India tries the left New government: Congress Party stays out, dictates how long it will last.

June 02, 1996

THE CONFUSED MANDATE of the world's largest democratic election may bring the obscure H. D. Deve Gowda of the left-wing United Front to power in India. This group came in second in the April-May election to the Hindu extremist party, which was given first try but soon fell. The United Front can govern, but only with support of the Congress Party, which was thrown from office.

So, although many members were running to roll back the free market reforms of the Congress Party government of P. V. Narasimha Rao, the new coalition will keep them. Party leaders had to dig deep outside the parliament to find the chief minister of the southern state of Karnataka to be prime minister. Although a Socialist, Mr. Gowda promoted development based on foreign investment there.

The Congress Party is prepared to vote for -- but not join -- the Gowda government so long as it remains moderate. And when Congress believes its time in the wilderness has been sufficient, it will no doubt provoke new elections. Weak coalitions are in vogue. The (Hindu) Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, formed a government that survived only 12 days even though moderation permeated its every pronouncement.

You would never think this is the same party that brought the mob destruction of the Muslim shrine at Ayodha in 1992. Because the other parties fear the BJP, it could not attract a single vote of support from them.

Mr. Vajpayee's real aim was to demonstrate that BJP is responsible and capable of governing. While unable to transcend the limits of caste, religion and region in this election, he was preparing a broader appeal for the next, when his party might win outright.

Now it is up to Mr. Gowda to do better. The criticism of his coalition is that its members have nothing in common but opposition to BJP. From their diversity, the new prime minister must forge coherence. With moderation and leadership, he can heal some of India's wounds.

Pub date: 6/02/96

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