India's Secularists Try for Unity

But political squabbles undermine ruling party's bid to fight rise of Hindu nationalists

INDIAN politicians have been gathering in large conclaves in recent days to cobble together "united fronts" to reinvigorate this country's secular ideals and oppose a looming Hindu nationalist movement. But unity is escaping them.

India's ruling Congress Party will launch a campaign today to combat the religious politics of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), part of an "action plan" the Congress devised late last week.

While a resolution by the ruling party invited "the cooperation of like-minded parties and patriotic forces in the campaign against communalism," a term used to describe politics based on religious appeals, Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao told his colleagues on Thursday that "there is no other party except the mighty Congress which alone can strengthen secularism."

Then on Saturday a coalition of a dozen other parties announced its own "national unity campaign" to counter the BJP.

"Indian society has a long ethos of togetherness and toleration and over the centuries it has evolved a shared perception of civilization and culture," says I. K. Gujral, a leader of the opposition Janata Dal party and a former foreign minister. But the ruling party, he adds, "is not interested in strengthening the Indian ethos; they are interested in strengthening the Congress."

Ever since radical Hindus supportive of the BJP destroyed a mosque in the north Indian city of Ayodhya earlier this month, sparking a wave of sectarian violence, this country has rung with denunciations of the BJP's religious politics. The party has promoted a nationalist ideology based on Hindu culture and exploited tensions between Hindus and Muslims.

The BJP also has attacked what it calls the "pseudo-secularism" of several Indian governments. The party has won broad support, even among some avowedly secularist Indians, for asserting that established leaders have not maintained the respect for all religions mandated by India's Constitution, but instead have pandered to religious groups - particularly Muslims - for political purposes.

But in the immediate aftermath of Ayodhya, which the BJP has made into a symbol of favoritism toward Muslims, it seemed that a great majority of India's politicians would unite against the BJP, the main opposition group in India's Parliament.

Prime Minister Rao, for instance, last week easily survived a BJP no-confidence motion. Although the Congress has less than 250 members in the 545-seat Parliament, 334 parliamentarians backed Rao's government. (One-hundred and six BJP members opposed Rao, 13 votes short of its normal voting strength; several BJP parliamentarians were jailed after the mosque's demolition.)

Despite the BJP's isolation and a chorus of liberal Indians urging a revival of secularism, the Congress and other, parties have not been able to come up with a much-called-for united front. There are several reasons:

* The demolition of the mosque set off a wave of internal political jockeying within the Congress, focusing the party's attention inward. There was immediate speculation that Rao would lose his job over the affair, since his trademark consensus method of resolving conflicts failed in Ayodhya. The prime minister said he had been betrayed by the BJP, which had promised him it would stop supporters from destroying the Ayodhya mosque.

* Former prime minister and Janata Dal leader V. P. Singh, who leads an opposition contingent in Parliament, blamed Rao for not preventing the mosque's demolition and repeatedly called for his resignation.

* Rao's response to the crisis - arresting BJP leaders, banning Hindu nationalist groups, and dismissing BJP governments in four states - has been divisive. Many opposition figures have accused him of political repression, but Rao insists that the BJP is guilty of fomenting communal discord, an offense under Indian law.

* Leftist opposition parties oppose Rao's 18-month-old economic reform program of deregulation and free-market competition. The government previously relied on BJP support to win parliamentary approval for its policies, a partnership that was demolished with the mosque.

Rao has been able to keep control of his party, but the criticism of his actions before and after the attack on the mosque have contributed to a sense that he may not be the right person to lead a broad, pro-secular movement.

At a "prayer meeting for communal harmony" in New Delhi a week ago, participants and the press were galvanized not by the presence of a leading Congress Party politician, but by Mother Theresa, the Calcutta-based Roman Catholic nun who runs a network of charitable missions.

Huma Masood, a college student and one of the few young people to attend the meeting, called the mosque destruction "the demolition of our secularist traditions." But she added: "I don't see any politician coming up" who can lead a fight "between secularists and non-secularists." Of the leading politicians, Ms. Masood said, "Most of them have their own political interests."

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