India's Government Crisis

March 09, 1991

The inconclusive election of November 1989 continues to visit instability on India. But there is little reason to expect an election now to produce a majority mandate. President Ramaswamy Venkataraman was forced by Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar's abrupt resignation either to call new elections or find someone who could command the confidence of this parliament. Neither option was promising.

After the fall of Rajiv Gandhi's Congress Party government in 1989, V. P. Singh formed a minority government of Hindu fervor and left-wing support. After it fell in a religious controversy in October, his internal party rival, Chandra Shekhar, formed an even weaker government with the tacit support of Mr. Gandhi. The former prime minister and son of Indira Gandhi controls two-fifths of the lower house, making Congress the strongest party by far but well below its past majorities.

Mr. Gandhi was not content, however, to let Mr. Shekhar govern, and continually hamstrung him. On Mar. 2, unable to get anything through the parliament, Mr. Shekhar quit. Mr. Gandhi's pretext for withdrawing cooperation was the capture of two policemen snooping around his house. Other Indian politicians were not sympathetic, since that is what Congress Party governments continually did to opposition leaders.

India is beset by independence and autonomy movements, Hindu-Muslim and Hindu-Sikh strife and economic failure. It is probably in for a period of strong state regimes and indecisive federal governments. This is a time for a New Delhi government that knows its mind to negotiate with Kashmiri and Punjabi secessionists, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, with strong national support. None can do so. Since the voters threw Rajiv Gandhi out of power in 1989 on a party corruption issue, the dynastic heir has seen to it that if he cannot govern, neither can anyone else.

He was right then to wait until the Indian electorate was ready to entrust government to him and the Congress Party again. He is probably wrong now to think the waiting period is over. India is in for rocky times.

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