Latest government for India is off to a shaky start 2nd leader in 17 days faces unruly 13-party coalition


NEW DELHI, India -- After two weeks of political turmoil, India got another new government yesterday, but even before the new prime minister took office there were signs that he may have trouble holding together a fractious 13-party coalition that almost broke apart in last-minute wrangling over Cabinet posts.

For many Indians, it was a sobering moment as the political establishment gathered for the swearing-in of the country's second government in 17 days.

The tableau that went out across India on television -- of the new prime minister, H. D. Deve Gowda, looking onto an assembly that included two other men who have been prime minister in the past three weeks -- did little to allay the concerns.

Gowda, 63, is a politician who was little known outside his home state, Karnataka in southern India, until the aftermath of the national election last month catapulted him into the leadership of a diverse coalition known as the United Front.

To many Indians, the figure he cuts, with his almost inaudible voice and self-deprecating references to himself as a hinterland farmer and former small-time road contractor, has seemed a far cry from prime ministers of the past -- Nehru, Indira Gandhi and even Rajiv Gandhi.

But if Gowda felt daunted, he showed little sign of it. From the ceremony at which he took office with 20 other Cabinet ministers, he went immediately to a news conference, where he set about the task of shoring up confidence in the coalition of centrists, socialists, Communists and regional parties that he heads.

Instead of viewing the new government as evidence of India's inability to elect a government that can tackle the country's overwhelming problems, Gowda said, Indians should welcome it as a sign that the country will be ruled by one that in its diversity more fully reflects India.

"The era of coalitions has commenced," Gowda said. "It is, however, an experiment, and the people have to give it a fair trial."

Gowda struck other notes that seemed intended to steady nervousness about his government. He made a virtue of the hillbilly tag that some of his critics have seemed eager to pin on him.

He said that after 11 prime ministers who were mostly upper-caste Brahmins with their political roots in New Delhi, perhaps it was time for the reins to pass to someone from a so-called backward caste in a state whose capital, Bangalore, is 1,000 miles away.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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