AS election results streamed in yesterday, the Congress (I) Party stood poised to form India's next government. But Congress's scramble to find political allies and a credible successor to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi indicate that both the party and the nation are still searching for political direction.
The Congress is expected to win the most parliamentary seats but narrowly miss a majority after the turbulent election. The right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is likely to be the second largest party. With results for two-thirds of the seats declared, the Congress has captured 163; the BJP has 71, and the left-leaning Janata Dal 21.
Even before the final results were announced Congress leaders were meeting to discuss post-election strategies. Some Congress officials favor a ruling coalition with other parties; others say Congress should form a minority government supported from the outside. Political analysts say the Congress wants to attract defectors from other parties and build a center-left bulwark against the BJP. But a minority government strategy runs the risk of further instability.
"With Rajiv Gandhi gone, the chemistry of the Congress Party and the attitudes toward it have changed," says B. G. Verghese, a political analyst at New Delhi's Center for Policy Research. "The party will be more open and those sympathetic to Congress will be more willing to work with it."
The poll's outcome is a political crazy-quilt mirroring the uncertainties and realignments of India's political system.
In some southern, western, and eastern states, Mr. Gandhi's assassination triggered a strong sympathy vote, surprising many political analysts.
Emotions, however, weren't strong enough in the northern, Hindi-speaking belt where Congress fell to two stunning defeats. In Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state and political cornerstone, the BJP triumphed and is expected to take control of the state government. In Bihar, the Congress was overwhelmed by the Janata Dal, which is part of a left-wing coalition headed by former prime minister V. P. Singh.
The election was also a mixed bag for the Congress's two main rivals. Singh's Janata Dal suffered heavy losses, but with communist allies could be a stronger parliamentary force than the BJP.
THE BJP scored a commanding victory in Uttar Pradesh and made an inroad in the south. But the party suffered defeats in two strongholds and slipped badly in a third.
As the major challenger to Congress, the Hindu right will have "to mark time and gain political respectability," says Bharat Wariavwalla, a New Delhi political analyst. "The BJP is now the main rival to Congress, but it has to refurbish its image. It still has that stigma of being a religious party outside the mainstream political culture."
For many Indian voters, though, the indecisive outcome threatens new instability. Dazed by months of political infighting and spiraling violence, many people worry about high inflation and a debt crisis that is forcing India to seek an international bailout and could bring economic chaos.
Political instability also worries Indian President Ramaswamy Venkataraman, who reportedly opposes a plan to establish a minority government. The last such government headed by V. P. Singh collapsed in 1990 after the BJP withdrew its support.
BJP dominance of Uttar Pradesh is also unnerving for the state's large Muslim community. A shrine claimed by Hindus and Muslims is located in Uttar Pradesh which in the last year became a battleground between rioting Hindus and Muslims.
OME analysts contend that being in power will force the BJP to play down the shrine issue. Others aren't so sure.
"The BJP may try to put this on the back burner to stay in power," a Western diplomat says. "The question is: Can it control its hard-line supporters and the political forces in the state?"
Meanwhile, the Congress faces a leadership sweepstakes. One claimant to Gandhi's post is P. V. Narasimha Rao, a party elder but political lightweight appointed president after Gandhi's widow, Sonia, resisted efforts to recruit her.
Another contender is Sharad Pawar, chief minister of Maharashtra state which boasts the big money of Bombay, India's financial capital, and a strong turnout for the party in the election. Mr. Pawar is close to acting Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, who defected from the Congress years ago but has signaled intentions of returning.
Also in the running are two politicians from Madhya Pradesh, a state that swung sharply away from the BJP toward the Congress. They include Arjun Singh, a former chief minister and once a member of Gandhi's inner circle, and Madhav Rao Scindia, a charismatic former minister.