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Modi likely to revamp Cabinet after party reshuffle

A high-powered meeting at PM Narendra Modi’s residence triggers intense speculation; 10 Cabinet ministers summoned to present their report card.

Pankaj Vohra

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Intense speculation has commenced on a possible Cabinet reshuffle to be preceded by the overhauling of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the next few days. While there has been widespread talk regarding the re-structuring of the party and the government, the latest conjecture follows a high-powered meeting held at the Prime Minister’s residence on Saturday.

The three-hour-long meeting in the evening was attended by BJP president J.P. Nadda, RSS joint general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale, RSS in-charge of organisation B.L. Santosh, senior RSS leader Dr Krishan Gopal, besides Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Curiously, both Nitin Gadkari and Amit Shah were not present.

 Informed sources said that at least ten Cabinet ministers were summoned to the meeting in a well-planned and structured manner to ensure that they were not present at the venue at the same time. The ministers were asked to make presentations regarding their performance in the government and told that the Prime Minister and the party shall take the final call on their future role.

The idea was that the top leadership of the party and RSS should be able to assess their contributions and accordingly take an appropriate decision. There has been an overall dissatisfaction over the performance of some ministers, who could be asked to either return to the party fold or be prepared for a new role in the government.

In this context, it is believed that Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman could make way for somebody else as and when the Cabinet reshuffle takes place. She was one of the ministers who was called to present her point of view at the meeting. Other ministers who also came in one by one included, Rajnath Singh, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Piyush Goyal and S. Jaishankar. The Prime Minister has made it clear to his Cabinet colleagues that they would be accountable for their actions and shall be judged by their work.

Within the BJP circles there has been speculation on the continuation of Rajnath Singh as the Defence Minister since it is being said that Amit Shah could probably replace him. The Prime Minister is yet to take a view on a pending proposal to bifurcate the Union Home Ministry. Therefore, Shah’s transfer would depend on whether the bifurcation move gets the final approval. Sources said that the internal security segment of the ministry could be taken away so as to get a full-fledged minister to head this particular assignment. The government could announce this division simultaneously with the reshuffle.

The party re-organisation could happen as early as the next two days since the RSS has already given its approval to the new inductees who may find a berth in Nadda’s team. So far, Nadda has been continuing with the same team he had inherited from his predecessor, Amit Shah, and therefore the party revamping has no element of surprise. Earlier, there was a suggestion to include Nadda in the government while allowing some other senior to take over the reins of the party. Sources said that the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and PM Modi were to have the final word in this matter.

 Political circles, particularly the opposition, is likely to view the restructuring exercise as an attempt to divert the attention from the negative perception that has been building up over the manner in which first the Covid-19 pandemic fallout was tackled and subsequently, the mounting India-China tensions on our borders.

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ELECTION COMMISSION BEGINS PREPARATIONS FOR 2022 ASSEMBLY ELECTIONS

Ashish Sinha

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Different political parties have already started their preparations for the Assembly elections of five states, that will start next year. Meanwhile, the Central Election Commission has also started brainstorming about its preparations for the upcoming elections. The Election Commission of India, on Tuesday, held a review meeting on advance planning for forthcoming elections with the Chief Electoral Officers of the five states: Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh at Nirvachan Sadan.

The Election Commission has issued a press statement and said that the preliminary meeting held was focussed on various thematic issues including Assured Minimum Facilities (AMF) at the polling stations, ease of registration arrangements for voter facilitation, electoral roll, timely resolution of grievances, arrangements of EVMs/VVPATs, postal ballot facility for senior citizens (80+) and PwDs, Covid mitigation plan, training of polling staff, and extensive voter outreach amongst others.

Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra, in his address, said that transparency and impartiality are the hallmark of the election process. He added that issues and challenges may be different in each state but election planning needs to have a voter-centric approach and participative decision making involving all stakeholders.

CEC Chandra, while interacting with the CEOs, said that states should learn and adopt innovations and best practices in election management from the states where polls have occured or other States/UTs.

The CECs from the five states gave a detailed presentation on various aspects of conduct of election including health of electoral roll, availability of budget, manpower resources, planning, polling station arrangements, and IT applications, etc, the press statment said.

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MAJOR FINANCIAL JUMBLE SURFACED IN CHANDIGARH’S BIRD AVIARY

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Region’s first Bird Aviary in Forest area, out of zoo, has fallen under the scanner of financial fraud. The under construction project ‘Bird Aviary’ situated inside City Forest adjoining Sukhna Lake surfaced with a major financial jumble by Chandigarh Forest and Wildlife Department. The Audit Department clearly says in its official report that the expenditure being made on this project is not justified and if in future anyone moves to court against the department, the latter would have no answer to these financial flaws. This case has been revealed by My Tree Foundation founders Prem Garg, Rahul Mahajan, and environmentalist Ashok Tiwari on Thursday.

