several other opposition parties including Delhi's ruling Aam Aadmi Party.

The bill is seen as a huge setback to Arvind Kejriwal's government, which has been sparring with the Lieutenant Governor since it came to power for the first time in the national capital in 2013.

The Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill makes it clear that the term "government" in Delhi means the Lieutenant Governor and his opinion has to be taken before the Delhi government takes any executive action.

Kejriwal, in a tweet, said: "RS passes GNCTD amendment Bill. Sad day for Indian democracy. We will continue our struggle to restore power back to people. Whatever be the obstacles, we will continue doing good work. Work will neither stop nor slow down".

The bill was passed after two days of chaos in the Upper House, where opposition MPs repeatedly said it will destroy democracy. The opposition has been demanding that the bill be sent to a Select Committee.

The legislation was passed in Rajya Sabha by a voice vote. The opposition had sought a division when the government moved the bill for consideration. During voting, 83 members were in favour while 45 opposed the bill. Just before the passage of the bill, the Congress too walked out.

"The way Draupadi's clothes were ripped off (in Mahabharat) -- the Constitution is being given the same treatment," said Aam Aadmi Party's Sanjay Singh, who earlier said the BJP brought the bill because it lost the assembly elections in Delhi twice.

"The Constitution of the country is being changed without any Constitutional amendment," said Singh, pointing out that the system of administration in Delhi, as it stands today, was arrived at after 69 Constitutional amendments.

A constitutional amendment requires two-third majority in parliament -- not a simple majority -- for which the BJP lacks numbers in the Upper House.

The AAP government has regularly accused the BJP of trying to rule Delhi by proxy through the Lieutenant-Governor.

Most opposition parties, including the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, Lalu Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal, Shiv Sena, the ruling YSR Congress of Andhra Pradesh, and the Akali Dal had opposed the bill. The YSR Congress had walked out today in the middle of the debate.

AAP said the bill will not be accepted by the people and there will be protests, much like the farmers' protests. It also said one of the key reasons the bill was brought was Kejriwal's support for the protesting farmers.

"Two crore people chose the government. What is our crime? All this was done because Kejriwal did not put farmers in jail when they came to Delhi. The bill must be cancelled," Singh said.

"It is a matter of taking away the authority of the elected government here and giving it to LG. It is against the constitution. It should not become a law," said Congress's Mallikarjun Kharge.

Replying to the debate, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs G Kishan Reddy tried to respond to the opposition's concerns. The amendments, he said, have been brought to remove ambiguities in the 1991 Act and the changes were made in the spirit of a Supreme Court judgment.

Earlier the Supreme Court had ruled that the Delhi government need not obtain the Lieutenant Governor's "concurrence" on every issue of day-to-day governance.

The amendments in the Act would create a sound government mechanism in Delhi, he said, by bringing in transparency and clarity, equity and inclusiveness and enhance accountability.

'Wear Bermudas': BJP Bengal Chief's Shocking Remark On Mamata Banerjee

PURULIA, March 24: At a rally in Bengal's Purulia on Tuesday, West Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh took a swipe at Ms Banerjee's style of campaigning - "She wants to show her plastered leg to everyone. Why doesn't she just wear a pair of bermudas?"

West Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh's frontal attack on Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for highlighting her leg injury, backfired hugely today.

His comment - that the Chief Minister should wear bermudas if she wanted to display her legs - was slammed vehemently by Trinamool, with one of its leaders calling him a "pervert".

At a rally in Purulia yesterday, the state BJP chief said: "The plaster was cut and then a crepe bandage was put. And now she is displaying her leg to everyone. She is dressed in a saree but one of her legs is exposed. I have never seen anyone drape a saree like that. If you want to display your legs, why a saree, wear a pair of bermudas so everyone can have a good look."

Women leaders of the ruling Trinamool Congress were vocal in their outrage. Party MP Mohua Moitra, known for her outspoken remarks, was vehement.

"BJP West Bengal President asks in public meeting why Mamatadi is wearing a saree, she should be wearing 'Bermuda' shorts to display her leg better. And these perverted depraved monkeys think they are going to win Bengal?" read her tweet.

"It now appears that the role of @BJP4Bengal State President has been merely reduced to that of venom-spitting. From scathing attacks towards the CM of Bengal to violence towards @AITCofficial workers - he has conveniently crossed all limits. Shocking words, once again!" tweeted Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar.

Mamata Banerjee was injured in Nandigram earlier this month.

While the Election Commission dismissed it as an accident, her party claimed the Chief Minister sustained injuries when an attempt was made on her life.

Mamata Banerjee hit the campaign trail soon after, going around in a wheelchair, her leg in a cast. At every rally, she has been speaking of her injuries and asserting that though her wounds are painful, they would not stop her.

