NOMI MORRIS May 20 1996


NOMI MORRIS May 20 1996

The downfall of Nehru's dynasty


For all but four years since independence from Britain in 1947, India has been governed by the venerable Congress party, the crucible for the nation-building policies of Jawaharlal Nehru and, later, his daughter Indira Gandhi and grandson Rajiv Gandhi. That tradition came to a tumultuous end last week as the counting of votes from more than 800,000 polling places revealed that the masses had deserted the scandalplagued Congress. But they had not given any party enough votes to form a majority in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. Before voting was even finalized, Congress Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao resigned and, by Saturday, President Shankar Dayal Sharma was entertaining entreaties from two rival parties to form a government— right-wing Hindu nationalists on the one hand, and a centre-left alliance on the other. And as the 77-year-old former Cambridge University law professor contemplated the fateful decision, the nation of 930 million faced a period of intense political instability.

By British parliamentary tradition, the party with the most seats in the Lok Sabha is asked to form a government—a right demanded by the Bharatiya Janata Party headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which, pending final results this week, emerged with between 175 and 185 seats, counting those of a small allied party. But the BJP is a Hindu nationalist party that vows to reduce the rights of the country’s 110 million Muslims, and has supported development of an atomic bomb. The left-wing National Front-Left Front, which observers expect-

ed to end up with between 140 and 150 seats, also informed the president that it could form a government, insisting that it could rally support from factions opposed to the BJP. Congress, meanwhile, was reduced to half its former holding with fewer than 140 seats, while other parties and individuals held the remainder. In calling the election,

Rao thought he had an irre-

What it did wrong had been evident to

sistible proposition for India’s 600 million eligible voters. “You give me stability,” he proclaimed, “and I will give you prosperity.” Instead, on Friday Rao found himself presiding over Congress’s worst electoral showing. The once all-powerful Congress party is now a force to reckon with only in pockets of the country: in the western desert state of Rajasthan, and in eastern Orissa, one of India’s poorest states. “The party will have to do some introspection,” said Congress spokesman Vithal Gadgil, “to find out what it did wrong, and find ways of revitalizing itself.” political observers for some time. The party, shorn of the NehruGandhi tradition by Rajiv’s 1991 assassination, became stymied by infighting, a scandal involving bribery in high places, and poorly chosen alliances with regional parties. If that were not enough, the 74-year-old Rao himself was regarded by many as indecisive and dull.

The BJP surged to supremacy despite being largely confined to the Hindi-speaking heartland of the north and the industrial hub of western India. But most analysts on the weekend said that Vajpayee, a 69-year-old poet, and his follow ers would have difficulty rallying the 273 members required to form a majority government. Its plat form calls for the abolition of

special status for the states of Jammu and Kashmir, where Muslims are in the majority, and the end of a special civil law protecting Muslim rights. The party also has generated opposition for its tilt towards the Brahmins and other upper-caste Hindus who are its mainstay. The other claimant to India’s throne is the National Front collection of regional parties. First formed for the 1989 election, it is a coalition of two centrist parties and four leftist groups, including the Communists.

While Indians struggled to make sense of the results—and the fact that it may take days or even weeks for a new government to appear—the New Delhi Englishlanguage newspaper The Asian Age

commented: “The BJP had a prime minister without a majority; the Congress had a prime minister without hope; and the Third Force had an alliance without a prime minister.” The last may not strictly be true. The National Front has all manner of potential prime ministers, from the fastidious Londontrained lawyer Jyoti Basu, the Communist party chieftain

of West Bengal, to his counterpart in neighboring Bihar, the tobacco-chewing former chief minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav. But settling on a single candidate will severely test the alliance. Said Rama Krishna Hedge, a National Front leader: “Because the future of the country is at stake, we should combine all the secular forces of the country.” In a nation wracked by political, social and religious divisions, collaboration of any kind is likely to be a tall order.




in New Delhi

Hindu nationalists bid to form a coalition government