These financial flaws, that have surfaced under General Finance Rule 2017, says, “In order to initiate any construction, the department has to sign a contract agreement with the agency hired for construction services.”

“Despite these rules, on 10 January 2020, the Chief Conservator of Forest Office of the department of Chandigarh Forest and Wildlife initiated an e-tender for the “Fabrication work of the Bird Aviary” and did not sign any agreement with the Disha Associates before allotting Rs 3.38 crore of work allotment to them on 2 March 2020,” says Garg.

UNDUE FAVORS TO DISHA ASSOCIATES BY THE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL

In this period, the Department of Forest and Wildlife favored Disha Associates blindly. This can be seen as Disha Associates submitted Rs 16.90 lakh as performance guarantee and has to renew it after 28 February 2021 but Disha Associates did not resubmit the money and renew the performance guarantee that is a clear loss to the government treasury. “Besides these favors, the department did not levy any fine on the agency as the latter did not complete the project within the time limit which was 2 September 2020 and did not even relax the time limit for the agency on the official documents. There is exaggerated use of 37.348 metric ton steel without permission,”says Mahajan.

Interestingly, there was an estimate of using 256.78 metric tons of steel in constructing the structure of Bird Aviary, whereas the Disha Associates claim to have used 37.348 metric ton above the estimated figure and for this, the agency has spent 14.54 percentage of more expenditure of the sanctioned budget without seeking any prior permission.

PERTURBATION IN FOUNDATION OF BIRD AVIARY

There has been evident perturbations in the construction of foundation of Bird Aviary as well as this job was too allotted to Disha Associates for which the department of Chandigarh Forest and Wildlifedid not levy any condition of performance guarantee which is standing as an outstanding of Rs 39.05 lakh.

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‘Is he a terrorist,’ lawyer asks after Kundra denied bail

Urvashi Khona

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A metropolitan magistrate court in Mumbai on Wednesday dismissed the bail plea filed by 45-year-old businessman and Shilpa Shetty’s husband Raj Kundra. Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Sudhir Bhajipale was hearing the bail plea filed by Raj Kundra represented by senior counsel advocate Abad Ponda. On hearing both the sides, the magistrate rejected Kundra and his aide Ryan Thorpe’s bail plea in a case related to the alleged production and distribution of pornographic content. While submitting his side, advocate Abad Ponda asked: “Is Kundra a terrorist? Has he terrorised anyone?”

Advocate Abad Ponda filed the bail plea on the grounds that this was an old case where chargesheet was filed and nine other accused were out on bail and Kundra has been cooperating in the investigation; thus his custody is not required. Abad Ponda submitted, “Charge-sheet in the case is filed already in April 2020 and maximum punishment is seven years. All the accused are out on bail. So I plead bail should be granted.”

To this Mumbai Police, opposing the bail plea, submitted in the court that if Raj Kundra is granted bail, then tampering of evidence can happen. Also, as some statements of victims are yet to be recorded, they may fear to come forward and Kundra can use his money and muscle power on them. Investigating Officer, police Inspector Kiran Bidve standing in the witness box told the court, “Kundra can destroy evidences once he’s out. Last night in Malwani police station, the case was registered; so slowly victims are coming forward. If Kundra is out, he can use money and muscle power to silence the victims. He can tamper with the evidence and witnesses. If he gets bail, then victims will fear to come and speak, If bail is granted ro Raj Kundra, he can help his brother-in-law Pardeep Bakshi and Ryan, who was the IT head. We have seized electronic devices, Ryan can destroy the evidence. We need to probe with the help of Ryan. The accused are active in the case and victims will fear if bail is granted and at this point their statement needs to be recorded and financial transactions need to be probed. Thus, we appeal not to grant bail for Raj Kundra and Ryan Thorpe.”

To this, Kundra’s counsel Abad Ponda replied, “Am I a terrorist??? has any of the victim till date from February to date in charge-sheet or statement said that Kundra has threatened or so!!” Police said that Kundra is a British national and so could flee the country to avoid prosecution. Ponda replied: “Police knew even when they filed the charge-sheet in February that he was a British national and his passport is already with the police. Further terms and conditions can be imposed.”

Public prosecutor Ekanath Dhamal argues that the accused are rich and influential, and said: “Needy women were being forced into this crime. Many victims are coming forward and that if bail is granted to Kundra, then they might not come forward. The accused are rich and influential people.” 

Meanwhile, trouble for Kundra increased as, according to sources, four of his employees have turned witnesses against him. The Mumbai crime branch has lodged a fresh FIR in connection with a pornography case and named producers of businessman Raj Kundra’s company as well as actress Gehana Vashishth in the new case, a police official said on Wednesday. 