The BJP had scoffed at her, claiming that the Chief Minister was faking an injury to get public sympathy in a losing battle.

2 killed in boiler blast at Iffco plant

NEW DELHI, March 23: Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited (IFFCO) on Tuesday said that condolence meetings will take place at 11am on Wednesday in all its plants and offices across the country after two contract labourers lost their lives in a boiler blast at its Phulpur unit in Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj.

“We at IFFCO deeply regret the sad and unfortunate incident that took place at around 01:15 p.m. today in the boiler at Phulpur Unit in Prayagraj. 2 contract labour lost their lives. IFFCO will take care of their dependents in the best possible manner,” it noted in a statement.

“My heart goes out to the bereaved families of Sh. Pradeep Yadav and Sh. Babuji Yadav who laid down their lives. A compensation of ₹5 Lakh has been announced and ₹1 Lakh has been paid immediately to the affected families,” the statement further quoted Dr US Awasthi, MD, IFFCO, as saying.

The statement also noted that the situation at the plant was under control, with those injured undergoing “appropriate” medical treatment at a nearby medical facility. “An official technical enquiry has been ordered to look into the accident to find out the cause of the accident,” it added.

Two-minute silence will be observed in solidarity with the deceased, IFFCO said.

On Tuesday afternoon, a steam boiler of IFFCO’s ammonia gas plant exploded in Phulpur, around 25km from Prayagraj, killing the two workers and injuring more than dozen other workers. A large number of protesters, including the kin of the victims as well as injured workers had assembled at the main gate of the plant, raising slogans against the management and blaming them for “negligence.”

Heavy police force had to be deployed outside the plant as a precautionary measure.

The Phulpur unit was also the site of an ammonia gas leakage on December 22, 2020. Two officials had died and more than a dozen staff had fallen ill.

Women More Powerful Than Men: Rahul Gandhi

KOCHI, March 22: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi turned a martial art instructor today during his visit to a college in Kerala on the request of a student.

The 50-year-old Wayanad MP, who is trained in the Japanese martial art Aikido, took a bunch of students on stage at St Theresa's College and showed them a 'principle' of the art.

For around 10 minutes, the stage turned to a 'dojo' where Gandhi demonstrated how one woman can resist being pushed by some seven others by using their energy to hold the ground.

He helped the young woman get her posture correct and showed her the technique of the Aikido principle. He sat with her on the stage demonstrating what she had to do.

"I'm going to show you the Congress party now," Gandhi quipped as he called on for more students to push the woman, in position on her knees, to resist the attack. He compared her to his party, apparently referring to the many hurdles Congress faces from other parties.

The Congress shared pictures and the whole video of the interaction on social media.

After the demonstration, the former Congress chief also said women are way more powerful than men.

"There is a problem. Women do not understand their power. They do not understand how their power works and where their power comes from. And that is the whole point of empowerment," Gandhi added.

"Society wants to convince you that you are less powerful. Don't buy it. No woman in this room should be under the illusion that they are less powerful," Rahul Gandhi said and added that society treats women "very badly" in India.

Gandhi is in poll-bound Kerala today where his first stop was Kochi.

He has been campaigning extensively in the state and interacting one-on-one with locals. Just weeks ago, he took a swim in the sea with fishermen in the state's Kollam.

In another interaction with students in Tamil Nadu, Gandhi took a push-ups challenge with a young girl, and even pulled off an one-arm push-up.

Maharashtra home minister faces his biggest challenge yet

MUMBAI, March 21: Fifteen months ago, Anil Deshmukh got the biggest opportunity of his political career as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader was chosen to head the home department in the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government. Till then, the five-time MLA had been a minister most of the time, but never the one holding a politically significant portfolio. Just when it looked like his stakes were up, Deshmukh, 70, faces the biggest challenge in his political life.

“I never had a stain on me in my 30-year-long political career,” Deshmukh had said in a function organised by Lokmat Group on Friday. Within 24 hours, former top cop Param Bir Singh levelled serious allegations against him, alleging that he had asked suspended police officer Sachin Vaze to collect ₹100 crore every month.

Deshmukh, a fifth-time MLA from Katol in Nagpur district, is an NCP heavyweight in the region and belongs to an affluent family of ‘malgujar’ (big landholder) in the district. He started as a president of Nagpur zilla parishad in 1990. Five years later, he contested the Assembly election as an independent. He was one of the 40-odd independent MLAs who supported the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance government and was rewarded a ministerial berth.

With a masters in agriculture, Deshmukh later joined the NCP, when it was formed in 1999. When the Congress-NCP alliance government came to power in Maharashtra in 1999, he initially served as a minister of state for school education and was later promoted as a cabinet minister in the state government.

