Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-INDIA: Showdown over Gujarat Builds up in Parliament

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Apr 15 2002 (IPS) - Indian politics appeared headed for uncertainty Monday, with secular parties preparing to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for not only refusing to sack its chief minister in riot-torn Gujarat state, but endorsing his blatantly pro-Hindu policies.

Vajpayee’s minority government depends on support from regional allies in the multi-party National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the BJP.

Most of these allies are uneasy with the BJP’s communal agenda on display in western Gujarat state, where a pogrom against the minority Muslim community since Feb. 27 has resulted in more than 1,000 deaths and rendered another 100,000 people homeless.

Independent assessments of the deaths place the toll much higher and say that as many as a thousand people could have been killed in the industrial city of Ahmedabad alone.

On Monday, Parliament was forced to adjourn amid commotion after the BJP refused to undergo a trial of strength over the issue of the continuance in office of Gujarat chief minister Narendara Modi, as demanded by the opposition parties and several regional parties in the NDA.

The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which rules southern Andhra Pradesh state and sends 28 members to the Lok Sabha (lawmaking, lower house of Parliament), sought discussion in the house over the issue.

Party leader and the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, made it clear in Hyderabad city that Modi must go. “We have asked for Modi’s removal because he failed to control the situation in Gujarat and even allowed the situation to go from bad to worse. ” Naidu said at a televised press conference in Hyderabad Monday.

Naidu was referring to violence against Muslims continuing in Gujarat six weeks after it was sparked off by the firebombing of a train carrying Hindu devotees near Godhra station.

At a weekend conclave in the former Portuguese enclave of Goa on India’s west coast, the BJP not only rejected demands for Modi’s ouster as chief minister of Gujarat — the only state directly ruled by the BJP — but declared that what happens in the state was its own business and had nothing to do with its allies in NDA.

When Modi, who is backed by powerful Hindu fundamentalist groups, made a show of offering his resignation Friday, the BJP not only declined to accept it but went on to endorse a suggestion he made to call for mid-term polls in Gujarat. The state is not due to elect a new assembly until next year.

Naidu said Monday that it was regrettable that the BJP has plans to call elections in the middle of the vast human tragedy that had befallen Gujarat.

At the Goa conclave, Lal Krishna Advani, who has charge of the powerful federal interior ministry, and is considered a likely successor to Vajpayee, exhorted BJP partymates “not to be unnecessarily apologetic about the party’s ideological moorings”.

Advani and Modi are closely identified with a Hindu fundamentalist movement that is centred around the demolition of the 16th century Babri Masjid in 1992 at Ayodhya town in northern Uttar Pradesh state, and seeks to replace it with a magnificent Hindu temple dedicated to the Hindu warrior deity Ram.

Under pressure from its allies in the NDA, the BJP was forced to shelve its temple-building plans, but suddenly revived it to bolster its chances of winning crucial provincial elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, in February.

Hundreds of thousands of devotees, who support the idea of building a temple at Ayodhya, converged there from different parts of the country in March. Many of them came from Gujarat, for a consecration ceremony organised by the BJP and its affiliates such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or World Hindu Forum.

But in spite of trying to whip up Hindu sentiments over Ayodhya, the BJP fared badly not only in Uttar Pradesh, but also in three other states that simultaneously went to polls. More recently, the party was virtually wiped out in the prestigious local municipality elections in the capital city of Delhi.

According to independent investigations, the firebombing of the train in February happened after boisterous Hindu devotees returning to Ahmedabad, after visiting Ayodhya city, taunted Muslims at railway stations that they passed.

Vajpayee, who visited Gujarat on Feb. 4, more than a month after the violence, said what happened was a national shame and that he was aghast to see hundreds of thousands of people reduced to living in refugee camps after their homes and business were burned down.

But the violence against Muslims continued after his visit.

At a public meeting in Goa on Sunday, after the BJP conclave ended, Vajpayee laid blame for the situation in Gujarat on the Muslim community. He accused it of of initiating the violence through the firebombing incident at Godhra, in which 59 people, most of them Hindu devotees returning from Ayodhya, died.

Vajpayee declared at the rally that he was ready to face a trial of strength in Parliament.

A quick reckoning by several newspapers saw that the NDA still had enough numbers to stay in power, even if the TDP from Andhra Pradesh state withdrew its support, provided all the other allies stayed within the fold.

But already the Trinamul Congress has announced that in the event of a vote on the Gujarat leadership issue in Parliament, all its nine members in the Lok Sabha would vote with the TDP.

Although Vajpayee’s main spokesman and parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan denied that “it is a numbers game,” the party was busy looking for new friends, such as the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP ) which represents the interests of Hindu castes at the bottom of the religiously sanctioned social ladder.

According to BJP leaders, a deal is even now being struck to install BSP leader Mayawati as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in return for the support of the 13 members of Parliament from her party who now sit in the opposition.

The real danger for the BJP comes from the powerful Congress party, which at a separate meeting of its chief ministers who now rule 14 major Indian states announced that it was ready to face general elections at any time.

Its leader, Sonia Gandhi, declared that the Congress party, which led India to independence in 1947 and ruled for most of the years afterwards, was the “natural party of governance”.

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