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Thursday, May 02, 2002

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Govt wins vote but key allies mount pressure

Sukumar Muralidharan


A CENSURE motion against the Government was defeated in the Lok Sabha in the early hours this morning, after a marathon debate that began at noon on Tuesday. The motion, which expressed concern at the handling of the situation in Gujarat, secured 182 votes, with 276 members voting against it and eight abstaining.

Frequent interruptions and frayed tempers were a running feature of the debate. Barring the Shiv Sena, virtually every other partner of the BJP in the ruling National Democratic Alliance, gave expression to serious reservations about the role of the Gujarat Chief Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, in the ongoing violence in the State.

The Telugu Desam Party was insistent that Mr Modi must resign as a gesture of accountability for the violence. The Trinamool Congress leader, Ms Mamata Banerjee, went further, calling for the dismissal of the Government and the promulgation of President's rule in the State.

The Trinamool Congress saw no contradiction between affirming this very strong position in the debate and voting against the motion. More worrisome for the NDA has been the decision of the TDP to walk out of the House in protest against the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee's failure to address its main concerns.

Mr Vajpayee had in his intervention in the debate, announced an Rs 150-crore rehabilitation package for the victims of the violence. This met one of the demands made by the TDP. But party leader, Mr Yerram Naidu, pronounced himself unsatisfied, since the dismissal or resignation of Mr Modi was its highest priority.

The four-member National Conference abstained from the vote. Speaking on behalf of the party, the Minister of State for External Affairs, Mr Omar Abdullah, placed on record his sense of shock over the Gujarat events. He nevertheless said that he could not vote for the censure motion, which was too broad and contrary to the principles of federalism. Conceding, however, that his decision not to support the Government had made his position untenable, Mr Abdullah has submitted his resignation from the Council of Ministers.

The Janata Dal (United) suffered a serious schism in the course of the vote. Though the Union Labour Minister and party leader, Mr Sharad Yadav, had issued a whip to vote against the motion, three members chose to abstain. This bloc of three is closely associated with the former Union Minister, Mr Devendra Prasad Yadav, and has been vocal in demanding Mr Modi's ouster since the troubles in Gujarat began.

Two of the most contentious interventions in the debate were from Mr Vaiko, leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam, and Mr George Fernandes, Union Defence Minister and leader of the Samata Party. Mr Vaiko's repeated allegations that worse massacres had occurred during the rule of the Congress party, met with vigorous protests from the Opposition benches. And Mr Fernandes' suggestion that there was nothing new about the violence in Gujarat, apart from enraging the opposition, seemed to embarrass even Mr L.K. Advani, Union Home Minister.

Replying to the debate, Mr Advani chose to subtly distance himself from Mr Fernandes' utterances, claiming that he was not so much concerned over 55 years of violence in independent India, as with the record of the four years since he assumed charge as Union Home Minister.

Though it has seemingly surmounted the immediate challenge, the Government continues to face uncertain times. The TDP is now virtually out of the NDA, with the party leadership insisting that it will not relent on the demand for Mr Modi's removal. The final parting of ways could be signalled when the as yet unscheduled election for the post of Lok Sabha Speaker is announced.

Part of the damage has been undone by the recruitment of the Bahujan Samaj Party to the ranks of the NDA. And the decision by Ms J. Jayalalithaa's AIADMK to abstain from voting on the censure motion is also viewed as a tacit assurance of future support. Observers predict though, that the political costs of accommodating the diverse pressure groups on which it is dependent, will take a heavy toll of the Government's credibility. In a context of declining electoral fortunes for the BJP, the consequences for the stability of the Central Government, it is now widely inferred, could be adverse.

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