From 2001 to 2014, he handled different ministries, including excise, food and drugs (2001 to March 2004), public works (public undertakings; 2004 to 2008), food and civil supplies (2009 -2014).

He lost the Katol seat to his nephew, Ashish Deshmukh, the then BJP nominee, in 2014 assembly elections. Later, he regained the Katol seat as the NCP candidate in the 2019 state assembly elections and was appointed the home minister when the MVA came to power in November 2019. In addition to his portfolio, Deshmukh is also the guardian minister of Gondia district, a bastion of influential NCP leader, Praful Patel.

As a home minister, he tabled the proposed ‘Shakti Act’ to curb violence against women and children in the Assembly on the first day of the winter session. He also took a decision to ask for feedback from women’s rights organisations, legal experts, and citizens before the implementation of the Shakti Act. As a cabinet minister for food and drugs during the regime of Congress-NCP coalition government, he enacted the law in the state to ban gutkha, a type of chewing tobacco.

Ashish, who had defeated him in 2014 Assembly elections from Katol, felt Deshmukh was framed in the “scandal.” “Why should he demand huge money of ₹100 crore every month from an assistant inspector? It seems the allegations are politically motivated,” Ashish remarked.

Deshmukh’s cousin Ranjit was president of Maharashtra Congress and a minister in the first Congress-NCP government.

BJP MP Ram Swaroop Sharma Found Dead At Delhi Home, Suicide Suspected

NEW DELHI, March 17: New Delhi: A BJP MP from Himachal Pradesh, Ram Swaroop Sharma, was found dead at his residence in Delhi today, the police said, adding they are investigating whether it was a case of suicide.

Sharma, 62, was found hanging in his room, Delhi Police PRO Chinmoy Biswal said. He was taken to a hospital where doctors pronounced him dead on arrival.

Prima facie, it appears to be a case of suicide, the police said, adding that no suicide note was found from the spot.

Police officials said that Sharma's personal assistant alerted the police control room around 7.45 am after the parliamentarian did not respond to knocks on his door. A police team was rushed to his residence immediately and forced open the door and found Sharma hanging.

"He was found hanging inside his room, which was locked from inside. No suicide note has been found," the police said.

An inquiry is underway and the exact cause of his death will be ascertained after a post-mortem examination, the police said.

The parliamentarian was reportedly unwell for the past few months.

Proceedings in the Lok Sabha were also adjourned till 1 PM after an obituary reference to Mr Sharma.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted to say that he was pained by Mr Sharma's untimely and unfortunate demise.

The BJP cancelled its parliamentary party meeting today following the news of his death.

Sharma was a two-time MP. He was elected to the Lok Sabha from the Mandi parliamentary constituency in 2014 and 2019.

Meanwhile, former Union minister and BJP leader Dilip Gandhi died of COVID-19 at a private hospital in New Delhi early Wednesday morning.

Gandhi, 69, was in Delhi in connection with some personal work. He had tested positive for the novel coronavirus on Tuesday and was admitted to a private hospital where he was put on a ventilator. He breathed his last around 3 am this morning, BJP leaders said.

7 Army Officers Among 23 Named By CBI In Bribes-For-Recruitment Case

NEW DELHI, March 15: Five Lieutenant Colonels, a Major and a Lieutenant of the Indian Army were among 23 people named by the CBI in an investigation into corruption involving recruitment to the force on Monday following searches in 30 places in 13 cities.

The accused include 17 army personnel in all and six others with "allegations pertaining to bribery and irregularities in recruitment of officers and other ranks through Service Selection Board", the CBI said.

The agency said the case was registered based on a complaint from the office of Additional Directorate General, Discipline & Vigilance, Adjutant General's Branch, Integrated HQ of Ministry of Defence (Army).

The CBI received a complaint last month that serving personnel were involved in accepting bribes for helping candidates clear medical exams at the Base Hospital in New Delhi.

Lt Col MVSNA Bhagwan of the Army Air Defence Corps, the alleged mastermind of the recruitment racket, is among those named, they said.

The complaint said that Lt Col Bhagwan, currently on study leave, and Naib Subedar Kuldeep Singh also received kickbacks from potential officer candidates at SSB centres.

The agency said that Lt Col Surender Singh of 31 SSB centre North; Lt Col YS Chauhan of 6 Mountain Division Ordnance Unit; Lt Col Sukhdev Arora of Directorate General of Recruiting; Lt Col Vinay, GTO, Selection Centre South, Bangalore; and Major Bhavesh Kumar allegedly facilitated the selection of candidates through SSB.

It is alleged that bribes in several lakh rupees were paid to the officers and their relatives through cheques, cash, and online transfers for the selection of candidates, they said.

Searches were conducted today at 30 places including the Base Hospital at the Delhi Cantonment, other army establishments, civilian areas covering 13 cities, the CBI said.

