India's government collapses after 270-269 confidence vote

Opposition party leader Gandhi to try to rebuild


NEW DELHI, India -- The Hindu nationalist-led government that turned India into a declared nuclear power collapsed yesterday. It lost a vote of confidence, 270-269, the narrowest parliamentary defeat for a government in independent India's 51-year history.

The opposition Congress Party, led by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of an assassinated prime minister, will try to cobble together a new government.

Within hours of the vote, President K. R. Narayanan accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, but asked him to stay on as a caretaker while efforts to form a new government go forward.

Leaders of the Congress Party, which has dominated Indian politics for most of the past half-century, said they would immediately begin talking to other political parties with the aim of forming India's sixth national government in three years, a period that has seen the rapid rise and fall of several unstable coalitions.

Gandhi, president of the Congress Party and heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, greeted thousands of well-wishers at her home.

But Gandhi, who drew huge and ecstatic crowds when she campaigned across India in the last election but has drawn some criticism for her foreign birth, made no comment about whether she will seek to become the next prime minister.

Sensitive to the prospect of more political instability, the Bombay stock exchange index plunged 7 percent after the confidence vote. It was unclear what impact the change of government will have on the modest steps taken recently by India, a nation of 980 million people, to open its economy to foreign investment and build better ties with Pakistan and the United States.

The past year marked the Hindu nationalists' first real taste of power. For decades, they had been unable to challenge Congress' dominance. And as champions of the idea that India was fundamentally a Hindu nation and culture, they had been seen as opposite to the country's secular traditions and dangerous to religious minorities, particularly Muslims.

This year, the party came under fire as attacks on India's small Christian minority climbed. Those attacks, opposition leaders charged, were incited by associates of the party. Congress Party leaders contended that Bharatiya Janata failed to rein in allied Hindu nationalist groups -- a charge the party denied.

In laying out his government's record yesterday, Vajpayee, 72, touted its decision to conduct nuclear tests in the Pokhran desert and develop a full-fledged nuclear deterrent, as well as its efforts to build closer ties with Pakistan. The tests in May stirred international fears that India and Pakistan, which responded with its nuclear tests, would soon be engaged in a dangerous arms race.

In February, Vajpayee took a much-heralded bus trip to Lahore, Pakistan, to meet with Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and discuss the core issues that divide them. The two nations have fought three wars since independence.

"Our Pokhran tests and my bus trip to Lahore are two sides of the same coin," Vajpayee said.

His government has had a very rocky year in power. Its tenure has been troubled by the threats of its largest coalition partner -- a party from the state of Tamil Nadu that has 18 votes and is led by the flamboyant Jayalalitha Jayaram -- to quit the government. This week, Jayalalitha went through with her threat, depriving the government of its majority and forcing the confidence vote.

And the political strength of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which led the coalition, was badly eroded in state elections elections in November. Voters turned on the party largely because of the soaring prices of onions and other vegetables and a general sense that the government had mismanaged the economy.

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