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Three women who could be PM Modi’s biggest nightmare in Lok Sabha elections

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Mumbai :Three powerful women politicians, each from a very different section of society, may pose a big threat to the chances of Prime Minister Narendra Modi winning a second term in Lok Sabha elections 2019 due by May.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, joined the struggle in January, when the opposition Congress party made her its face in Uttar Pradesh.

Two other senior female politicians – the firebrand chief minister of West Bengal state, Mamata Banerjee, and Mayawati, a former Uttar Pradesh chief minister – are also plotting to unseat Modi’s ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition by forming big opposition groupings, though there is no firm agreement between them as yet.

 

“The opposition has more powerful women leaders than the NDA, and therefore they will be able to carry conviction with voters generally, and with women voters, in particular,” said Yashwant Sinha, 81, a former finance minister who quit Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which dominates the NDA, last year.

“They should be very worried, especially after the defeat in the three major Hindi heartland states,” he said, referring to BJP’s losses in recent state elections.

The entry of Priyanka into the political fray drew a gushing reaction from much of the media.

There were pictures of elated supporters dancing, a lot of talk of the 47-year-old’s resemblance to her grandmother, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and comments about her gifts as a speaker able to connect with voters. That contrasts with her brother, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who in the past has been criticized for lacking the common touch.

The other two women seen threatening Modi’s grip on power have a lot more experience than Priyanka, and both could be seen as potential prime ministerial candidates in a coalition government.

Mayawati, a 63-year-old former teacher who goes by just the one name, last month formed an alliance between her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – which mainly represents Hinduism’s lowest caste, the Dalits – and its once bitter foes, the Samajwadi Party that tends to draw support from other lower castes and Muslims.

Then there is 64-year-old Banerjee, who has twice been railways minister in federal governments. Last month, Banerjee – who built her All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) party after leaving Congress in 1997 – organised an anti-BJP rally in Kolkata that attracted hundreds of thousands.

Party colleagues of the three women leaders said they were not available for comment.

To be sure, Modi remains, for now, the most popular leader in the country, opinion polls show.

Modi also cannot be accused of ignoring women’s issues during his first term. He has launched a government campaign – Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, or “Save the Daughter, Educate the Daughter” – and called for the eradication of female foeticide. His campaigns to provide toilets and subsidised gas cylinders for poorer Indians are often promoted as ways to empower women.

He has six women in his 26-strong cabinet, though a lot of power is centralised with Modi and a couple of senior male lieutenants.

The BJP said it would seek votes on the basis of achievements under Modi and the opposition did not have a “positive alternative to the government, and its activities”.

Congress has said it wants to form a post-poll partnership with Mayawati’s BSP and SP alliance, though it will be fighting against it in 78 seats. The alliance will not contest two Gandhi strongholds won multiple times by Rahul and his mother Sonia.

Mayawati told a press conference announcing the alliance with the SP that Congress was not part of it because they did not think “there would be much benefit in having them with us before the election”.

The BSP, however, backs Congress-led governments in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

There is no formal alliance between Banerjee and Congress, though she does know Rahul and Priyanka.

Dinesh Trivedi, a former federal minister and a close aide to Banerjee, said she enjoys a good personal relationship with Sonia Gandhi, the matriarch of the dynasty and a former Congress president, and so working with her two children would not be a problem.

“In terms of experience, Mamata Banerjee is far ahead,” Trivedi said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Rahul Gandhi or Priyanka Gandhi would look at Mamata Banerjee as somebody who could really inspire them.”

The strength of Priyanka, Mayawati and Banerjee as a potential opposition alliance is that they can appeal to different parts of the electorate.

Two Congress sources said the formal entry into politics of Priyanka could help rejuvenate the party in Uttar Pradesh, where it is a marginal player. Coming from what is India’s first family, they said she could appeal to upper caste voters in the state who typically vote for the pro-business BJP.

A Congress leader close to the Gandhis said she would attract women, young people, and floating voters.

Priyanka is far from a political neophyte, having supported her brother and mother during previous election campaigns. She has also experienced political and personal tragedy, as Rahul Gandhi stressed in a speech last week.

“You have to understand my relationship with my sister – we have been through a hell of a lot together,” he said.

“Everybody is like ‘look, you come from this illustrious family, and everything is easy’. Actually it’s not so easy. My father was assassinated, my grandmother was assassinated, huge political battles, wins in political battles, losses in political battles.”

BSP spokesman Sudhindra Bhadoria said Mayawati’s gender did not matter.

“She has managed a party from scratch to this level. The important fact is that she has organised large numbers, both men and women, Dalits, other backward castes, the poor, minorities,” Bhadoria said. “I don’t fit them in the straightjacket of male-female. I think she’s a national leader.”

She is regarded as ambitious. A U.S. diplomatic cable in 2008, among many thousands leaked by Wikileaks two years later, described her as “first-rate egomaniac” who “is obsessed with becoming prime minister”.

But Mayawati has also been credited with empowering oppressed lower caste Hindus.

Banerjee, who defeated a 34-year-old communist government in West Bengal in an election in 2011, is known for her streetwise political skills and portrays herself as a secular leader in a country polarised under the BJP.


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70 killed as massive fire breaks out in chemical warehouses in Dhaka

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Dhaka: At least 70 people were killed as a massive fire on Wednesday night ripped through several buildings also used as chemical and plastic warehouses in an old part of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.

The fire broke out at a chemical warehouse on the ground floor of a four-storey building named Hazi Wahed Mansion behind a mosque in Old Dhaka’s Chawkbazar area and the flames then quickly spread through four other buildings nearby, including a community centre, fire officials said.

