Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, his government under attack since the controversial resignation of his defense minister, accused his opponents Wednesday of spreading rumors and "baseless criticism" that threaten to undermine the national defense.
Gandhi spoke out at one of the most unruly sessions of Parliament in recent years. At the same time, he attacked the United States, which he said is ignoring its policy of nuclear non-proliferation by supplying arms to Pakistan, the archenemy of India. Gandhi said that Pakistan has an active nuclear weapons program.
His speech called up memories of his mother, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. One of her trademark parliamentary tactics was to raise the specter of a "foreign hand" in domestic Indian politics in an effort to divert attention from other matters.
"The foreign hand," Rajiv Gandhi said Wednesday, "is always present."
Without mentioning the uproar caused by allegations of a $30-million kickback in connection with a 1981 submarine contract with a West German firm, he said that "efforts have been made through insinuations and innuendo to weaken the morale of the defense forces."
An opposition member of Parliament was ejected after shouting, "Not even 400 members of Parliament can hide a corrupt prime minister!" Gandhi's party, the Congress-I, controls 410 of the 540 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament.
The resignation Sunday of Defense Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh following criticism of his plan to investigate kickbacks in the contract with the West German firm Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft has sparked a power struggle in the Gandhi government, even though the alleged wrongdoing would have taken place long before Gandhi assumed office.
Critics have charged that Gandhi, who has had a reputation of incorruptibility, opposed the investigation to avoid implications of involvement by his mother, his brother and his party.
"The decision of the prime minister to force Mr. V. P. Singh out removes all doubt," the Indian Express charged in a front-page editorial. "Mr. Rajiv Gandhi or someone dear to him, dead or living, has received the kickback."
While the conflict over the resignation appears to pose no immediate threat to Gandhi's rule, it has divided the Indian Establishment into opposing camps.
Singh, a Rajput prince from Uttar Pradesh state, developed a popular following for his aggressive investigations of corruption, first as finance minister and then as defense minister. Last summer, at the height of his power, a magazine poll named Singh the second most respected Indian leader, behind Gandhi.
But Singh's tactics, including highly publicized midnight raids on business leaders in their homes, made many enemies in industry and among older members of Gandhi's party. Nevertheless, Singh was the only member of the Gandhi Cabinet still in his original post two years after Gandhi took office in December, 1984.
In January, Gandhi yielded to pressure and transferred Singh to the Defense Ministry. But a controversy soon erupted over Singh having hired, while he was finance minister, an Arlington, Va., detective agency to investigate tax fraud among Indian nationals doing business in the United States.
The 'Fairfax Affair'
The controversy intensified after charges were made that the agency, Fairfax Associates, had first been retained by the owners of a Bombay business house, a textile firm, engaged in bitter competition with another Bombay textile firm.
The "Fairfax Affair," as it came to be known, was loudly criticized by members of Congress-I, in which Singh is a leading figure.
By this time, it had become clear that Gandhi was feuding with Singh, his once-trusted minister. And the division soon began to spread, with support lining up for the principals among newspapers, businesses and caste lobbies.
Gandhi is a Kashmiri Brahman from Uttar Pradesh. Singh is a member of the Thakur caste, also from Uttar Pradesh, where in recent years political activity has centered on a power struggle between the Thakurs and Brahmans.
"The main problem," according to H. K. Dua, executive editor of the Hindustan Times, which has been neutral in the Gandhi-Singh contest, "is that V. P. Singh emerged as an alternative to Rajiv Gandhi."