The locations searched include those in Delhi, Lucknow, Jaipur, Guwahati, Kapurthala, Bathinda, Kaithal, Palwal, Bareilly, Gorakhpur, Vishakhapatnam, Jorhat and Chirangon.

The searches led to the recovery of several incriminating documents which are being studied, the agency said.

Yashwant Sinha Joins Trinamool Congress Ahead Of Bengal Polls

KOLKATA, March 13: Yashwant Sinha, former Union Finance Minister under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, today joined the Trinamool Congress weeks ahead of the West Bengal Assembly election. The 83-year-old had quit his earlier party, the BJP, in 2018.

His joining Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's side is likely to be viewed as a prize catch for an outfit that has seen a steady outflow of both leaders and cadres in the past few months.

Sinha joined his new party a little after 12 noon at the Trinamool Bhawan in Kolkata in the presence of Derek O Brien, Sudip Bandopadhyay, and Subrata Mukherjee.

"The country is facing an unprecedented situation today. The strength of democracy lies in the strength of the institutions of democracy. All these institutions, including the judiciary, have become weak now," said Sinha right after joining Trinamool. The senior leader had met Ms Banerjee at her residence before joining the party.

He raised several issues today at the press meet, including the ongoing farmers' agitation and the border situation with China. He also sought to draw a comparison between the Narendra Modi government and that of his former boss, PM Vajpayee.

"There is no one to stop the government's wrongdoing. The BJP during Atal ji's time believed in consensus but today's government believes in crushing and conquering. The Akalis, the BJD have left the BJP. Today, who is standing with BJP?" Mr Sinha said.

Coming to the elections, he cast doubts on the poll body, too: "I say it with a lot of responsibility that the Election Commission is no longer a neutral body."

In the run up to the Bengal polls, the Trinamool has seen a steady stream of leaders such as Suvendu Adhikari and Rajib Banerjee shifting loyalties to the BJP, a party keen on replacing Ms Banerjee's regime. Sinha's entry into the party at this juncture helps Bengal's ruling regime hold up an example, at least symbolically, of these defections being a two-way street.

Sinha first became Finance Minister in November 1990 and stayed in office till June 1991, serving under Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar. His second tenure stretched between December 1998 and July 2002 under PM Vajpayee. From then to May 2004, he was India's Foreign Minister.

A former IAS officer of the 1960 batch, he joined politics in 1984, starting off with the Janata Party after quitting government service. He later joined the BJP.

His son Jayant Sinha remains a BJP member and Parliamentarian from Hazaribagh (Jharkhand). Although a Minister of State for Civil Aviation and Finance under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his first term (2014-19), he was given no ministerial responsibilities following re-election in 2019.

With a generational change overtaking the BJP in the middle of the last decade, Sinha was perceived to have been sidelined. He soon turned a vocal critic of Modi and later quit the party.

Speaking at the press meet today, the Trinamool's Mr Mukherjee said: "We are proud to have Yashwant Sinha joining us."

Mamata Banerjee Leaves Hospital In Wheelchair 2 Days After Leg Injury

KOLKATA, March 12: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was released from the hospital on Friday, with doctors saying she has responded well to treatment, two days after the Trinamool Congress leader was injured in the Nandigram assembly seat days before the state elections.

"The medical board felt she should be in the hospital for 48 hours more for observation. She requested that she should be discharged. Heeding to her request she is being discharged with medical advice," doctors treating her at a hospital in Kolkata said in a statement.

"The Chief Minister has responded to treatment. The plaster cast was opened today and injury examined. The haematoma (blood suffusion) has diminished considerably. Ankle injury has shown much sign of improvement," they added.

The Chief Minister has been asked to come back to hospital after a week for a check-up.

On Wednesday, after filing her election papers for Nandigram, she was at a market greeting people while standing on the footboard of her car when the crowd pressed against her door, which crushed her leg and hips, causing her injuries.

Whether the door was intentionally slammed or accidentally is now a hot button political debate.

After initially alleging an intentional attack by four-five unknown persons, in a subsequent video message from the hospital in Kolkata on Thursday, she said she was injured when a crowd surged around her car and pressed into her but did not repeat allegations of conspiracy.

"I appeal to everyone to be calm and maintain restraint, and to not do anything that will inconvenience people," said the Chief Minister, who has signed up for one of her toughest election contests in Nandigram, where her BJP rival for the state polls is her former trusted aide Suvendu Adhikari.

"It is true that I was badly hurt. I was injured in my arm, leg. There were bone injuries... ligament injuries. I suffered chest pain... I was greeting people from the car bonnet and the crowd pressed into me, the entire pressure was on me. My leg was crushed. I was given medicines and taken to Kolkata," she said.