The case was registered by the crime branch’s property cell at the Malwani police station on Tuesday after an actress approached the police and alleged she was forced to shoot for a pornographic film for the HotShots app. The FIR was registered under various Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections, including 420 (cheating), 392 (punishment for robbery), 393 (attempt to commit robbery), and provisions of the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act and the Information Technology Act, the official added.

Kundra has also filed a petition in the Bombay High Court, challenging his arrest in the case and calling for an “immediate release”. The petition claims that his arrest is “illegal”. On Tuesday, the Bombay High Court had adjourned the hearing; the matter will be heard again on Thursday.

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PARAMILITARY TROOPS TO TAKE OVER DISPUTED AREAS IN ASSAM AND MIZORAM

After the Centre held a meeting with senior Assam and Mizoram officials on Wednesday following violence along their border, both Assam and Mizoram have agreed on the deployment of paramilitary forces in disturbed border areas along the National Highway 306.

Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla chaired the meeting which was attended by Assam Chief Secretary Jishnu Baruah and Director General of Police Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta and their respective Mizoram

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After the Centre held a meeting with senior Assam and Mizoram officials on Wednesday following violence along their border, both Assam and Mizoram have agreed on the deployment of paramilitary forces in disturbed border areas along the National Highway 306.

Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla chaired the meeting which was attended by Assam Chief Secretary Jishnu Baruah and Director General of Police Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta and their respective Mizoram counterparts Lalnunmawia Chuaungo and SBK Singh.

Both state governments have agreed to the deployment of a neutral Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) at the disturbed interstate border along the National Highway 306, a home ministry official said, news agency PTI reported. The neutral force will be commanded by a senior officer of the CAPF. Also, in order to facilitate the functioning of the force, both the state governments will work out arrangements in coordination with the Union Home Ministry within a reasonable timeframe.

After the meeting, Mizoram Chief Secretary Lalnunmawia Chuaungo said that their forces were being withdrawn from the disputed site. “We are going to maintain peace,” he said.

The latest flashpoint in the decades-old border dispute between Assam and Mizoram led to violent clashes in which at least six people died and over 50 individuals were injured.

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Ram temple construction gathers pace, 50% foundation work done

Ashish Sinha

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As much as 50 percent work of filling the foundation of the Ayodhya Ram temple has been completed. Ram Mandir Trustee Dr Anil Mishra said that the target is to complete the foundation filling work for the construction of the Ram temple by September end. So far, 23 layers have been constructed. The work of drying the layer that has been made is being done. The foundation filling work has been interrupted due to rain. The work of construction of all 44 layers will be completed by September; immediately after that, the work of construction of plinth will start. A large amount of field material is being used in the temple construction work in Ramjanmabhoomi.

The foundation is to be filled in total 44 layers out of which about 50 percent, that is, 23 layer laying work has been completed. On the other hand, the preparation for the plinth construction has also intensified. The supply of Mirzapur stones used in the plinth is being done continuously. A batch of workers has also arrived. 

Meanwhile, the white marble of Makrana, which is installed in the sanctum sanctorum (Garbhagrih), has reached Ayodhya. White marble frames of Makrana will be installed in Shri Ram Janmabhoomi temple. So, about 30 door frames will be installed in the temple being built in 2.7 acres of land. The front part of the white marble door frame in the sanctum has been carved in a very beautiful way. On both sides of the upper part of the stone, the conch is embossed on the stone, which is a representation of Lord Vishnu. There will also be carvings on the pillars of the door frame, in which the shape of the flower is embossed. Similarly, in the three-storey temple, the sanctum sanctorum, the doorway of all the Gudmandap will be made of white marble of Makrana. 

On 15 July, speaking to The Daily Guardian, Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra trust’s general secretary Champat Rai said: “Date has been fixed for getting darshan in Ayodhya’s grand Ram temple. In 2023, Ramlala will be established at the sanctum sanctorum of the Ram temple. By 2025, the vision of the Ram temple complex in the entire 70 acres will be completed. The decision has been taken in the meeting of the Ram Mandir Trust in Ayodhya.” 

Rai had earlier said that three different types of stones would be used in the construction of the Ram temple. Different stones will be used in its base plinth, the spire, including the temple and the walls, in which its base plinth will be made of four lakh cubic stones of Mirzapur and stones of Banshi Paharpur of Rajasthan will be used for the construction of the temple.

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BLINKEN HAILS INDIA-US TIES, SENDS MESSAGE TO CHINA, TALIBAN AND PAKISTAN

US Secretary of State meets PM Modi, EAM Jaishankar and NSA Doval; Beijing’s belligerence, Pak’s terror financing, Taliban surge key agenda.

