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India's Government Falters in Handling Of Ayodhya Crisis

Premier Rao's resignation is demanded

INDIA appears rudderless in its worst crisis in decades, its government so far unable to stop violence between Hindus and Muslims.

More than 820 people have been killed in nationwide violence touched off by the destruction of a mosque last Sunday by militant Hindus. Government leaders assert that the violence will subside.

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Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, whose government is threatened, is perceived to have shown little leadership since Sunday. His ruling Congress Party adjourned Parliament for a week amid repeated opposition calls for Mr. Rao's resignation.

In a Thursday interview with a video magazine show, Eyewitness, Rao said: "I'm not pleading helplessness" and maintained that the Army was reimposing law and order. He portrayed the current crisis as just another problem that India will overcome. "There have been upsets here and there [in the past]," he said, "aberrations here and there, but the people have gotten over these aberrations in record time."

Arjun Singh, a leading contender for prime minister if Rao loses power, told reporters Wednesday that the violence "should subside." But Mr. Singh, who is minister of Human Resource Development in Rao's Cabinet, was unable to describe a single action the government was taking to restore peace.

India has endured many crises, but the current trouble touches on the most tremulous fault line of the nation: relations between its two major religious groups, Hindus and Muslims. Many Indians, including Singh, consider this India's biggest crisis since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, in which 500,000 or more died in sectarian slaughters.

In addition, the crisis comes at a time of extreme political vulnerability. Much of India's stability since 1947 can be credited to the Congress Party, which, in various forms, has held power for 41 of 45 years of independence. But under former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the party's commitment to secularism - governance without favor to any religion - started to waver as Gandhi tried to match the rising popularity of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose leaders have risen to power on the s trength of religious issues such as Ayodhya.

When Gandhi was killed in 1991, no one knew if the Congress could rejuvenate itself under new leadership and stave off the growing challenge of the BJP. Rao became party president and prime minister as a compromise among stronger faction leaders. Though a clever politician, his main achievement has been championing economic liberalization, which could also falter if political stability erodes.

In past crises, Indians rallied to the Congress because it was perceived as the nation's stabilizing force, especially in time of sectarian trouble. But Rao's government does not seem to be getting that response, largely because of its weakness in the handling of the mosque altercation and the violent aftermath.

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Rao's major failure, some analysts say, may have been an ideological one: to turn the conflict into a public choice between the sectarian politics of the BJP and the secularism the Congress has upheld in the past. For several days there was a strong backlash against the BJP, which precipitated the crisis along with two militant, Hindu-revivalist groups. But that has waned as public exasperation with the government increases.

Singh said Wednesday: "What is required at the moment is that the prime minister and the Congress must become the rallying point for secularism in the country." So far that rallying has failed to take place. Says political scientist Rasheeduddin Khan: "With its stupified, divided, hesitant approach, the government has lost a psychological moment."

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