The Trinamool Congress, however, wrote to the Election Commission alleging "a deep-rooted conspiracy to take the life" of its chief and linking it to the abrupt removal of the Bengal police chief a day before, for which it has blamed the BJP.

Calling it a "gruesome attack" on the Chief Minister, the party said an attempt was made on her life "within 24 hours of the removal of the Bengal police chief" by the Election Commission without the state government being consulted. The party alleged a "nexus" between the BJP's complaints against the sacked police chief and the police being absent at the time of the incident.

Reacting sharply to the allegations which it said were "full of insinuations", the Election Commission stated: "It looks undignified to even respond to the allegations of all this being done at the behest of a particular political party".

The BJP, which has been accusing Ms Banerjee of feigning an attack to gain public sympathy in a losing battle, also urged the Election Commission to order a high-level investigation into Ms Banerjee's allegations and to release video footage of the incident to establish what really happened.

TMC holds EC responsible as gruesome attack on Mamata happened soon after removal of Police Chief; Insinuation, says EC

NEW DELHI, March 11: The Election Commission today reacted sharply to the allegations of Mamata Banerjee's party that she had been attacked at Nandigram just a day after the Bengal police chief was removed and that the poll panel had failed to protect the Chief Minister despite reports that she may be attacked.

Mamata Banerjee is in hospital with injuries to her neck and arm and her leg in a cast after what the Trinamool alleges was an attack on her at Nandigram after she filed her nomination papers last evening for the Bengal election later this month. The Chief Minister was at a crowded market, greeting people from the footboard of her car when she was apparently pushed and her leg was crushed.

In a memorandum, the Trinamool Congress had said the Election Commission could not shrug off its responsibility in the episode as it is in charge of law and order in poll-bound Bengal. The party also alleged a "deep-rooted conspiracy to take the life" their chief and linked it to the abrupt removal of the state police chief by the Election Commission.

Calling it a "gruesome attack", the Trinamool said an attempt was made on her life "within 24 hours of the removal of the Bengal police chief" by the Election Commission without the state government being consulted.

The Election Commission, resenting the allegation that it had removed the police chief at the instance of the ruling BJP at the centre, said: "It looks undignified to even respond to the allegations of all this being done at the behest of a particular political party".

The poll panel said it was "completely incorrect" to suggest that it had taken over the law and order machinery in the state in the name of conducting elections and appropriated the whole governance structure.

The allegations virtually amounted to undermining the very foundation and fabric of the Constitution of India, said the powerful election body, asserting that the Commission "does not appropriate or take over the day to day governance of any state including West Bengal".

The Trinamool memorandum was "full of insinuations" that questioned the "very basis of creation and functioning of the Election Commission", said the panel.

The Election Commission had on Tuesday ordered the removal of Virendra as Director-General of Police and appointed P Nirajnayan in his place, over allegations of poll violence.

"Who will take responsibility for the attack on Mamata Banerjee, when the EC is in charge of administration? EC has to take responsibility. The BJP is asking the EC to remove an official, and they are removing him," said the Trinamool.

The BJP accused the Chief Minister of faking the attack for sympathy after realising she could lose the election.

"Not one eye witness seems to corroborate Mamata Banerjee's 'attack' version. People of Nandigram are upset and angry at her for blaming them and bringing disrepute," tweeted Bengal BJP, posting what it said were witness accounts from the spot.

India No Longer Democratic Country: Rahul Gandhi Tweets Swedish Report

NEW DELHI, March 11: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi today claimed India is "no longer" a democratic country, quoting media reports on Swedish Institute's democracy report that downgraded India.

"India is no longer a democratic country," he said on Twitter, tagging a news report citing Sweden's V-Dem Institute's democracy report that has downgraded India from "world's largest democracy" to "electoral democracy".

This comes after another global report by US government-funded NGO Freedom House downgraded India's status from "free" to "partly free" and claimed that "political rights and civil liberties have eroded in India since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014".

The government has strongly rebutted the Freedom House report and called it "misleading, incorrect and misplaced", while asserting that the country has well established democratic practices.

Rahul Gandhi has been attacking the government over the issue of freedom of speech and expression.

India rated as an ‘electoral autocracy’ by global institute

NEW DELHI, March 11: India has been classified as an “electoral autocracy” alongside Hungary and Turkey in the annual report from Sweden-based V-Dem Institute because of “restrictions on multiple facets of democracy” such as civil society groups and free speech.

V-Dem Institute said India registered a 23-percentage point drop on its 0-to-1 Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) scale, marking “one of the most dramatic shifts among all countries in the world over the past 10 years”.

The V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute, an independent research organisation founded in 2014 by Swedish political scientist Staffan Lindberg, produces its annual report on the state of democracy around the world based on a dataset of almost 30 million data points for 202 countries.

