India's Pro-Hindu Party Vows to Force Elections

As Rao government struggles to regain control after last week's sectarian riots in Ayodhya, the Hindu movement may urge further violence

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

OFFICIALS of India's leading opposition party said yesterday they would bring the government of Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao to a halt in an effort to force nationwide elections as early next year.

The opposition Indian People's Party or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the political face of a nationalist "Hindu movement" that has brought India to a crisis in the past 10 days. BJP members disrupted both houses of Parliament yesterday, waving black banners and calling the prime minister a "murderer of democracy," in a show of outrage over the government's arrest of senior BJP leaders and its dismissal of state governments once controlled by the party.

In spite of the government's actions, and in some ways because of them, BJP supporters seem confident that they are on the verge of significant political gains in this country.

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"We want early elections," a BJP vice president, K. R. Malkani, said in an interview. He said his party would begin to mount demonstrations.

"We will create a situation in which the government cannot function," he said, but denied that the BJP and its allied organizations would promote violence to destabilize the country. Nonetheless, some analysts argue that the BJP now has a stake in civil unrest, since it will only hurt the image of the ruling Congress Party.

"There has been a subtle campaign from their side to tell people that more Hindus than Muslims have been killed [in recent rioting] and preparing the way for a backlash which they can unleash without any problems because they are not in power and will not be called upon to contain it," says Mrinal Pande, the editor of the weekly Saptanik Hindustan.

The crisis began when radical Hindus allied with the BJP destroyed a 16th-century mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya on Dec. 6, igniting sectarian violence across India that killed more than 1,200 people. In efforts to control the strife and calm angry Muslims, the government last week arrested BJP officials, banned five organizations it accused of fomenting religious animosities, and dismissed the BJP-led government of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya is located.

Then late Tuesday night the government dismissed state governments in three more states where the BJP held power. It said the BJP administrations, allied with the militant Hindu groups responsible for the mosque's destruction, could not be trusted to enforce the central government's ban on such groups.

Echoing the protestations of his colleagues in Parliament, Mr. Malkani sharply criticized the dismissals. "It's absolutely lawless," he said.

The dismissals will not have much practical impact on the lives of Indians in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Rajasthan, but Rao's action appears likely to cause a backlash of support in favor of the BJP.

As it is, many Indian analysts say the party will reap at least short-term benefit from the destruction of the long-disputed mosque, although party members say they sought to avert the shrine's demolition.

But the Rao government, criticized for a slow response in the days after the demolition, now appears intent on cracking down on the Hindu nationalism. The BJP's assertion of a Hindu national identity has alienated India's minority Muslims, increasing tensions between the two groups.

The BJP has used the mosque at Ayodhya - which some Hindus assert stands on the birthplace of their god Ram - as a symbol for a Muslim community that it says has grown too powerful.

The party has repeatedly accused the ruling Congress Party of favoring the Muslims in order to gain political support. The BJP points accusingly at a decision by the late Congress Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi allowing Muslims to maintain a body of personal law separate from the one that governs members of other religions here.

Enthusiasm of top BJP figures such as Malkani is echoed by lower-level party supporters as well. Tarun Vijay, the editor of a Hindi-language weekly supportive of the party, says the government's actions have sharply polarized India's political scene, so that the BJP and the larger "Hindu movement" now stand alone.

Mr. Vijay's magazine, Panchjanya, is considered an organ of the National Volunteer Corps, one of the groups banned last week. But he says his organization has always wished for a moment such as this, where the government is seen as cracking down on the forces of Hindu nationalism.

"This is the battle cry that will be raised: `Nationalist forces are being victimized and all others are being left free,' " Vijay says. "This is going to boomerang," he says of the government's actions.

But members of Rao's ruling Congress Party are confident that decisive steps are called for, and that they will not prompt a backlash. Arjun Singh, a senior Congress leader, yesterday said to reporters, "I do not think that any attempt to cash in on [the dismissals] politically will succeed."

The crisis has caused many here to wonder whether Rao can hold onto power, and Mr. Singh often is identified as a contender for Rao's position. But yesterday Singh insisted that Rao "enjoys the support of all the members of the Congress Party."

Although the government appears to be standing firm in its policy of cracking down on organizations responsible for the Ayodhya demolition, in an effort to repair damage done to India's image as a secular state, Singh suggested the government might be standing back from a promise to rebuild the mosque.

"This is not the time to bring that into very sharp focus," he said.

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