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Vajpayee reveals his true colors

Muslim protesters shout anti-government slogans as Vajpayee visits a Muslim refugee camp in Ahmadabad  

By Mark Tully

(CNN) -- The communal violence in the western Indian state of Gujarat -- which is still continuing sporadically nearly eight weeks after it first broke out -- has cast doubts on the future of secularism in India.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, known to believe in moderation in politics, has now come out openly in support of the Hindu hardliners in his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

These hardliners now seem determined to revive the campaign for a Hindu India.

Vajpayee has often been described as the mask, hiding the true nature of his Bharatiya Janata Party with its ambition to establish a Hindu India.

For four years as leader, he has held that mask firmly in place but last weekend the mask slipped, or more accurately, he threw it away.

There was nothing accidental about the hard-hitting speech he made at a rally during the party's National Executive meeting in Goa.

Vajpayee maintained that wherever there were Muslims in the world there was strife and suggested that Hindus had the right to decide the freedom to be allowed to other religions.

"We have allowed Hindus and Muslims to say their prayers," the Indian leader said.

Support for Modi

Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee's support of Gujarat administrator Narendra Modi may cause a governmental crisis. CNN's Satinder Bindra reports.

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He backed his party's support for Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, who has been widely criticized for failing to control the recent outbreak of Hindu-Muslim violence and to provide adequate relief for the displaced.

Gangs of Hindu rioters went on the rampage in Gujaray, killing hundreds of Muslims and razing buildings and homes in revenge attacks fuelled by the firebombing of a train carrying Hindu activists.

The activists were returning from a controversial site sacred to both Hindus and Muslims in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya.

They had been campaigning for the rebuilding of a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque torn down in 1992.

At least 59 Hindus were killed when several carriages of the train were torched on February 27.

That attack sparked the worst sectarian violence in India for more than a decade, leaving around 800 people dead and thousands homeless.

Vajpayee also backed the suggestion that Modi should dissolve the Gujarat State Assembly and go for an election.

The BJP clearly believes that the attacks on Muslims, the killings, the rape, the burning and the looting will be popular with the Hindu electorate in Gujarat, and wants to hold an election before the anti-Muslim sentiment subsides.

No option

Vajpayee is under pressure to dismiss Gujarat's chief minister for failing to halt recent sectarian violence  

In taking this stand, Vajpayee knew he was threatening the survival of his government, so why did he throw away his mask?

He had no option. Under his leadership the BJP has recently suffered a series of electoral disasters.

Just before Goa, it was humiliated in local body elections in Delhi, once its stronghold.

These defeats have revived the long-running dispute within the party.

On the one side, there have been those like Vajpayee who believe that an uncompromising Hindu agenda will never attract more than minority support.

On the other side, the ideologues maintain that the only purpose of the party is to promote what they call Hindutva, arguing that the party always becomes weaker when it abandons or waters down its Hindu agenda.

The evidence of recent elections left Vajpayee defenseless against the hardliners, so he had to back them when he faced his party in Goa.

Turning point?

Hindu men carry the body of riot victim in a procession in Ghodasar area of Ahmadabad  

After Goa, Indians were asking whether this was a turning point in their history.

Has the country got its first Prime Minister who is prepared to be blatantly pro-Hindu? Is there going to be an election in Gujarat openly fought on communal lines?

If so and the BJP wins, will it decide to go it alone in other parts of the country fighting elections with campaigns which provoke hatred of Muslims?.

Ten years ago Indians were also asking whether the secularism which had been the guiding principle of the constitution since independence had gone for good.

The question was provoked by the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya and the communal violence that erupted in its wake.

But secularism was restored and the Vajpayee line prevailed in the BJP.

Temporary phenomenon

So it's tempting to forecast that Gujarat and its aftermath will also prove to be a temporary phenomenon.

Already Vajpayee is claiming to have been misunderstood, and if he is to hold his coalition together he can not allow the temperature to remain at fever level.

The BJP seems to be having second thoughts about holding an immediate election in Gujarat.

But even if the Cassandras are proved wrong that does not mean the wounds of Gujarat will heal.

Muslims' confidence in Indian secularism has been shaken again.

Until the majority of Hindus make it absolutely clear that they are determined to live up to the Indian tradition of equal respect for all religions, there will be no antidote to the communal poison being spread by some leaders of both communities.




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