“The world’s largest democracy turned into an electoral autocracy: India with 1.37 billion citizens,” the report said. India was previously classified as an electoral democracy.

V-Dem Institute’s report comes close on the heels of the annual report on global political rights and liberties by US-based Freedom House, which downgraded India’s status as a democracy and free society to “partly free”. There was no immediate response from Indian officials to the V-Dem Institute report.

Mamata Banerjee pushed in Nandigram, injures foot

KOLKATA, March 10: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who was in Nandigram to file her election nomination reportedly injured her foot while she was on campaign.

Mamata was returning after performing 'Puja' at the Reyapara area when she sustained the injury.

"I was standing outside my car with the door open. I was going to a temple there to offer my prayers. Few people came around my car and pushed the door. The door hit my leg," Mamata said, adding, "There was no local police, there was poor security... my legs are injured."

The TMC chief alleged that it was a conspiracy and claimed that she will file a complaint with the Election Commission of India.

Mamata Banerjee is currently on her way to Kolkata, she was supposed to spend the night at Nandigram but has now canceled her plans.

Notably, the election commission has taken the incident into cognisance and asked for a report of the security in the area when it happened.

Meanwhile, BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya called the whole thing as 'drama' and rejected the CM's allegations of calling it a conspiracy saying 'no one can dare to hurt Mamata'.

West Bengal goes to polls on March 27. The tenure of the 16th Legislative Assembly of West Bengal will end on May 30 this year.

A total of 7,34,07,832 voters will choose their representative for the 17th Legislative Assembly of West Bengal.

Ahead of no-confidence motion in Haryana assembly, BJP, JJP and Cong issue whips

CHANDIGARH, March 9: Chief whips of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Jananayak Janata Party (JJP) and the Haryana Congress have asked their respective legislators to be present in the House on Wednesday when the opposition plans to move a no-confidence motion against the state government.

Assembly speaker Gian Chand Gupta had fixed the date for the no-confidence motion last Friday. The no-confidence motion will be brought before the assembly during the ongoing budget session.

“The members of CLP, Haryana are informed that no-confidence motion against the government shall be listed on March 10 in the business of the House,” Congress chief whip BB Batra told MLAs.

“I issue a whip, that you must ensure your presence in the House on March 10 at 10 am positively and support the vote of no confidence. Members are advised not to leave the House without prior permission of the CLP leader,” Batra added.

The BJP’s chief whip Kanwar Pal also issued a similar order. “All the members of the Bharatiya Janata Legislature Party are requested to remain present in the House throughout the 10th day of March during the current budget session of Haryana Vidhan Sabha. They should not leave the chamber without prior permission of the leader,” Pal said. The JJP chief whip chief whip Amarjeet Dhanda also asked MPs to be ‘present positively in the House throughout the day’ and support the government.

Former chief minister Bhupinder S Hooda claimed that the government has admitted its own failures. Hooda said, “Does the Opposition need to say anything more? The government is admitting to its failures over law and order. Personal agenda, and not public interest, dictate the functioning of this coalition.”

Hooda was referring to the extension of the tenure of director general of police (DGP) Manoj Yadava by chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar. His move was condemned by several lawmakers of the BJP and JJP who feel that Yadava lacks control over his officers, which they say has led to the deterioration of the law and order situation.

Haryana minister Anil Vij in February had written to the additional chief secretary (home) to send a panel of officers to the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) for selecting the next DGP despite Yadava having four years of service left.

Former CM BS Hooda also said that the no-confidence motion will clearly show which MLAs support the farmers. “The coalition government has emerged as the biggest anti-farmer government in the country due to the dictatorial attitude towards the farmers' movement,” said Hooda last week.

Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), an umbrella body of the farmers' unions agitating against farm laws, also on Saturday appealed to people to pressurise the MLAs of the JJP and the BJP to vote in favour of the no-confidence motion against the Haryana government on Wednesday. Darshan Pal, leader of the SKM, told people that the Khattar government needs to realise that the people are with the agitators.

The Haryana assembly has 90-members but its effective strength is 88. The ruling BJP-JJP combine enjoys a majority in the legislative assembly—the BJP has 40 members, the JJP has 10 and seven Independent legislators who have extended their support to the government. One member from the Haryana Lokhit Party has also extended support to the government. Congress has 30 legislators in the Haryana legislative assembly.

Kumaraswamy suggests blackmail behind sex CD that felled minister

BENGALURU, March 6: Former Karnataka chief minister H D Kumaraswamy has alleged that blackmail could be at the root of video and audio clippings, involving a former state minister and a young unidentified woman, and claimed a Rs 5 crore deal was struck for the release of the incriminating CD.

