India's vote: And the winner is...

Indians camped in front of their TVs for the past two days to listen to

Such a country: The more things appear to change in India, the more they appear to stay the same. Or do they?

After five months of a caretaker government, and staggered elections held over a month to counter violence, India's weary voters reinstated a Hindu coalition government much like the one booted out by a single vote last April.

With Indians camped in front of their TVs for 48 hours as results dribbled in, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies captured a narrow majority of seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament - returning to power acting Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Spearheading efforts to give India a greater role on the world stage, last year Mr. Vajpayee tested nuclear weapons but soon must decide whether to sign a treaty to halt nuclear proliferation.

The Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi, which ruled India for most of the 50-plus years since independence, put in a mixed performance. However in two crucial states, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, both places where Mrs. Gandhi contested, Congress did unexpectedly well - which may keep alive the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, and give both Gandhi and her daughter, Priyanka, some room to rebuild the party.

"Stability" was the oft-exercised mantra prior to these elections, the fourth in five years. Every party promised a full five-year term, ending the jolting pattern of perpetual fall and rise. This election may bring more stability, experts say. Partly this is because two BJP allies - both from South India - are more reliable than the partners it had in the past. And, both voters and candidates are exhausted. After months of uncertainty and campaigning, no party will topple the government unless it is certain to take over swiftly.

Behind the sameness, a difference

Behind the appearance of sameness, however, several shifts are under way in the Indian polity. Perhaps the most significant is the continued rise of lower caste and "untouchable," or Dalit, parties for the first time. In Uttar Pradesh, a Dalit party gained 10 seats for a total of 14. A "backward caste" party expected to lose out actually gained four seats - an outcome that may excite lower-caste expectations across India.

"The big change underlying this untidy, boisterous, violent scene is democracy taking root, maturing, and that is best shown in the rise of the castes," says B.G. Verghese of the Center for Policy Research in Delhi.

"People here say they want stability. But the most interesting phenomena are the vote banks that say, 'We've been waiting for 100 or 1,000 years. Give us our social and economic rights.' Stability is an inadequate concept for what is going on democratically."

Perhaps equally important is the demonstrated reach of the BJP to all parts of India. The nationalist party, which arose out of a core agenda to "Hinduize" India, has been largely restricted to the middle class in urban areas in the north and west. Yet in these elections, the BJP has shown strength and political savvy in the south, the east, and in rural areas.

India's south has a long-standing aversion to the Brahman traditions out of which the BJP springs. The east, particularly West Bengal, had long been a bastion of communist rule. Yet today the BJP's most significant allies come from Tamil Nadu in the south (the DMK party), and in Andhra Pradesh (the TDP party). It has scored well not only in West Bengal, but, for the first time, the BJP will hold two seats from Assam in the insurgency- prone northeast, something unthinkable a year ago.

Whether the BJP can mobilize a chauvinist Hindu program is more questionable. The BJP won more as a moderate coalition leader than as a party of Hindu nationalist values. This is likely to increase the leverage of Vajpayee as a power broker and statesman. Vajpayee led the "bus diplomacy" last February that was heralded as the beginning of better relations with Pakistan and is considered a great orator.

The BJP's hard-core element that seeks to reform India along a more rigid set of Hindu values did not get a mandate in these elections.

Rather, the BJP-led coalition has won on the strength of its ability to unite a divergent group of regional coalition partners. The BJP hard-liners may desire to challenge Muslims and Christians, change the history taught in schools, end the special status of Kashmir, and so on, and will likely continue to do so as part of the rise of a larger, organized, decade-long Hindu cultural program known as "Hindutva."

Needs of the coalition

But the coalition partners do not necessarily subscribe to such values. Vajpayee's moderate influence is the glue that holds the group together, though his critics say he is simply putting a moderate face on a national drift toward a more extreme right position.

Indeed, during the 1980s and '90s, the BJP was considered a militant fringe party, the architects of "communalism" - the word used in India for ethnic clashes. Today, the BJP is mainstream. Largely due to Vajpayee's role as leader during late spring's small "Kargil war" with Pakistan in Kashmir, he seems to be attracting younger voters of the type that Congress has not yet wooed.

Still, in these latest elections, the "Kargil factor" - a conflict that alarmed Westerners since it was the first actual direct fight in history between two nuclear powers - did not translate into the votes the BJP hoped for. What did capture voters were local, not national issues: lack of electricity, the price of fuel and onions, potholes in roads.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance by yesterday had collected more than the 272 seats needed to form a government. The Congress, running without coalition partners, was expected to win 135 seats. And a "third force" is still alive in Indian politics: nonaligned parties won more than 100 seats in the 545-seat body.

Vajpayee is expected to officially retain his prime ministership in party elections held Oct. 10.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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