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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Congress Defects, Indian Premier to Hold Vote

NEW DELHI, India -- Indian Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda was on Monday given until April 11 to prove his majority in parliament, a near impossible task after his government lost the support of its key ally, the Congress party.

President Shankar Dayal Sharma's instruction to Deve Gowda to seek a vote of confidence by April 11 closed the government's option to call snap polls, forcing him either to resign or seek a split in the fractious Congress party to gain a majority.

Sharma had earlier sought the vote by April 7, but accepted the government's plea to extend the deadline because of a meeting of foreign ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement due in Delhi that day.

Deve Gowda's center-left United Front alliance controls 178 seats in the 545-member lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha.

The Congress party, which since June has reluctantly shored up the government with its 140 deputies, decided Sunday to withdraw its support.

"We don't believe the Congress decision has been endorsed by all its members of parliament," a government minister told Reuters, hoping for a split in India's oldest political party.

"There are sensible people in the Congress who are not suicidal. They are with us," said the minister, who asked not to be named.

The reference was apparently to some senior leaders, including former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, who are unhappy with Congress president Sitaram Kesri's decision to try to topple the government.

In a letter to Sharma on Sunday, Kesri accused Deve Gowda of failing to combat "communalism", an allusion to recent electoral successes of the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which the United Front says favors the Hindu majority over Moslems.

The theme of communalism appeared again on Monday.

"Deve Gowda should gracefully resign and the United Front should support a Congress-led government to help fight the communal forces," Congress spokesman Vithal Gadgil told a news conference.

Gadgil said the Congress had sent a letter to Sharma "to stake our claim to form the government."

Asked how Congress expected to form a government backed by the coalition it sought to topple, Gadgil said: "In politics, certain things are not stated publicly."

Deve Gowda ruled out stepping down to defuse the crisis.

"There is no question of my resignation or suggesting dissolution of the [lower] house," the Press Trust of India quoted Deve Gowda as telling reporters in the capital. "The trial of strength will be held on the floor of the house."

The United Front's decision-making Steering Committee later endorsed Deve Gowda's stance.

"The United Front is united and will remain united under the leadership of Mr Deve Gowda," United Front spokesman Jaipal Reddy told reporters after the committee met. "Even at this stage the Congress should reconsider its decision."

The shock move by Congress sent stock prices into a tailspin and overshadowed Monday's conclusion of crucial talks between India and Pakistan. The talks ended with an agreement to meet again in the Pakistan capital Islamabad. No dates were set.

Bombay share prices plunged more than 8 percent in nervous trading Monday as investors struggled to come to grips with the unexpected bout of political uncertainty. (See Business Review, Page IX.)