India's Prime Minister Gains Ground Despite Nation's Poor Economic Prospects

THE breakup of one of India's small political parties last week is the latest in a string of events that has bolstered the position of Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao.

Few observers had high expectations for Mr. Rao's Congress (I) government when he came to power last June: Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had just been assassinated, the country had seen three new governments in as many years, and India's economic prospects were grim. But within months commentators here began remarking on Rao's gift for consensus leadership.

Now Rao is generating measured respect from his skeptics.

"Congress has gained a lot since Narasimha Rao took over," says Tarun Vijay, the editor of a Hindi weekly supportive of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). "He has shown that he can win elections and that he can win over opposition parties."

In particular, Mr. Vijay refers to several recent political victories for the prime minister:

* The Telegu Desam Party, a regional group that had 13 members in the lower house of Parliament, disbanded, freeing six members who now say they will support Congress on certain issues. Two other sets of defections from opposition parties have also helped Congress.

* Rao easily survived a March 9 vote of no confidence in Parliament, when many opposition members abstained from the vote in spite of the BJP's attempts to show its strength.

* The prime minister has succeeded in installing an elected government in Punjab State. Although voter turnout was minimal and violent unrest continues in the state, the election brought 12 new Congress members to the lower house of Parliament.

"We have a majority in the Lok Sabha," says Madhavrao Scindia, one of Rao's key ministers, using the Hindi name for the Indian Parliament's lower house.

"The Congress," agrees George Fernandes, a vocal and critical opposition member, "is now in a position where it can call the shots in terms of its parliamentary majority." But he also says that Rao's recent victories may be short-lived.

The escalating violence in Punjab, Mr. Fernandes says, suggests that separatist Sikhs have only been "alienated further" by the outcome of the polling, which several Sikh groups boycotted. He also accuses the government of engineering the splits among the smaller parties, including one Fernandes belongs to, and says there may be an anti-Rao backlash in Andhra Pradesh, the state that is home to both Rao and the Telegu Desam Party.

Rao's government is also helped, says political scientist Basheeruddin Ahmed, by the major opposition party's desire to build its own standing gradually.

"The situation suits the BJP very well," he says. "They indeed want time to prove themselves and they also find Narasimha Rao's style very congenial."

Vijay says the BJP supports the thrust of the government's economic package. But the BJP will try "to tread a middle path," Vijay says, by attacking policies that appear to allow too much foreign influence in India's economy or that hurt low-income Indians.

The party, according to reports about a BJP conclave held last week, will also try to earn its opposition mantle by attacking government policies that allegedly favor minorities over the Hindu majority, long a rallying cry for the BJP.

Commentators here have said the party is in an "identity crisis" sparked by a government that the BJP does not find terribly objectionable.

Such similarity between the main opposition party and the Congress is a positive sign, Mr. Ahmed says.

"I think we will have virtually a two-party system," he says, meaning that Congress and the BJP will dominate Indian politics.

"In any stable political-party configuration, the stability comes from the fact that the leading parties are not very different from each other," he adds. "Structurally, it's a very healthy development."

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