India's Hindu Coalition Felled After 13 Days

India's shortest-lived government was forced to resign May 28 after failing to change its pro-Hindu image. Its fall after only 13 days in power leaves the world's biggest democracy set for political uncertainty.

Preempting a vote of confidence it would have lost decisively, the fall of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has paved the way for India's president to invite the center-left United Front (UF) coalition, led by H.D. Deve Gowda, to try to form a government.

The Congress Party, which ruled India for most of the last 49 years and holds the second-largest number of seats, is expected to stay out of power but remain a big player in parliament.

The BJP and its allies won 195 seats in the inconclusive general election, well short of an overall majority in the 543-member lower house .

Despite the odds stacked against his party, BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee accepted the president's invitation to become prime minister on May 15 and although the BJP was given until May 31 to prove its majority, he called for a debate on a confidence motion to start May 27.

During the debate, opposition parties made a concerted assault on the BJP's policies that would discriminate against the non-Hindu minorities, its lack of support among religious minorities and lower castes, as well as its failure to win seats in the south and east of the country.

BJP politicians countered with warnings about early elections, civil war, and even the breakup of the country if an unstable opposition coalition came to power.

From the outset of the two-day debate, it was clear Mr. Vajpayee was more interested in giving the BJP a dignified burial than going into battle to stay in power by making a last-ditch attempt to attract supporters.

"We bow before the strength of numbers. We are ready to sit in the opposition," he said in his closing speech.

Although the combined forces of the Congress Party and the United Front managed to sweep aside their differences and ensure the political isolation and ultimate defeat of the BJP-led government, India appears headed for a period of instability.

The United Front is a political potpourri of regional and lower-caste-based parties, sprinkled with splinter groups of Congress dissidents, which have agreed on a leader but little else. In many cases, parties in the Front were only a few weeks ago contesting each other in the elections.

So fragile is the current arrangement that Congress and the United Front postponed working out a common set of policies in crucial areas, fearing any display of disunity before the debate might play into the hands of the BJP.

If India's past experience of coalitions and minority governments supported from the outside by Congress is any indication, the country is expected to need another election soon. The Janata Party coalition formed in 1977 lasted barely two years, while the 1990 minority government fell in just four months.

With Congress set - for now - to stay on the opposition benches following its worst election results ever, the way is clear for a UF government led by farmer-turned-political favorite, Mr. Gowda.

Although Gowda's credentials include being chief minister of the southern state of Karnataka, he is essentially a consensus candidate with no support base outside his own party, the Janata Dal. By holding the balance of power, Congress would be in a strong position to impose its own program on the new government and when it felt the time was right, withdraw its support and trigger fresh elections.

The party would then go to the polls armed with evidence of the debacle of coalition governance on the one hand and the threat of Hindu nationalism on the other. Preaching the "middle path" of political and economic stability it would re-emerge as the preferred party - or so its strategists hope.

For its part, the BJP will do its best to turn defeat into victory. Despite its short tenure, the party feels it has given voters a glimpse of what a BJP-led government would be like.

Over the past two weeks,its leader, Vajpayee, has worked hard to project the party's moderate face. Although his message didn't win over the political allies the party needed to stay in power, the BJP is hoping it made an impression with the voters. It has already set its sights on winning an outright majority in the next election.

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