India's Decision

The world's largest democracy has weathered another mega-election, with some 344 million voters participating. But India's immediate political future remains somewhat murky, for two reasons.

First, it's still not clear who will form the next government. Political oddsmakers lean toward the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. In this election, the number of parliamentary seats controlled by the BJP and its allies has grown to about 250, only 22 short of a majority. The Hindu nationalists appear to have the best opportunity of attracting support from regional parties that hold enough seats to form a majority.

That desire for stability works against the BJP's major rival, a coalition between the once-dominant Congress Party and the eclectic United Front. Together they control a slightly greater number of seats. But their alliance has been a shaky one in the two years since the 1996 election. And Congress has gotten a reputation for corruption and poor leadership that repels many voters and possible coalition partners.

Vigorous campaigning by Sonia Gandhi, widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, saved Congress from further decline. She unfailingly emphasized Congress's secular roots and warned of a BJP-led retrogression into bigotry and communal strife.

Would an increasingly likely BJP government be as bad as its foes anticipate? The Hindu nationalist candidate for prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, is known as a moderate. He has indicated a readiness to compromise on some of the most inflammatory stands taken by his party - the revoking of civil-law recognition of Muslim traditions in marriage and property rights, for instance. As a former minister of foreign affairs, he has stood for improved relations with Pakistan and other neighbors.

The BJP platform, by contrast, freely rattles sabers. It has taken a strident position against any compromise in the long-running dispute with Pakistan over the far-northern territory of Kashmir. And it has also called for openly declaring India as a nuclear power. The BJP also espouses protectionism and restrictions on foreign investment. Yet its top ranks include people committed to continued liberal economic reforms.

The question becomes: Would Mr. Vajpayee and other moderates around him prevail? Behind him are legions of supporters whose views have been forged in the Hindu nationalist movement's thousands of grass-roots cells, where zealotry reigns. Among their priorities: building a Hindu temple in the city of Ayodhya on the site of a mosque razed by a Hindu fundamentalist mob in 1992. These true believers may be in no mood for moderation if the BJP actually takes the reins.

Countering radical inclinations are India's Constitution, which guarantees the rights of religious minorities; its half century of democratic experience; its diversifying politics, which demands coalition-building; and the pragmatism of the Indian people.

The acid test for any government will be the expansion of economic opportunity for India's still impoverished millions. Inward-looking, divisive nationalism, at a time of growing global interdependence, is sure to fail.

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