Water Resources Minister Ramesh Jarkiholi, 60, was forced to resign from the BJP government after the video and audio clipping emerged on March 2 and were broadcast on local television channels.

Social activist Dinesh Kallahalli, who claimed that he represented the woman’s family, handed CDs of the same to the Bengaluru police and petitioned for a case to be registered as the woman was allegedly coerced into a sexual relationship with the promise of a government job by the minister.

Kumaraswamy, however, has demanded Kallahalli himself be arrested, questioning how Jarkiholi’s private moments found its way into the public domain in a coordinated manner.

“As per my information, there is a Rs 5 crore deal in the release of the CD three days ago and it also involves blackmail. The activist says he has got three or four more CDs. He must be arrested first and questioned on how he got these CDs. Let the government take action on this,” the JD(S) leader said. “The deal for the release of the CD happened three months ago and the conspiracy involves important people.”

Meanwhile, Kallahalli was questioned by police on Friday.

Sources said the activist claimed he received the CDs on March 1 at a hotel by a person known to him, that he viewed the CD that evening, and decided to petition the police the next afternoon with a request for an investigation of alleged sexual harassment.

Emergency Was A Mistake: Rahul Gandhi

NEW DELHI, March 2: The Emergency - imposed by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi over 21 months from 1975 to '77 - was a "mistake" and what happened in that period was "wrong", Congress MP Rahul Gandhi said Tuesday in a conversation with renowned economist Professor Kaushik Basu.

Gandhi also said the Emergency - during which constitutional rights and civil liberties were suspended, the media was severely restricted and many opposition leaders were jailed, was "fundamentally different from the current scenario".

"I think that was a mistake. Absolutely, that was a mistake. And my grandmother (Mrs Gandhi) said as much. (But) the Congress at no point attempted to capture India's institutional framework... frankly, it does not even have that capability," Gandhi told Professor Basu.

"Our (the Congress') design does not allow us (to do)," he stressed.

The ruling BJP - whose leaders were among those jailed during the Emergency - has frequently attacked the Congress on this subject, particularly when faced with accusations it too is curtailing freedom of speech and the right to dissent, and bullying the media into submission.

In June last year Home Minister Amit Shah targeted the Congress and Gandhis in series of tweets, saying "one family's greed for power" turned the nation into a "prison" overnight.

However, Gandhi said Tuesday there was a "fundamental difference" between the Emergency, and what is happening today - the RSS (the BJP's ideological mentor) is filling institutions with its people.

"So, even if we defeat the BJP in the election, we are not going to get rid of their people in the institutional structure," he said.

"Modern democracies function because there is institutional balance... Institutions operate independently. That independence is being attacked in India (by) one big institution called RSS... being systematically done...would not say democracy is eroding, would say it is being strangled," he explained.

Gandhi recalled a conversation with former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath - before his government was overthrown. Kamal Nath told him, Mr Gandhi said, that senior bureaucrats in his government would not follow his orders as they claimed allegiance to the RSS.

"So, it is fundamentally different what is going on," Rahul Gandhi said.

In December last year the Supreme Court said it would examine whether the Emergency could be declared "wholly unconstitutional" after so many years. The centre was asked to respond to this issue, following a petition filed by a 94-year-old woman.

Gandhi also touched upon rifts within his party - rifts that were highlighted Tuesday in an exchange between Bengal Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and former Union Minister Anand Sharma, who is part of the G-23 that is calling for sweeping organisational changes.

"I am the first person that says democratic election within the party is absolutely critical, but it is interesting to me that this question is not asked about any other political party. Nobody asked why is there no internal democracy in BJP, BSP and Samajwadi Party," he said.

Gandhi, who has been targeted by the BJP over the Gandhi family's control of the Congress, stepped down as party chief after the abysmal showing in the last Lok Sabha election. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, has been interim chief since, with elections scheduled for June.

Chinese malware may have targeted Indian power systems and seaports: U.S. firm

NEW DELHI, March 1: The government today reacted to a report that stated that Chinese hackers may have planted malware in key Indian power plants in the middle of hostilities at the border.

The report says this may have resulted in massive power outage in Mumbai in October, which stopped trains and shut down hospitals and the stock exchange for hours.

While denying that the power grid was impacted by the malware, the government says it is aware of the threat from Chinese state sponsored hackers including those named in the report.

The study by US-based Recorded Future shows that alongside the Ladakh tensions, which escalated in June with the clash at Galwan Valley in which 20 Indian soldiers died for the country, Chinese malware was flowing into systems that manage power supply across India.

The Ministry of Power said prompt action had been taken and there was "no impact" on any of the facilities due to the "referred threat".

"No data breach/ data loss has been detected due to these incidents," it said, but did not mention the Mumbai outage. On February 12, India's National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre had alerted the power ministry of the threat by Chinese state-sponsored hackers.