At least 70 people had been killed in the massive blaze, fire officials said, adding that the death toll could rise further as dozens of people were trapped in the buildings and the firefighters were yet to enter into the main spot where the fire broke out.

 

“Most of the bodies were retrieved from the houses around that building while firefighters now prepare to enter into the five-storey building, the main spot in search of more bodies,” a police official at the scene said.

Witnesses said the victims also included passersby, some people who were eating food at a nearby restaurant and some members of a wedding party.

Fire officials said the second, third and fourth floors of the building were used as warehouses and plastic factories and there were some residential flats also.

Over 50 wounded people were being treated at Dhaka’s two major state-run facilities–Dhaka Medical College Hospital’s burns unit and Sir Salimullah Medical College.

Many people were injured after they jumped off the building that housed several families.

The officials earlier said 37 firefighting units were moved to the scene but narrow lanes made it difficult for fire engines to reach the spot forcing the firefighters to use long hose pipes to set off the blaze.

A nearly identical incident of fire in 2010 in an old Dhaka building, which was also used as a chemical warehouse, had killed more than 120 people in one of the worst fire tragedies in Bangladesh.

It had sparked a public outcry, demanding the relocation of chemical warehouses and stores from the area, but little has been done in the last nine years. PTI

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SC agrees to hear plea seeking review of Rafale verdict

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to hear a plea seeking review of its verdict in the Rafale case. Former Union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and senior advocate Prashant Bhushan had earlier moved the apex court, seeking review of its December 14 judgment on the Rafale fighter jet deal. The petitioners alleged that the court relied upon “incorrect claims” made by the Centre.

When Prashant Bhushan requested the bench led by the Chief Justice of India (CJI) to hear the petition on Rafale Deal, Ranjan Gogoi said, “Will do something for the listing of the case as a bench is to be constituted for it.”

The bench of CJI Gogoi, Justices SK Kaul and K M Joseph had earlier dismissed all four petitions seeking a court-monitored probe, saying it found “no occasion to really doubt the process” of decision making, pricing and selection of offset partners.

 

Declining to interfere in the Rafale deal, the bench said the perception of individuals cannot be the basis for a roving enquiry in matters of sensitive nature.

The judges said, “We do not find any substantial material on record to show that this is a case of commercial favouritism to any party by the Indian government, as the option to choose the IOP (Indian Offset Partner) does not rest with the Indian government”.

One of the issues raised by the petitioners was the choice of Reliance Aerostructure Ltd as an offset partner by Dassault Aviation Ltd, which manufactures the Rafale.

They alleged that the deal was tweaked to favour the Anil Ambani-owned company.

Earlier this month, a CAG report on Capital Acquisitions in Indian Air Force, which was tabled in Rajya Sabha, noted that the Rafale deal negotiated by the NDA government was 2.86 per cent lower than the previous one from UPA-era.

Compared to the earlier deal in which 126 Rafale jets were to be purchased, according to the CAG report, the country has saved 17.08 per cent in costs towards the India Specific Enhancements to be fitted in the 36 Rafale jets under the new deal. The CAG also noted that there was an improvement of only one month in the delivery schedule of the 2016 contract in comparison to the 2007 offer.

After the apex court’s verdict on Rafale, a controversy erupted over a paragraph in its 29-page ruling. On Page 21, in Para 25 of the judgment, the bench stated that the pricing details of the Rafale was shared with the CAG which, in turn, shared its report with the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

But Mallikarjun Kharge, who chairs the PAC, says no such report has come to him yet and “neither does the CAG know about it”

A day after the Rafale judgment, the Centre had moved an application in the Supreme Court for carrying out a correction in the paragraph. The Centre pointed out that “misinterpretation” of its note has “resulted in a controversy in the public domain”. In the application, the Centre said the two sentences in paragraph 25 of the judgment appeared to have been based on the note submitted by it along with the pricing details in a sealed cover, but indicated the words used by the court lent a different meaning.

Clarifying its position, the Centre said it did not say that the CAG report was examined by PAC or a redacted portion was placed before Parliament.

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Cong attacks PM over India-Saudi statement, says he ‘forgot’ to write Pak’s name

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New Delhi: The Congress on Thursday hit out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the joint statement issued after his talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, saying the PM “forgot” to write the name of Pakistan in the document.

The statement, issued hours after the Modi-Crown Prince talks, said the two leaders condemned the Pulwama attack in the strongest possible terms and called on all countries to renounce the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy. However, it did not name Pakistan in this context.

“Modiji on February 18 said ‘the time for talks with Pakistan is over, and now action will be taken’,” Congress’ chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala tweeted.

 

“Modiji on February 20 saying –India and Pakistan will talk as Modiji has been trying for since May 2014,” he said, referring to a paragraph in the document that talked about the Indian and the Saudi sides agreeing onthe need for creation of conditions necessary for resumption of comprehensive dialogue between India and Pakistan.

The prime minister “forgot” to write the name of Pakistan in the joint statement, Surjewala said.

The Crown Prince “appreciated consistent efforts made by Prime Minister Modi since May 2014 including Prime Minister’s personal initiatives to have friendly relations with Pakistan,” the joint statement said.

“In this context, both sides agreed on the need for creation of conditions necessary for resumption of comprehensive dialogue between India and Pakistan,” it said.

The talks between the prime minister and the Saudi Crown Prince came days after the February 14 attack by the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) that killed 49 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district.

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