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Gujarat a major test for Vajpayee

Vajpayee: Under pressure
Vajpayee: Under pressure  

By Joanna Nathan
New Delhi

(CNN) -- India's parliamentary debate on the action taken to stop the bloodshed in Gujarat will be a very public test of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's authority and the future viability of his multi-party coalition.

The government led by Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cannot fall as a result of the April 30 debate on the violence which has claimed over 800 lives in the BJP-controlled state.

But it will be an embarrassing blow if allies follow through threats of backing the Opposition-led motion.

"The moral ramifications would be huge," says opposition Congress Party spokesman Anand Sharma while admitting that it is "difficult to speculate at this stage" on who has the numbers. The BJP and its coalition partners hold around 300 of the 550-odd Lok Sabha (lower house) seats.

Accusing the Gujarat government of "deliberate default" in not preventing Hindu mobs killing Muslims in the western state, Sharma says that the central government must also come in for its share of the blame for "abdicating responsibility" in what was "a shameful blot on Indian parliamentary democracy."

"We are now calling on the [government] allies who have been making noises over the communal carnage to stand up and be counted, to vote in parliament where their mouths have been - otherwise they stand exposed," he says.

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Among these, he includes the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) -- the largest coalition partner -- which has pushed hard in recent weeks for the removal of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi but has been more coy about which way it will go in the debate.

The Hindustan Times quoted a senior TDP figure saying that the party may take the opportunity to again demand Modi's resignation but abstain from actually voting or have its 28-members stage a walkout.

However, BJP spokesperson Sunil Shastri is confident that it will "certainly win", saying that they will be working closely with all the other parties in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition and refusing to comment on other "hypothetical" situations.

Shastri defends Modi's actions both before and after the riots saying he had done everything realistically possible while being undermined by others.

"Relief measures are now the top priority but certain elements are seeking to destabilize the state government," Shastri says.

The chief minister received warm backing from Vajpayee himself at the recent Hindu nationalist party's national executive meeting in Goa.

The BJP has also strenuously fought the holding of a parliamentary debate on the grounds that the violence was a "law and order" issue for the state.

The widespread mob violence -- with sporadic incidents still occurring -- followed an attack on a train of Hindu pilgrims on February 27 in which 59 people were burnt alive.

Hindu mobs then converged on Muslim areas, burning houses and looting businesses.

The state government took several days to call in the army.

Government instability

Police use tear gas to disperse a mob in Ahmedabad
Police use tear gas to disperse a mob in Ahmedabad  

Tuesday's decision by the Lok Sabha's deputy speaker P.M. Sayeed to allow the debate as a matter of "public interest" under a rarely used section of the constitution came after the opposition had blocked other business for six days.

Many analysts see the motion put forward by the Samajwadi Party's Ram Lal Suman as a compromise, expressing "grave concern over the failure of the administration in ensuring the security of minority parts of the community," but noting events that have made world headlines only as: "especially Gujarat"

"Choosing milder words cuts both ways, there is likely to be greater support for it but at the same time if it passes it will hit the government less hard," Yogendra Yadav, a fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Studies, says.

Yadav believes there is a "serious possibility" that it will pass and if so government instability may begin to show, not immediately but in a few months time.

However, Prem Shankar Jha, former editor of The Hindustan Times and one time advisor to former prime minister V.P. Singh, thinks while there will be abstentions there is "precious little chance" of a BJP defeat.

He sees the real outcome of the April 30 vote as "forcing everyone into the open, to go one the record".

The mark left on Vajpayee's record by the most sustained opposition attack on him during his leadership remains to be seen.


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