INDIA'S new prime minister, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, holds one of the world's most difficult jobs. India is a teeming, diverse country, with a long history of ethnic strife. And the surge to prominence of a stridently pro-Hindu political party, the Bharatiya Janata, underscores the country's divisions. But those problems have always beset Indian democracy, which last week completed its ninth national election in four decades of independence. Violence flared around the edges of the voting, but the central fact is a peaceful transfer of power. Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi acknowledged defeat and moved to the opposition in parliament. Many state governments peacefully changed hands. Clearly, India has the habit of democracy.
And Mr. Singh is an old hand at the practice of Indian democracy. He has also been a relentless critic of the failures of Indian politics. His departure from Mr. Gandhi's Congress (I) Party followed his efforts as defense minister to probe the payment of kickbacks in India's purchase of German and Swedish-made weaponry. Singh pounded at the scandal as leader of the opposition Janata Dal Party and throughout the recent campaign. He became ``Mr. Cleaner'' to Gandhi's much soiled ``Mr. Clean.''
Will he be able to better his predecessor in ridding the country of engrained political corruption? His allies in this and other endeavors will be the members, along with Janata Dal, of the National Front coalition: the Bharatiya Janata and India's far left, made up of various communist parties. A more uncomfortable coalition would be hard to imagine. The Hindu activists and the communists revile each other. Singh himself refused to share the podium with Bharatiya Janata candidates during the campaign.
For now, the National Front partners are rallying around the new prime minister. Singh's priorities are intelligent. He promises to spread to India's millions of poor the economic growth of recent years, without pinching off the foreign investment and liberalization that have made growth possible. He plans to attend to the foreign policy challenges on his doorstep, including civil strife in Sri Lanka, strained relations with Nepal, and a Pakistan chilled by the revival of Hindu extremism in India. And Singh wants to break the government's monopolistic grip on India's media.
These tasks are going to test Singh's considerable political skills. His coalition will be stretched and pulled. In the process, India's durable but turbulent democracy - used to the dominance of the Congress Party and the Gandhi family - will have a chance to develop new strengths.