- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2002

India's democratic system has helped check the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, despite the country being home to one of the world's largest Muslim populations, a senior Indian official said yesterday.

Terrorist groups such as al Qaeda "can only thrive when democracy is absent, when the mosque becomes the only place where you can express yourself," the official close to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told editors and reporters in an interview at The Washington Times.

"You have terrorism, fundamentalism and religious extremism everywhere, but they can only really flourish in countries without democracy," the official said.

India's political and sectarian traditions face a major test today as voters in the western state of Gujarat, site of Hindu-Muslim clashes earlier this year that claimed 1,000 lives, elect a new state legislature.

Mr. Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party in Gujarat, has been accused of stoking Hindu resentment in the run-up to the vote. Analysts fear a big win for the BJP in Gujarat could lead other BJP politicians to try the same tactic, while a setback for the party would weaken Mr. Vajpayee's coalition in New Delhi in advance of general elections in 2004.

The senior official said that the Gujarat violence was "a blot on the nation that must never be allowed to happen again," but noted that the clashes had been condemned by the central government and had not spread to other parts of the country.

The official also said that U.S.-India relations are marked by "a much better understanding today than ever before."

He applauded President Bush's decision to work through the United Nations in the effort to disarm Iraq, adding that India stood ready to support any U.N.-authorized action, including force, if the regime of Saddam Hussein balked. In a break with Washington, the official said that he would favor a clear declaration that U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq would be lifted if Saddam complied.

But he said India's relations with traditional rival Pakistan remain very tense, despite the Bush administration's efforts to mediate.

The official said that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had failed to follow through on promises made to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in June to halt permanently the infiltration of Muslim separatist groups into Kashmir, the divided Indian state that has been a flash point between the two countries since they achieved independence in 1947.

Gen. Musharraf "is tactically brilliant, but strategically stupid," the Indian adviser said, arguing that the general's failure to contain Islamic radical movements at home led to strong gains for fundamentalist parties in Pakistan's parliamentary and provincial elections in October.

The Pakistani leader "is obviously not directing every terrorist operation against our territory," the official said, "but he has not stopped lower-level army and [intelligence] officers from facilitating these attacks. In that sense, I think the general is completely responsible for the situation."

On another tense front, the official acknowledged that Maoist rebels battling the government in Nepal have found sanctuary across the porous border in India. But he said that suspicions in Nepal that the Indian government was not doing enough to contain the rebels were unfounded.

"It is very important for us that the Maoists not succeed in Nepal, because it would mean intense insecurity in our part of the world. We will not allow that to happen," he said.

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