Rao vows to guard India's secular state

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The Independent Online
The Indian Congress leader, Narasimha Rao, yesterday staved off attempts by dissidents to oust him after the ruling party's election disaster.

Re-elected unanimously by Congress parliamentarians, Mr Rao vowed to support the "secular forces" of the Indian left to prevent right-wing Hindus gaining power.

With a hung parliament emerging after India's elections, the the right- wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as the largest party, is first to make a bid at forming a government. However, an anti-BJP alliance is forming to stop the nationalists taking over.

New Congress MPs yesterday pledged to give Mr Rao a "free hand" in deciding whether to join a coalition with the National Front, Left Front (NF-LF) or to prop up a leftist minority government from outside. The likeliest scenario is that Congress will not commit itself as coalition partners, and will prefer to wait until it regains sufficient strength to pull down a fragile leftist government. The president, Shanker Dayal Sharma, said he would give the parties several days before they must stake their claim to government.

Some leftists within the NF-LF group personally dislike Mr Rao, even though on Saturday they dropped their demand that Congress must ditch the ex-premier before bargaining can start. Jyoti Basu, a Marxist leader within the NF-LF, said, "If Congress wants to offer co-operation ... it is well and good. It is the responsibility of the Congress to prevent the BJP from coming to power." Despite Mr Basu's age (80) he is expected to be chosen as the NF-LF's candidate for prime minister.

The leftist parties and Congress claim the Hindu revivalists are threatening India's secular roots, that their religious chauvinism excludes the country's 120 million Muslims as well as its Sikhs, Jains and Christians. Even with a liberal, Atal Behari Vajpayee, as BJP leader, the party cannot shake its Hindu fundamentalist image.

The Lok Sabha's (parliament) 543 seats are scattered among the BJP, the NF-LF, Congress, smaller regional parties, and independents. So the right- wing Hindus' only chance at forming the next government is to lure over at least 70 MPs from the regional parties.

In exchange, these parties might demand that the BJP loosen New Delhi's dominance over India's many and varied states. Some argue, however that that this might lead to a USSR-style disintegration.