India's boiling political pot Stalemate: Instability may follow elections that failed to produce a clear winner.

March 13, 1998

THOSE WHO hoped recent elections would usher India into a period of political calm and stability have been disappointed -- again. The new lower house of parliament will be even more splintered. No fewer than 39 parties will divide the 543 seats, making frequent quarrels and stalemates a foregone conclusion.

The main Hindu nationalist movement, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is trying to form a government. Since its 179 seats fell short of a majority, it needs to form and maintain a coalition with willing minor parties. The last time BJP tried to do that was in May 1996. It stayed in power 13 days.

Waiting in the wings is BJP's main opponent, the Congress Party. It has governed post-colonial India for most of the country's 50 years and included among its notables Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as well as Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, and her son, Rajiv Gandhi. This time, the Congress Party actually received more votes than BJP but ended with fewer seats -- 142.

The possibility of a BJP government has frightened India's minorities. In a country where communal violence is common, minorities worry about increasing intolerance and attempts at domination by the Hindus, who number a staggering 700 million. Particularly anxious is the 120-million-member Muslim minority, which fears an assault on its religious and property rights.

Meanwhile, the Congress Party, which in recent years has been weakened by corruption scandals and erratic leadership, is in flux. Following the elections, its president, Sitaram Kesri, resigned -- ostensibly to allow Sonia Gandhi, the widow of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, to become party leader. A decision will be made tomorrow.

The Italian-born Mrs. Gandhi, who became an Indian citizen only in 1994, was reluctant to plunge into politics and try to reclaim her family's dynasty. But once she entered the fray, she proved an energetic campaigner who electrified voters wherever she went. Analysts believe that her campaigning saved the Congress Party from a humiliating election defeat.

Mrs. Gandhi offers the best hope for the Congress Party to reclaim credibility and power at a time when India, having started economic liberalization, needs to push ahead and not retreat into policies of myopia and bigotry.

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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