India in Transition

India's governments have been vanishing acts of late. Four have disappeared in the last year and a half. After seven months in office, Prime Minister I.K. Gujral recently handed in his resignation, the victim of an interparty spat over a minor member of his United Front coalition.

Since the late 1980s, minority governments and "hung" Parliaments have been the new norm for India. Regional parties have proliferated, and India's political demographics have shifted, with long-repressed lower castes gaining political clout.

Prior to this fermentation, the Congress Party of Jawaharlal Nehru held sway for decades. Any hopes of restoring that one-party dynasty, which revived after the assassination of Nehru's grandson, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991, have receded. The parliamentary election scheduled for next February is likely to produce yet another delicately balanced coalition. Equally problematic is the outside possibility that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party may form the next government.

Thus India, the world's second most populous country, is in mid-transition. The era of Congress dominance and statist, protectionist economics is past. But its successor is still taking shape.

Economic reforms, begun by the last Congress prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, in the early '90s, have become bogged down in the current political turmoil. Mr. Gujral's departure saddened India's business leaders, who appreciated his commitment to liberalized trade and investment. The financial crisis in the rest of Asia adds to the worries. At the least, India could experience intense price competition if other Asia nations try to export their way out of their troubles.

Another piece of unfinished business left by the Gujral government is rapprochement with Pakistan. Hopes had been rising that the subcontinent's contentious neighbors, each with nuclear capabilities, might settle their differences. Gujral and his Pakistani counterpart, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had gotten on well.

But Mr. Sharif has just weathered his own political crisis - a somewhat enigmatic tussle with the chief justice of Pakistan's Supreme Court, who threatened to roll back some constitutional changes pushed through Parliament by the prime minister. A constitutional disaster appeared to be at hand. Some worried that Pakistan's Army might step in, as it often has before, to impose a new government. Instead, the country's top general acted as a mediator of sorts between the parties. Ultimately, the chief justice was booted out by his fellow justices, and Sharif won, at least for now.

India and Pakistan are crucial parts of the global community - both because of their potential for economic vibrancy and their potential to slip into war. They need leadership that can look beyond petty politics to realize the former, and avert the latter.

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