Opposition in India seeks new coalition

Ruling majority needed after government falls


NEW DELHI, India -- A day after the fall of the Hindu nationalist-led government, leaders of the opposition Congress Party began trying to patch together a new coalition to govern this nation of 980 million people.

But any new alliance drawn from the diverse and contentious collection of opposition parties is likely to be as rickety as the one that just lost power, political analysts and some Congress officials said.

If the opposition is unable to cobble together a majority, President K.R. Narayanan is empowered to dissolve the Parliament and call new elections, the second round in two years.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, now serving as a temporary caretaker, told workers for his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party yesterday to prepare for new elections because he does not expect any new government to last long.

Whoever leads the next government will be faced with the crucial questions of whether to sign the nuclear test ban treaty and how to calibrate the country's hostile relationship with its neighbor, Pakistan.

Vajpayee's government alarmed the world last May when it conducted nuclear tests, which Pakistan rapidly answered with tests of its own. Last week, each of the two nations, which have fought three wars with each other in 51 years, tested ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads.

India's Parliament was split almost down the middle between supporters and opponents of the year-old government that collapsed. On Saturday, Vajpayee's coalition lost a confidence vote by a single vote.

The burden of coalition politics has now shifted to the Congress Party. The opposition had just enough votes to defeat the government, but several small parties whose members voted to oust Vajpayee's coalition may also oppose a government led by the Congress Party. And they have enough votes to deprive a new coalition of a majority.

It was also unclear yesterday whether the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, heir to the political family that has dominated Indian politics since independence in 1947, would seek to become prime minister. On Friday a party spokesman said she would be the candidate, but party officials were less categorical yesterday.

"It's touch-and-go whether she will lead," one Congress leader said. "It is her personal decision."

Pub Date: 4/19/99

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