Indecision in India after government's fall

Crisis: Hindu party's collapse doesn't assure succession of Sonia Gandhi's Congress Party.

April 20, 1999

THIRTEEN months of government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Jana Party (BJP) did not remake India. It did stir a nuclear arms race with Pakistan and religious-cultural bigotry directed mostly at Muslims.

But the government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee also improved relations with Pakistan and the United States.

And it initiated economic reforms that dismantled inefficient socialism, leading to hopes that India may help lead Asia back to economic health.

Now that it has fallen for no good reason, the BJP government can be seen as the most productive of the five that India has had through two elections in three years. Indians do not want another election, or government paralysis. President K. R. Narayanan may have to decide which is the lesser evil.

The fall of the Vajpayee government, by one vote in the 545-member lower house of Parliament, left India without a budget. The opposition Congress Party was responsible enough to see that the reformist BJP budget passed posthumously.

That leaves open the question of the next government. The Congress Party, which ruled for 45 of the 52 years of India's independence, fell on evil times until rescued by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow and daughter-in-law of assassinated prime ministers.

Mrs. Gandhi, who is both the star and the liability of the Congress Party, offers herself now as a prime minister to lead a coalition government. That government would need the support of five Communist and leftist parties, two of which have said no.

A return of Mr. Vajpayee and the BJP is also possible -- if they receive the support of the the same lower caste Hindu and regional parties whose animosities led to the current crisis.

Neither prospect promises stability.

India needs the secular and inclusive vision that belongs to the Congress Party in rhetoric if not always in practice. It also needs the reforms undoing the dubious Congress economic heritage.

How to achieve both is the challenge facing the world's most populous democracy which, whatever its failings, remains just that.

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