India's BJP Battles Storm Over Riot-Torn Gujarat

April 13, 2002
MIRAMAR, India -- India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was to meet on Friday determined to ride out calls from allies, the opposition and civil right groups to dump the controversial chief of the riot-torn state of Gujarat.

The three-day session is a critical one for Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose largest ally in his shaky coalition, the Southern Telugu Desam Party, has joined the calls to get rid of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to restore public trust.

The Telugu Desam, which could hold the key to the BJP's survival in office, has not yet said it will withdraw support if the BJP sticks by Modi.

The government would be in crisis if it did as it has only a slim majority in Parliament's Lower House.

BJP leaders meeting at a resort in the western state of Goa insisted there was no question of removing Modi even after the Telugu Desam said he must be held responsible for the country's worst religious bloodshed in a decade.

"We're firm in our stand, as far as a change of leadership in Gujarat is concerned, it is not going to take place," BJP spokesman Sunil Shastri told Reuters ahead of the meeting of the national executive, the BJP's highest decision-making body.

Modi has been accused of turning a blind eye when more than 750 people, mostly from India's minority Muslim population, were slaughtered in reprisal attacks by Hindu gangs in February after 59 Hindus were burnt alive in a train by a Muslim mob.

But there was concern in Modi's camp in Ahmedabad, Gujarat's main city, after Federal Law Minister Arun Jaitley flew in late on Thursday, triggering media speculation that he would ask Modi to quit.

An aide to Modi, due to arrive in Goa later on Friday, told Reuters that Jaitley went to Ahmedabad for a progress report from Modi on efforts to help riot survivors.

The Telugu Desum, which has 28 lawmakers who support the BJP's 20-odd party coalition, said unless Modi was dismissed, "We will be guilty of eroding public confidence and failing to provide just and fair governance to the citizens of our country".

TDP's call for Modi's ouster was front-page news in Indian newspapers on Friday. The TDP has "Dealt what could very well be the decisive blow" to Modi, the ***Indian Express*** said.

Smaller regional supporters, which have been deeply uneasy about the BJP's links with hardline Hindu groups, also urged Vajpayee, widely seen as a moderate, to act against Modi.

"What's going on in Gujarat is scandalous," said Mamata Banerjee, leader of the Trinamool Congress.

Vajpayee is due to address a public meeting in Goa soon after the national executive, to be attended by 150 delegates, opens.