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Indian Prime Minister denies remarks about Muslims, says he was misquoted

New Delhi, 23 February: Stunned by all-out criticism from all quarters except his own party, the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has denied his earlier statement that his party, the BJP, 'does not need Muslim votes' to win elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP). He has now taken recourse to the usual route of Indian politicians who commonly suffer from foot-in-mouth disease. The Prime Minister has astonished many observers by the belligerent tone he has employed in his recent election speeches. In one of these speeches he asked the people of the state of Uttar Pradesh to give him mandate to go to war against Pakistan!

Prime Minister's remarks were decried by all the leading opposition parties, with former defence minister and Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav going to the extent of demanding his expulsion from his post. Former prime minister VP Singh also came down heavily on the PM for his remarks. Various newspapers decried this exclusivist statement in their editorials. 

BJP leaders have earlier spoken in similar fashion but this is the first time when a prime minister said it in the backdrop of the Muslim rejection of his party which led to the Babri Masjid demolition movement and has actively sought to exclude Muslims from the national life through its incessant campaign against Muslim madrasahs and mosques which are depicted as centers of terrorism and hideouts of the Pakistani military intelligence (ISI). Recently common criminals who happen to be 'Muslims' have been elevated to the status of global terrorists so much so that one such criminal now stands accused of financing the terrorist attacks on the US last September. The Americans, it seems, have not bought these fantastic theories.

Prime Minister Vajpayee had reportedly said in an election rally in Varanasi, in north India on 19 February, that his party does not need Muslim votes to win elections. He was addressing a rally in the last leg of the three-phase elections in the state. Stakes are very high for the Prime Minister's rightist Hindu party, BJP, which has ruled the state for the last five years. All the pre-poll surveys and exit poll results have predicted heavy losses for the BJP in the crucial assembly elections in the northern state. According to exit polls, it has also lost Punjab, another important northern state. Official results may be out towards the end of this month.

In a two-page clarification, the Prime Minister said that his remarks were quoted out of context. He stated that he had never said what the media attributed to him. He also stated that opposition leaders had criticized him without checking what he had said. 'It is astounding that opposition leaders criticizing me have done so without verifying my complete statement. Never in my political career have I played the communal card to win the elections,' he said. 

In his rebuttal, the PM said he had referred to the appeals by political parties to the Muslims to defeat the BJP and that he told Muslims why they shouldn't do so. 'To urge our Muslim brothers to vote in such a manner as to defeat the BJP connotes a very wrong way of thinking. For one thing, the BJP is going to win even if they vote against the party. But my question is: why should they vote against us?' the clarification said. 

The prime minister added that his comment in no way indicated that the BJP doesn't need Muslims' support. 'On the contrary in every election rally I have stated that we would very much like them to support us on the basis of our performance and promises. Far from seeking to divide the people of India, it was aimed at fortifying their unity,' he claimed. 

The BJP also pressed into service its spokeswoman Maya Singh and the lone BJP Muslim face in the central government, Syed Shahnawaz Husain, to offset the negative effects of the prime minister's remarks. 'Opposition was quoting the prime minister out of context and in the process distorting his remarks.. If the BJP is voted to power, UP cabinet would have a number of Muslim faces, said Maya Singh. She added that the prime minister had always talked of the welfare of the minority [i.e., Muslim] community and political parties, which were trying to mislead the minority community, are communal.'

Aviation Minister Syed Shahnawaz Husain criticized opposition parties for distorting his remarks to derive political mileage. Vajpayee, according to Shahnawaz, had merely said that he was opposed to some organizations asking Muslims to resort to tactical voting to defeat BJP.

This is not the first time when the PM has been criticized for making irresponsible remarks. He has made many similar remarks and has always found it convenient to deny them later. On 6 December 2000, the prime minister made an utterly irresponsible statement saying that the 'construction of the temple at Ayodhya [at the place of the martyred Babri Mosque] is an expression of national sentiment which is yet to be realized'. The makeshift temple which exists now in Ayodhya stands on the site of Babri Masjid that was demolished by the BJP and its affiliates in total disregard of law, courts and legal evidences. At that time too the prime minister made a hasty retreat and said that he was misquoted by the media…

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