India: grudge-match politics?

Coalition government fell Saturday without any galvanizing issues -

A persnickety former actress, a party of untouchables, and an Italian-born widow of a former prime minister with the golden name of Gandhi all combined over the weekend to bring down India's 13-month-old ruling coalition by a single vote, making it the fourth government to fall in India in three years.

Sonia Gandhi and her Congress Party are the big winners following the collapse of the first-ever Hindu nationalist coalition in India, which came to power with a bang last spring when it tested a set of nuclear weapons. After Saturday's vote, Indian President K.R. Narayanan asked Mrs. Gandhi, who married into India's dynastic family in the 1970s, to form a government in the world's largest democracy.

Gandhi and her advisers will negotiate with a plethora of tiny parties, each with its own high-decibel demands, and decide whether to form a new coalition - or whether to call for entirely new elections to be held next fall. It is not yet clear whether Gandhi herself - who in recent months has adopted the speech mannerisms and hairstyle of her late mother-in-law, former prime minister Indira Gandhi - will seek the prime-minister position. Sources say she had hoped for several more months to consolidate her position and platform, including how to present herself, a Roman Catholic, to a largely Hindu electorate.

Congress supporters are quick to say that Saturday's vote in the Lok Sabha, India's lower house, is a shining example of democracy in action. It marks a healthy development of local politics, they say, since the vote is based on politicians playing more to personal or regional interests than national ones.

BUT the fall of yet another government seems a sharp blow to India's efforts to present itself as a stable state that is a good investment risk. Not even India's missile test last week was enough to rally the coalition. It brought instead answering missile tests from Pakistan.

Saturday's vote stings more, given that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in recent months had been finding steadier reins. He has brought more efficiency to the bureaucracy and acted as a moderating force among the hard-liners in his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He emerged as a statesman in February, completing a peace agreement with Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Nor were great democratic principles at stake - or even at issue - in the no-confidence measure. Rather, the coalition began to dissolve after the withdrawal last week of a flamboyant member of Parliament, Jayalalitha Jayaram, who has been in constant squabbles with Mr. Vajpayee over what often appeared to be demands that the prime minister dismiss her political competition at home. Crucial votes against the BJP also came from a low-caste party that withdrew its support in retaliation for local politics in Uttar Pradesh state.

"The way in which the government has fallen does not augur well for the country, because there were no real issues involved in bringing it down," says D.L. Sheth, senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. "It is more a cynical game of power without any sense of an alternative."

Jayalalitha, as she is known, is an idiosyncratic ex-film star who has achieved near-cult status in her home state of Tamil Nadu. She was arrested on corruption charges in 1996. Last month she was charged with assaulting a party member with a shoe.

Whether Gandhi can work with Jayalalitha is unknown. With a widespread perception of corruption in Congress's ranks, one reason it lost the previous elections, Gandhi must tread carefully. Already the party has issued a statement saying it will not engage in the common practice of bribes in forming a coalition.

Congress's legacy is one of bringing independence to India, and enforcing a secular state under an umbrella of Muslims, untouchables, and many others. Yet in recent years it has been seen as a dinosaur and a magnet for kickbacks and perks.

On the surface, BJP's loss might suggest an easing on the attacks against Christians and a smaller platform for the anti-Muslim attitudes that many BJP officials have long held. Yet Muslim leaders note that with the BJP out of power, communal tensions could actually increase, since a ruling party does not want to be seen presiding over violence.

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