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Cabinet reshuffle geared for electoral ends

The cabinet expansion of 1 July and hardliner LK Advani’s promotion to deputy prime minister of India is seen as the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) first step towards meeting electoral challenges ahead.

The BJP, which had to agree to work as a junior partner in the politically important state of Uttar Pradesh to the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), attributes its poor showing at the polls to its “liberal” stance. The party had come to power riding on the crest of anti-Muslim sentiment drummed up over the historic Babri Masjid in the pilgrimage town of Ayodhya.

BJP and allied Hindu nationalist organisations claimed that the four century old mosque was built on the site where their god-king Shri Ram was born. A virulently anti-Muslim campaign led by Advani ultimately saw the demolition of the mosque and countrywide riots in 1992. Following that BJP increased its strength in Parliament from 2 to 119, which showed that India’s middle class had developed a liking for fascist ways.

Of late BJP had realised that its hold on power was slipping. It had made a poor showing at Delhi municipal polls and had to relinquish absolute power in Uttar Pradesh (UP) to BSP and agree to work as a junior partner in UP government with drastically reduced powers.

BJP had to shed its hardline Hindu stance to accommodate the wishes of a coalition of secular parties coming together to form government under BJP leadership in 1998. The coalition, National Democratic Alliance (NDA), had to have a “liberal” face from the Hindu nationalist BJP, and that was Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Assembly elections to eleven crucial states are due in late 2003. BJP thinks that only an aggressive, majoritarian programme would get it sufficient vote to win. The entire cabinet reshuffle is meant to present a tougher Hindu nationalist profile. The focus has shifted from the softer face of BJP to its more aggressive one.

The elevation of Vinay Katiyar of Bajrang Dal, one of the most rabidly anti-Muslim, anti-Christian sister organisations of BJP, to the president of UP BJP a few days ago is another indicator of BJP’s mood. Within the next two and a half years would come general elections which the BJP plans to fight on an aggressively Hindu nationalist plank.

For this purpose the party is putting more aggressive men like Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi and the firebrand Union Sports Minister Ms Uma Bharati, people with strong anti-Muslim, anti-Christian image in the forefront. Observers here wonder as to how easily the secular parties in the NDA have acquiesced in the BJP move without demur.

The Congress Party has said “the cabinet reshuffle heralds the total eclipse of NDA and total domination of BJP.”

Leftists and liberals find this turn of events an indication of bad days to come. The Communist Party (Marxist) said BJP had “asserted itself to the detriment of its partners.”

Another secular party, Samajwadi Party, said the changes in BJP organisation and Cabinet had brought hardliners to the fore. This could be bad omen for minorities.

Meanwhile, Muslim organisations in New Delhi contacted by MG refused to comment, saying they were studying the implication of the changes.

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