Pro-Hindu Party Faces Split over Anti-Muslim Pogrom

NEW DELHI – India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which lost power in recent elections, is in crisis after its leader, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, blamed his government’s poll defeat on the party’s failure to rein in the anti-Muslim pogrom in western Gujarat state in 2002.

Vajpayee made the admission at the hill resort of Manali on Sunday, where the 78-year-old politician is vacationing away from the dust and heat that afflicts the plains around the capital in summer.

The man long considered the moderate face of the pro-Hindu BJP expressed regret that he was prevented from sacking Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat who presided over the pogrom in which at least 2,000 people lost their lives.

"It would have been better to remove the chief minister," Vajpayee told television reporters who tracked him to the sub-Himalayan town of Manali in northern Uttaranchal state.

But BJP hardliners, who stayed Vajpayee’s hand in 2002, once again rallied around Modi. They declared that a leadership change in Gujarat was not under consideration and would not be discussed when party’s national executive committee meets in Mumbai on June 23-24 for a stocktaking exercise.

"There is no proposal to make any change in leadership in Gujarat," BJP party president Venkaiah Naidu declared at a Monday press conference, called as part of a damage-limiting exercise necessitated by Vajpayee’s candid admission.

Naidu, along with BJP figures Pramod Mahajan and Arun Jaitley, have been accused of forming a "triumvirate" that exercised real control over party and government during the six years of BJP rule that began in 1998.

It was this triumvirate that pressed for early elections, while Vajpayee preferred his government to complete its term in September.

The hardliners also have the support of the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS) or the National Self-help Organization, which provides the muscle and ideology for the BJP and has been banned in the past for what many call its fascist approach to politics.

Reacting to Vajpayee’s confessions, RSS chief K. Sudarshan said Vajpayee might have been carried away by opinions on the Gujarat incidents in the English-language newspapers and television channels – which he accused of being biased.

"Some people who call themselves modern, liberal and broad-minded are trying to keep the Gujarat riots alive," Sudarshan said. It was not clear if he was taking a jab at Vajpayee. According to Sudershan, the English-language media ignored what happened before the Gujarat violence – the torching of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims at Godhra station on Feb. 27, 2002 by Muslim mobs.

“All English newspapers and electronic media have blown the post-Godhra riots out of proportion, but conveniently forgot the Godhra carnage,” Sudarshan said of the incident that sparked off two months of communal frenzy in which 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, lost their homes and businesses in Gujarat.

While Modi came under condemnation from human rights groups including the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the chief minister proved that he had generated a wave of sympathy in favor of the BJP from among majority Hindus by going on to win provincial elections in Gujarat in November 2002.

But the BJP did not fare too well in Gujarat during the April and May parliamentary elections. In fact, it wilted under a spirited campaign in favor of secular values mounted against it by the opposition Congress Party and its leftist allies.

The Congress Party’s campaign seemed to gain from a Supreme Court indictment handed down against Modi’s policies just before the elections. The apex court charged him with playing the part of a "modern-day Nero," while his supporters burned, raped and looted at will during the Gujarat violence.

What occasioned the Supreme Court’s comments was the partisan approach of the Gujarat High Court in dismissing appeals for justice from Muslim victims of the pogrom.

The court had to order the retrial, outside Gujarat, of a case in which a bakery run by a Muslim family in Vadodara was set aflame and 14 people killed, while the accused were set free on the grounds of lack of evidence.

After last month’s shock defeat at the polls, senior BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani, deputy prime minister under Vajpayee, laid the blame on BJP policies that enriched the urban middle class but alienated farmers and India’s rural masses.

Unlike Vajpayee, Advani, who is now the leader of the opposition in Parliament, has made no mention of the party’s gory record in Gujarat, where he has his constituency, beyond saying that it was "unfortunate."

The allies of the BJP in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition it used to lead at the central government were more forthright.

Both the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in southern Andhra Pradesh state, the biggest component of the NDA, and Digvijay Singh, leader of the Janata Dal United (JD-U), another major regional ally of the BJP, agreed with Vajpayee that the Gujarat riots had cost the NDA dearly.

Hindu hardliners, on the contrary, say the BJP should now return to the pro-Hindu agenda that brought it to power during the eighties.

Chief among this is the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of the 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque, demolished by the BJP and its supporters 10 years ago.

Pravin Togadia, leader of Vishwa Hindu Parishad or World Hindu Forum, a sister organization of the BJP, said on Monday that it was actually Vajpayee’s attempts to "appease the minorities" that led to the poll debacle.

He was referring to Vajpayee’s appeals to Muslims, during the election campaign, to support the BJP, and his policy of putting on the backburner divisive issues such as the rebuilding of a temple on the site of the demolished Babri Masjid.

Analysts said the unexpected reemergence of the Congress as the ruling party was a sign that the electorate, though overwhelmingly Hindu, was tired of the communal and religiously divisive policies of the BJP.

India’s secular ideals, many added, have been reestablished by the fact that the country has a follower of the Sikh faith, Manmohan Singh, as prime minister and has a Muslim, Abdul Kalam, in the largely ceremonial but constitutionally important job of president.

What is more, the leader of the Congress party that now heads the government, Sonia Gandhi, a Roman Catholic and an Italian by birth, is the country’s most powerful politician.

Read more by Ranjit Devraj