Holy minister waves martyr's banner for the dispirited BJP

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 August, 2004, 12:00am

India's dispirited Hindu nationalist group, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - unable to come to terms with its unexpected defeat in the recent national elections - has found a new mascot to revive its fortunes: a saffron-clad holy woman waving the national flag.

When a court in a small southern town issued an arrest warrant against Uma Bharti, a sanyasin or ascetic who also happened to be the chief minister of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, the party forced her to resign and surrender to judicial authorities.

Bharti last week moved from her ministerial mansion to a jail.

The mercurial BJP leader is one of the accused in the 1992 demolition of the disputed Ayodhya mosque by Hindu zealots. But her arrest has nothing to do with that case.

It relates instead to another, almost forgotten religious dispute in Hubli town, when a group of Hindu radicals tried to occupy a Muslim prayer ground by hoisting the national flag on August 15, India's Independence Day, 10 years ago. This led to violence, and Bharti and her supporters were charged with rioting, attempted murder, arson and other offences.

But the wheels of justice move slowly in India, and nothing much happened until the BJP started complaining in parliament about ministers in the new Congress-led coalition who were implicated in criminal cases.

The BJP wants them to resign, but since they all belong to regional allies, Congress cannot let them go without destabilising the ruling coalition.

Analysts suspect that in retaliation someone in authority decided to revive the case against Bharti.

It may not have been the smartest political move.

The BJP has been desperately looking for a way to revive its workers' morale on a renewed nationalist Hindu platform and Bharti's case is manna from heaven, especially with her already known for eccentric ways (she even installed a minister for cows, sacred for Hindus).

So the party sent Bharti, ever willing to play the political martyr, to jail, and is now demanding a 'moral quid pro quo' from Congress, asking for the sacking of five ministers from the national government.

Since the case relates to the hoisting of India's national flag, the BJP is also projecting it as a confrontation between the 'nationalist' Bharti and 'foreign-born' Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.

Bharti's continuing protests against Ms Gandhi became front-page news.

'The BJP, still drifting in defeatism, badly needs a grassroots push; and Bharti, when she steps out of jail, crying Ram (the Hindu God) and rashtra (nationalism), will be the force,' commented the weekly India Today.