Rao runs gauntlet in Bombay riot areas

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SEVERAL Indian film stars recently met the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, and pressed him to fly urgently to Bombay, where hundreds of Hindus and Muslims were killing each other in religious fighting. Mr Rao, a true believer in astrology, replied it was not an auspicious time for his visit.

The Prime Minister's reliance on the stars for guidance as Bombay was burning moved one exasperated actress, Shabana Azmi, to say: 'I don't know what to believe any more, in front of whom to beat my breast and shed tears. Everyone seems to have failed.'

Within the Congress party there is growing sentiment that Mr Rao should resign, that the 71-year-old Prime Minister is incapable of delivering the swift and decisive leadership that India needs to ride through this religious turbulence.

Politicians outside his party are blunter in their appraisal. A former prime minister, Chandra Shekhar, said: 'Rao has been overtaken by a psychological paralysis, a kind of fear complex.' A few newspapers which backed Mr Rao in the past are baying for his resignation, and he is losing support from the left-wing parties propping up his minority government.

The astrological configurations cleared yesterday for Mr Rao to fly to Bombay for a speedy drive through the city in an armed motorcade. The Prime Minister avoided the worst-hit areas such as Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, where Hindus and Muslims battled throughout the week with axes and fire-bombs. Nor did Mr Rao stop in riot areas to let people spill out their grievances to him. In a burnt-out neighbourhood known as Mahim, residents jeered as Mr Rao's motorcade sped by. Many in the angry crowd were Muslims, who have suffered the worst in the past 10 days' rioting.

The Prime Minister said he was 'deeply anguished' by the grisly scenes he had seen in Bombay. He ordered local authorities to provide food, shelter and loans for the thousands left homeless. Around 40,000 people, mainly Muslims, fled Bombay to escape persecution by Hindu extremists. Relatives of the 560 people killed would receive around pounds 4,500 in compensation, he added.

Although this relief was welcomed by the riot victims, many people in Bombay felt the Prime Minister had done too little too late. In New Delhi, thousands of Muslims staged a protest march across from the Red Fort demanding that the Congress government protect them from Hindu extremists who began India's current troubles on 6 December by destroying a mosque in northern India. M J Akbar, a prominent writer and Congress party member, said: 'There isn't a consensus within the party for Rao to go yet, but there's a feeling that things are spinning out of control.'

Kalyan Singh, a leader of the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, predicted that unless Mr Rao resigns and elections are held this spring, India will slide into fratricidal war between the country's 650 million Hindus and its 120 million Muslims.