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Indian MPs held hostage in caste struggle

For the last four days, more than 100 honourable members of the state assembly of Uttar Pradesh have lounged around in the sweltering 47C heat at a guest house, not sure whether their own party was protecting them or holding them captive.

The assemblymen knew only that their own party - the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - had herded them inside the Lucknow guest house and posted armed police in the garden to prevent them from leaving. Politics is a dirty game in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. The party leaders were worried that if the assemblymen strayed beyond the gate, they might be either bribed or kidnapped by opposition thugs.

The party needed all its assemblymen to support a confidence motion in the legislature to vote in a new chief minister, a woman named Mayawati, who goes by a single name. She becomes the highest-elected official in Uttar Pradesh.

At least 40 of the assemblymen were outraged by their stretch in "safe custody". Many were stunned that their national leaders in New Delhi wanted to back Ms Mayawati, of the left-wing Bahujan Samaj Party, in the first place. She is a Dalit (Untouchable), at the very bottom of Hinduism's caste pyramid.

A fiery orator, Ms Mayawati, 39, who hoisted herself from a New Delhi slum to graduate from law school, has vowed tobreak the dominance held by the upper-caste Hindus for more than 2,000 years. It is to this caste that most of the captive BJP assemblymen belong.

But the politicians nevertheless fell into line. Bused to Lucknow's state assembly yesterday for the confidence motion, none dared to oppose Ms Mayawati, who won by 249 votes out of 425. The Congress party - which runs central government but is losing its hold on many states - abstained from voting, as did the left-wing Samajwadi party of the former chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Some political commentators claim Ms Mayawati's party and the BJP are natural enemies. What binds the two together for now, though, is their common hatred of Mr Yadav, ousted as chief minister 17 days ago.

Mr Yadav is a former wrestler who fights dirty. His first impulse on learning that Ms Mayawati's party was withdrawing its support for him was to have his party workers lay siege to her bungalow, with her inside. Mr Yadav's goons did not manage to grab Ms Mayawati but kidnapped seven of her state assemblymen from the house.

The police, loyal to the chief minister, refused to intervene. It was only after Ms Mayawati rang the state governor, Motilal Vora, for help that a paramilitary force was finally sent to save her.

Fall-out from the battle in Lucknow is now swirling around the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao. The timing for him could not be worse. Mr Yadav was a valuable if troublesome ally for the Prime Minister.