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar held detailed and extensive discussions on a wide range of issues including China, Afghanistan conflict, Taliban, the Indo-Pacific. Pakistan also figured during the discussion when both the leaders delved into regional security issues, with terror financing and terrorist activities emanating from ‘neighbouring country’ being very much on the agenda. Sources told The Daily Guardian that Pakistan-based terror activities and Taliban’s violent act being supported by Pakistan were the issues that featured in the meeting between National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval and Blinken on Wednesday. Blinken also met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the evening.

“Good to meet US Secretary of State @SecBlinken today. I welcome President Biden’s strong commitment to strengthen the India-US Strategic Partnership, which is anchored in our shared democratic values and is a force for global good,” PM Modi tweeted.

What came as a welcome development for MEA was that India and the US had a strong convergence of views on many regional and global issues that were discussed during these meetings with Blinken. EAM Jaishankar tweeted, “A wide ranging and productive discussion today with secretary Blinken. Useful in mapping out the next steps in our bilateral partnership. Strong convergence of views on many regional concerns. Agreed to work closely on multilateral and global issues.”

US Secretary of State Blinken actually confirmed what Jaishankar tweeted when he sent out a substantial message to all those who are posing a threat to regional security. On Afghanistan, Blinken’s message was for Taliban, Pakistan and China, as he said, “We both agreed strongly that any future government in Afghanistan has to be inclusive and fully representative of Afghan people. Ultimately it has to be an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.” Significantly, this has been the stand and

line of India vis-à-vis the future of Afghanistan. So, Blinken put a stamp of approval on what India has been reiterating about the future government of Afghanistan. His message was for both the Taliban and Pakistan. Blinken’s message was also for China which is reportedly trying to meddle in Afghanistan in a bid to increase its influence there. Similarly, Blinken is aware how Pakistan’s state actors are backing the Taliban due to their vested interests. What next Blinken said was also a strong message for all of them-Taliban, China and Pakistan. He said that even if American troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, the US will remain engaged there.   

Further, on the fast-evolving situation in Afghanistan, Blinken said India and the US share a strong interest in a peaceful, secure and stable Afghanistan adding that both the nations are committed to the proposition that there is no military solution to the conflict in the region. The US official also noted that there has to be a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan that requires the Taliban and the Afghan government to come to the table. In a message to China, Blinken mentioned that India and the US share a vision of a free, open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

Sources said that Blinken expressed concern over the manner in which terror organisations like Al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba are increasing their activities in Afghanistan. Both Blinken and Jaishankar stressed the need for Pakistan to rein in terrorist outfits on its soil, sources said.  

In what is being seen as a message to those raising questions over democracy in India, Blinken said India and the US are two of world’s leading democracies where “diversity fuels our national strength.” He further pointed out that there are few relationships in the world that are more vital than one between the US and India. In a meeting with some civil society members, the US top diplomat stated that the US and India share a commitment to democratic values. He said it is part of the bedrock of the bilateral relationship.

He noted that Indians and Americans believe in human dignity, in equality of opportunity, the rule of law, and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion and belief. He further pointed out that all people deserve to have a voice in their government and be treated with respect no matter who they are. Further stating that both the democracies “are works in progress”, Blinken noted that “as friends we talk because doing hard work of strengthening democracy is often challenging.” “At a time of rising global threats to democracy and international freedoms – we talk about a democratic recession — it’s vital that we two world leading democracies continue to stand together in support of these ideals,” he noted. Covid-19 issues were also discussed on priority during the meet and EAM acknowledged the responsiveness of the Biden administration for keeping the raw material supply chain open for vaccine production in India. “We focussed today on expanding vaccine production to make it globally available and affordable,” Jaishankar said. Blinken, on the other hand, announced $25 million assistance to support Covid vaccination efforts across India. 

India’s quest for a permanent seat in UNSC was also discussed and Blinken reiterated US support for the same. “We spoke at length about regional concerns, multilateral institutions and global issues. The expanding Indian footprint, be it in Africa, Southeast Asia, or the Caribbean, has naturally broadened our shared agenda. Among the many issues we looked at, I would specifically note Afghanistan, Indo-pacific and the Gulf,” Jaishankar said.

In a clear-cut message to China, Jaishankar said that the Indo-pacific presents a different set of challenges, including ensuring that everyone observes international laws and rules.

“Under the aegis of Quad framework, we are engaged on maritime security, HADR, connectivity and infrastructure, cyber and digital concerns, counter-terrorism, Covid-19 response, climate action education, etc. The secretary and I not only discussed opportunities for future collaboration on all these issues, but also the importance of observing the international laws, rules and norms. Our ability to work together in the quad benefits the international community as a whole,” Jaishankar added. 

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