China-linked threat activity group RedEcho may have planted malware in key power plants in India, said the study first reported by New York Times. The links to the Mumbai power cut "provides additional evidence suggesting the coordinated targeting of Indian Load Despatch Centres," said the study that indicated some of the country's most sensitive national infrastructure is vulnerable to systematic attacks from Chinese hackers using state of the art viruses that hack into systems.

The flow of malware was detected by Recorded Future, a Massachusetts-based company that analyses online digital threats. It found that most of the malware was never activated. And because Recorded Future could not get inside India's power systems, it could not examine the details of the code itself, which was placed in strategic power-distribution systems across the country.

Since early 2020, Recorded Future's Insikt Group observed a large increase in suspected targeted intrusion activity against Indian organisations from Chinese state-sponsored groups, said the report.

"From mid-2020, Recorded Future's midpoint collection revealed a steep rise in the use of infrastructure tracked as AXIOMATICASYMPTOTE, which encompasses ShadowPad command and control servers, to target a large swathe of India's power sector. 10 distinct Indian power sector organisations, including four of the five regional load dispatch centres responsible for the operation of the power grid through balancing electricity supply and demand, have been identified as targets in a concerted campaign against India's critical infrastructure. Other targets identified include two Indian seaports," the report said.

Shadow Pad is the name of the malware and Red Echo is the name of the group.

There was a "clear and consistent pattern of Indian organizations being targeted in this campaign through the behavioural profiling of network traffic to adversary infrastructure", said Recorded Future, an assessment that the government agrees with.

A total of 21 IP addresses linked to 12 Indian organizations in the power generation and transmission sector - classified as critical - were targeted.

The report said media reports had previously linked the October 12 power outage in Mumbai to malware at a Padgha-based State Load Despatch Centre. "At this time, the alleged link between the outage and the discovery of the unspecified malware variant remains unsubstantiated. However, this disclosure provides additional evidence suggesting the coordinated targeting of Indian Load Despatch Centres," said the report.

It took two hours for the power supply to resume, and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray ordered an enquiry into the reported grid failure.

This comes on a day when Reuters has reported that another Chinese state-backed hacking group recently targeted the IT systems of Bharat Biotech and the Serum Institute of India, the two Indian vaccine-makers whose coronavirus shots are now being rolled out across India.

Arrival of 'Sticky Bombs' in Kashmir Sets off Alarm Bells, Forces Change Security Protocol to Fight Threat

JAMMU, March 1: Security forces in Kashmir were alarmed by the recent arrival in the region of small, magnetic bombs that have wreaked havoc in Afghanistan.

"Sticky bombs", which can be attached to vehicles and detonated remotely, have been seized during raids in recent months in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, said three senior security officials.

"These are small IEDs and quite powerful," said Kashmir Valley police chief Vijay Kumar, referring to improvised explosive devices. "It will certainly impact the present security scenario as volume and frequency of vehicular movements of police and security forces are high in Kashmir Valley."

The arrival of the sticky bombs in Kashmir – including 15 seized in a February raid – raises concerns that an unnerving tactic attributed to the Taliban insurgents in nearby Afghanistan could be spreading to the India-Pakistan conflict.

Afghanistan in recent months has seen a series of sticky-bomb attacks targeting security forces, judges, government officials, civil society activists and journalists. The attacks – some as victims sat in traffic – have sown fear, while avoiding substantial civilian casualties.

None of the devices seized in Kashmir was produced there, a senior security official said, suggesting they were being smuggled from Pakistan. "All of them have come via drone drops and tunnels," he said, asking not to be named.

Officials said the bombs are particularly worrying because they can be easily attached to vehicles using magnets, potentially allowing militants to carry out assassinations or target military convoys that regularly criss-cross the valley.

In February 2019, a suicide bomber drove a car laden with explosives into a convoy in Kashmir's Pulwama, killing 40 soldiers – the deadliest attack on Indian forces in the region – bringing India and Pakistan to the brink of another war.

Kumar said the security forces were changing protocols to deal with the new threat. The measures included increasing the distance between private and military traffic, installing more cameras on vehicles and using drones to monitor convoys.

A difference between militants in Kashmir and Afghanistan is that the Taliban have tremendous ability to move around in urban and rural areas, which, along with the easier availability of explosives, make the bombs a potent threat.

The Taliban, which initially said it was behind some of the attacks, has since denied any involvement in the attacks.

"The Taliban has targets, can reach them, and kill them with impunity. The whole structure of the attack – and its endless repetition – is what makes the bomb effective," said Avinash Paliwal, a senior lecturer in international relations at SOAS University of London.

"In Kashmir, the space for such ability to manoeuvre with ease is limited."

 



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