NEW DELHI — India’s opposition leader Rahul Gandhi condemned Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inaction over deadly ethnic conflict in the country’s northeast yesterday, in his first parliamentary speech since his defamation conviction was suspended.
Modi’s administration is being forced this week to defend its conduct over months of violence in Manipur state that has killed more than 150 people.
Gandhi’s fiery address to the chamber was part of a no-confidence debate demanding the government’s resignation for letting the unrest fester for months.
“You are throwing kerosene in the whole country. You threw kerosene in Manipur, and lit a spark,” Gandhi said, with cheers from supporters and jeers from rival lawmakers.
“You’re set on burning the whole country. You are killing Mother India,” he added.
Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is regularly accused by political opponents of fomenting divisions for electoral purposes, and India will hold general elections early next year.
The ruling BJP has a large majority in the 543-member lower house and is expected to comfortably defeat the no-confidence vote, which it has dismissed as a headline-grabbing gimmick.
“India’s army can bring in peace in one day but you’re not using it,” Gandhi told fellow lawmakers.
“If Modi doesn’t listen to the voice of India, then whose voice does he listen to?”
Tens of thousands of additional soldiers have been rushed to the region to contain violence, and a curfew and internet shutdown remain in force across Manipur.
Modi confidant and India’s powerful home minister Amit Shah told the parliament that Manipur had seen “a destructive dance of violence”.
“No one can deny that. But your political moves on the issue are equally shameful,” he said in a jab at the opposition.
Government minister Smriti Irani refuted Gandhi’s allegations, saying the BJP was always ready to discuss the Manipur issue in parliament.
“They ran away from the discussion, not us,” Irani said.
“Rahul Gandhi said kerosene has been poured all over the country. And where all did you go to find the matchbox, Rahul Gandhi?” she added.
Gandhi, 53, the scion of India’s premier political dynasty, was restored to parliament on Monday after the Supreme Court last week suspended his defamation conviction over comments criticising Modi.
He was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in March in a case that critics flagged as an effort to stifle political opposition in the world’s largest democracy.
Gandhi is the son, grandson and great-grandson of three former prime ministers, beginning with independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.
Congress was once India’s dominant political force but Gandhi has led it to two landslide defeats against the BJP.
Shah, in his remarks, suggested that the no-confidence vote was yet another attempt to relaunch Gandhi’s political career.
Gandhi and his allies are attempting to stitch together a grand coalition of opposition parties ahead of next year’s national elections, in which Modi will seek a third successive term.
At least 152 people have been killed in Manipur since May, Shah told parliament, with armed clashes breaking out between the predominantly Hindu Meitei majority and the mainly Christian Kuki community.
The state has fractured on ethnic lines, with rival militias setting up blockades to keep out members of the opposing community.
Gandhi accused the government of having “broken” Manipur “into two parts”, but Irani insisted the state was “not divided”.
Shah, meanwhile, maintained the flare-up was due to an influx of narcotics and thousands of tribal refugees fleeing a crackdown in neighbouring military-ruled Myanmar.
“The sudden increase in [Kuki] population created insecurity within the Meitei community. Rumours began circulating… resulting in unrest. Thereafter, clashes erupted, leading to the current situation,” he said.
The no-confidence debate is scheduled to conclude on Thursday after a speech by Modi, who has been criticised by his opponents for not commenting on the situation in Manipur. — AFP