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Page last updated at 18:41 GMT, Friday, 17 April 2009 19:41 UK

Indian leaders' unlikely slanging match

Observers were shocked this week when India's normally mild-mannered Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, launched a furious attack on the head of the BJP-led opposition, Lal Krishna Advani. The BBC's Sanjeev Srivastava in Delhi assesses an increasingly rancorous relationship.

Indian leaders Manmohan Singh (L), LK Advani (R)
Singh (L) and Advani are considered soft-spoken - but not at election time

In my 25 years as a journalist - during which I have reported on eight national elections - it is difficult to recall a precedent for the manner in which the prime minister and the opposition leader have launched their vicious diatribes at each other.

The exchange is all the more surprising because both the leaders have a reputation for being soft spoken, well-mannered and affable.

Mr Advani is in his early eighties with nearly six decades of experience in public life. The Cambridge-educated Manmohan Singh is in his mid-seventies and is known for his scholarly conduct and thinking.

Earlier this week at a public function the two leaders shook hands but did not exchange a word.

Such was the sense of unease and tension in the room that many Indian newspapers commented on the obviously frosty relationship between the country's two top leaders in their front page stories the next day.

Mr Advani only set more tongues wagging when - disregarding convention - he chose not to attend a farewell dinner hosted by the prime minister for the outgoing parliament Speaker.

'Weakest PM'

There's some history to this hostility.

In the 2004 elections the BJP was widely expected to win. It was also believed that at some point the BJP patriarch and the then prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, would make way for his deputy, Mr Advani.

The elections however resulted in a shock defeat for the BJP. A bigger surprise was in store for many as Congress President Sonia Gandhi, declined the prime minister's job and offered it to Manmohan Singh instead.

So what should have been Mr Advani's throne - at least in the eyes of his followers - went to Mr Singh by a quirk of fate.

Lal Krishna Advani
LK Advani's hopes for the top job were dashed in 2004

So almost from the beginning of Mr Singh's tenure the prime minister became a target.

The attacks turned much sharper once Mr Advani was named as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP.

On every possible occasion Mr Advani targeted Manmohan Singh, calling him the weakest ever prime minister of India.

He said that it was Sonia Gandhi who wielded real power and the prime minister only executed her orders.

On a political note, the charge would not have hurt so much. After all there is no secret about who enjoys real power within the Congress Party. But the accusation was hurled so many times - and each time with more venom - that it ceased to remain business.

'No trust'

Matters came to such a head that the prime minister and the leader of the opposition stopped interacting even in parliament.

Manmohan Singh
I may be not be very strong but at least I was not crying like a wimp in one corner when miscreants were bringing down a mosque
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

Once, after a particularly prolonged boycott of a parliament session by the opposition, the then vice-president of India who is also the chairman of the upper house, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, told me about the almost complete lack of communication between the leader of the house (the prime minister) and the leader of the opposition.

"How can the parliament function when there is simply no communication - let alone goodwill and trust - between Manmohan Singh and Mr Advani," he remarked in exasperation.

"If the two leaders were on good terms with each other normal business of the house would have resumed after some disruptions."

Each time Mr Advani called the prime minister weak, their personal equation only worsened.

And as the poll dates drew near it became almost a daily affair.

Sometimes the prime minister was referred to as weak and ineffective as many times a day as the BJP leaders opened their mouths.

Little wonder then that the prime minister chose to hit back.

And when he did, the normally shy, soft spoken and reticent Mr Singh struck back with such vengeance that it shocked almost all those who believed that they had an inside track to the prime minister's personality and thinking.

Ayodhya

He chose to target Mr Advani where the opposition leader is most vulnerable.

So Mr Advani - who is desperately trying to broaden his mass base by projecting a moderate, even Muslim-friendly face - was taken to task by the prime minister for shedding crocodile tears when the 16th Century Babri mosque was demolished by a mob of Hindu zealots in 1992.

File image of a soldier and a hindu holy man at Ayodhya in March 2002
Mr Singh raised the issue of Ayodhya, which brought India to the brink

"I may be not be very strong but at least I was not crying like a wimp in one corner when miscreants were bringing down a mosque," is how the prime minister referred to the opposition leader in one of his recent press interactions.

The Ayodhya mosque demolition is an emotive issue with Indian Muslims.

Any reminder of Mr Advani's role in the campaign to build a temple to the Hindu God Ram in Ayodhya hampers the efforts of the BJP leader who is trying to seek a more inclusive and secular image for himself.

But what hurt Mr Advani the most was when the prime minister said: "What has been the contribution of Mr Advani to India except bringing down the Babri mosque?"

Manmohan Singh also challenged the BJP's campaign projecting Mr Advani as a strong leader.

"It was in his tenure that the Indian parliament was attacked. What did they do?

"When he [Mr Advani] was the home minister the government handed over terrorists to the Taleban in Kandahar. And the country's foreign minister was sent to oversee the exchange of terrorists with hijacked passengers of an Indian airliner.

"My government does not release terrorists and send our foreign minister when attacked. My government responds with commandos," he said, referring to the attack in Mumbai last year.

The two leaders may well score a political point or two by taking on each other like this. There may be some political gains as well for both of them.

But the slanging match has not really added to the stature of either of the two.

According to observers the two men who hold perhaps the two most important posts in the world's largest democracy should really be setting a better example of public conduct before India's political class.

Sanjeev Srivastava is India editor, BBC Hindi services.



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