India's New BJP Government Prepares for Date With Destiny

The addresses rallies from behind bulletproof glass, the road where his residence is situated has been closed to traffic, and he is driven around in a cavalcade bristling with bodyguards.

But for all the personal protection India's new prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, enjoys, his minority government is feeling far from secure as its date with destiny approaches.

Despite inducting a largely moderate, Cabinet and making conciliatory noises toward India's minorities, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) remains a political untouchable because of its hard-line pro-Hindu agenda. It now appears increasingly unlikely to obtain enough support to survive a no-confidence vote in parliament.

Having won victory at the polls by emerging as the single-largest party, the BJP is showing signs of preparing for a dignified exit before the May 31 deadline for assembling a majority in parliament.

In the last few days, the leadership has altered its strategy of openly calling for support from regional parties and independents to one of projecting itself as being a competent, corruption-free government. In the short time now available, BJP leaders are stepping up their efforts to project as many populist policies as they can, believing that even if the government doesn't survive, they should be remembered for their visionary approach to governance.

If, as expected, an early election is held because of disagreements among the opposition parties, the BJP hopes to cash in on the well-known antipathy of voters to unruly coalitions and get closer to an absolute parliamentary majority.

In his first nationally telecast radio and TV broadcast on May 19, Mr. Vajpayee made what sounded like an election speech promising among other things a "revolutionary 10-year plan" focused on providing nutrition and education for poor children, as well as simplified tax measures and electoral reform. He also severely criticized opposition parties for their single-point agenda "to stop the BJP" from governing.

The party is now turning its attention to President Shankar Dayal Sharma's May 24 speech to parliament. By convention, the new government prepares the president's speech, which is read out after the lower house's members are sworn in.

With a no-confidence motion possible any time after the address, the BJP is keen to drive home its dream of a "peaceful and prosperous India." But the party is divided on how much of its pro-Hindu ideology should be highlighted in the speech, given the discomfiture this causes among possible defectors from the opposition's ranks and a large section of the voting public.

Congress and the 14-party National Front-Left Front alliance, now renamed the United Front, are working out a common strategy if the BJP is defeated in a no-confidence vote or if it submits its resignation before that. Despite its election drubbing, Congress, with 136 seats, is still the second-largest party. By reelecting P.V. Narasimha Rao as its leader, Congress is holding together, for the moment at least. The party has said it won't try to form a government if asked by the president, preferring to give support to the United Front.

According to Ajoy Bose, political editor of the Pioneer newspaper, a United Front government would then be totally at the mercy of Congress. "Given the present circumstances, such a government will be doomed ... having no leeway to pursue independent policies." He points out the coalition would also be beholden to Congress, which could bring it down at any moment and call for fresh elections.

For the BJP and Congress these are high-risk strategies that could backfire. If the politics of extremism play their hand in the lead-up to the next poll, the BJP could find itself a political pariah. And if Congress looks like it is being opportunistic by propping up a government it knows cannot last, it too may earn the wrath of India's voters.

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