INDIA ELECTION '98
March 4 1998
Leaders of a Hindu nationalist party are demanding the right to form India's next government after nearly complete election returns show the party winning the most seats in the parliament. But conflicting claims have led to bitterness and confusion. Fred de Sam Lazaro has this report on the party's rise to power.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ramesh Chand Thomar has served in India's parliament since 1991, representing a semi-rural district in the Northern, Uttar Pradesh province. He began this campaign day with a stop at a Hindu temple, part of a routine that emphasizes the central theme of his BJP or India People's Party. Called Hindutva, the slogan has few specifics but declares India "a nation of Hindu values." He insists this does not violate the secular democratic tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, on which the nation was founded. Thomar says it simply calls on Indians to be patriotic.
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RAMESH CHAND THOMAR: Indian must think first of India, the development of India, the prosperity of India, we like that. The people are living here and they are thinking about other countries.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: What other countries specifically?
RAMESH CHAND THOMAR: Neighboring countries, whatever they have in their mind, I cannot say.
BJP strategy: anti-muslim rhetoric?
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The BJP's critics say that's code language aimed at India's Muslim minority. They are often accused of being loyal to Pakistan, India's Islamic neighbor and adversary in three wars, according to Syed Shahabuddin, a former member of parliament and publisher of a journal called Muslim India.
SYED SHAHABUDDIN, Publisher, Muslim India: This is precisely their method of trying to undo, or rather to do a minority out of its due share. Point one, look, he's the enemy, he is the other, he is the enemy, he is the adversary, he's with them; he's the fifth columnist. He's at the beck and call of Pakistan. And Pakistan, of course, you know, is always leaving difficult responsibilities against us. And this is how you create a miasma of fear, and that is how you create distrust. That is how you inject poison into the body politic of this country, and that is how you create an atmosphere in which any amount of violence can take place.
Religious tensions become political issues.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Critics blame the BJP for trying to reignite religious tensions that date back centuries. In the early 1990's, the party led a campaign to remove a 16th century mosque, called Babri Masjid, and replace it with a Hindu temple. They claimed India's Muslim conquerors built it in a sacred spot; the birthplace of the Hindu God Rama. Murali Manohar Joshi, a BJP leader, explained the campaign to foreign reporters.
MURALI MANOHAR JOSHI: If Hitler would have been victorious in the second world war and there would have been a statue of Hitler in Trafalgar Square, and in 1990 the Britishers would have been liberated from Hitler's yoke, what would they have done to that statue of Hitler?
The ruling party faces voter resentment.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In 1992, rioters stormed the mosque called Babri Masjid and razed it. The incident sparked violent clashes that claimed dozens of Hindu and Muslim lives, and for a while, it seemed to alienate many voters from the BJP, but political observers say it also hurt the ruling Congress Party government, which was criticized for not cracking down on the rioters. At the same time, the Congress government, which had ruled India almost uninterrupted for four decades, began to face increasing voter resentment for policies that failed to deliver even basic amenities. It's frustration that's still very much in evidence.
MAN: (speaking through interpreter) Take a look at the condition of our village. Do you see any water taps? We have to go two kilometers to get water, and we still get water from an open well.
TEACHER: (speaking through interpreter) The minister came here, he promised to expand this school. We're still waiting. We only go to the fifth grade. I'd love to see kids go to the eighth.
SECOND MAN: (speaking through interpreter) When it comes time for our votes, they say they'll do this, they'll do that, in the end they don't do anything.
THIRD MAN: (speaking through interpreter) The Congress Party has been in power for a long time. They haven't done anything for the poor, the lower castes.
The Congress Party faces allegations of corruption.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Perhaps the biggest reason for the Congress Party's fall from grace were allegations of widespread corruption. It's an issue the BJP has seized. A BJP promise to clean up politics has struck a responsive chord, even among some Congress Party members, like Colonel Ram Singh.
COLONEL RAM SINGH: I really got so disgusted. Every minister, barring four or five of us, there is about 65, every minister was looting the country literally with both hands, and it was shameful.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Singh, who ran for parliament this time as a BJP candidate, believes his adopted party is divorcing itself from its extremist past.
COLONEL RAM SINGH: I think that is gradually being removed. I mean, my total outlook has always been, and will always be that every religion should have equal place, equal rights, and they should be no persecution of anybody on religious grounds.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Singh describes himself as a moderating force in the BJP and the party has gone out of its way to tone down its Hindutva rhetoric, according to H. K. Dua, editor of the Times of India.
H. K. DUA, Editor, The Times of India: They are trying to project more a centrist party, keen to do the business of the state, taking the others along, than the kind of image they had tried to project earlier. Possibly they are seeing it's politically necessary. They won't be able to come to power if they are taking an extreme position. So there is a definite attempt to demarcate themselves from the old--the old Hindu image. But they're doing it softly, lest they may lose their old constituency.
RAMESH THOMAR: India is a secular country, and it will remain always secular.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Hard-line BJP candidates, like Ramesh Thomar, insist they're committed to freedom for all religions, but at the same time, Thomar says a temple must be built at the site of the demolished Babri mosque.
RAMESH THOMAR: Construction of the temple is the permanent solution, and most of the Muslim people also wants that the temple of Rama in Ayodhya that should be constructed.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So you would like to see a temple constructed in--
RAMESH THOMAR: Must, must, must.
Which party will control the future of India?
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Election results show the BJP won the most seats in parliament but not the majority needed to form a government. Its position on the temple and other issues will be the subject of intense and difficult negotiations as it seeks coalition partners. Kuldi Nayyar is a columnist and former diplomat.
KULDIP NAYYAR, Columnist: The roots of tolerance, the roots of secular polity, the roots of sense of accommodation are very deep, because even last time, they tried their best to get others to join them. Fourteen, fifteen parties came together to keep them away because these people represent a philosophy or an ideology which is alien to this country.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Opposing the BJP in the race to form a coalition government is the once dominant Congress Party, whose campaign was led by a woman with India's best-known political name, Sonia Gandhi. It finished a distant second and will try to team with a group of smaller parties called the United Front to stop the Hindu Nationalists.