A long summer for the largest democracy

India faces its third election in as many years later this year. A

The saffron flags and white tunics are tucked away for now. With the collapse of the Indian government April 17, and the national Parliament dissolved nine days later, India's 500 million voters will wait until the soaking monsoon rains of summer have ended for an election showdown. The country's two political giants, Sonia Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee, have lately come to personify the two most powerful legacies in India today.

The hope, after two weeks of bitter finger pointing and the failure of Mrs. Gandhi to form a workable government in New Delhi, is that a popular mandate will bring stability to a system that has pitched and rolled like an overloaded oil tanker for much of the 1990s.

Left in place is a relatively weak caretaker administration led by Mr. Vajpayee, current prime minister - a body not authorized to make major policy decisions, including those on an international treaty to ban the testing of nuclear weapons, with a September deadline; and progress on a much-touted peace accord with Pakistan that began in February.

India's election commissioner M.S. Gil stated April 26 that the voting will be held after July 20, the date new voters may register.

Campaigning is limited to 15 days prior to the vote. But Gandhi's Congress Party and Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are already jockeying for leverage in a campaign that could, improbably, become an important referendum on two visions of India that have played out uneasily over the past 25 years: a secular India versus a Hindu nationalist India.

Voter sympathy for BJP?

In coming months, the nationalist BJP hopes to capitalize on a "sympathy factor" among voters by blaming Congress for irresponsibly engineering the fall of a government that was just beginning to run smoothly. Several BJP leaders recently attacked the Italian-born Gandhi as a political novice and a foreign carpetbagger who is influenced by various conspiratorial anti-Indian forces imported from abroad.

Congress will try to present the elections as a choice between India as a secular state that values all ethnic and religious groups, versus what it says is BJP's history of "communal" or ethnic violence, and anti-Muslim and anti-Christian sentiments.

Whether the campaign will be nasty, as some feel, or whether the intervening months of baking sun and muggy pelting rain will erase from memory the ill-feelings of the past two weeks, and make some other issue, like the price of onions, the major issue, is a matter of much speculation.

"The last two weeks have added to the bitterness. So it will be a storm of arrows and daggers at election time," states C.P. Bhambri of the Center for Political Studies in New Delhi.

Either way, much of the discussion in New Delhi today is over the seemingly minor actors, representatives of small parties, who have brought the government of the largest democracy in the world to its knees for the third time in three years, forcing President K.R. Narayanan to dissolve the Parliament.

"A million mutinies now," is the characterization given to recent Indian politics by writer V.S. Naipaul, and the recent infighting here seems to bear out the phrase.

Having toppled the BJP on April 17 by a single vote in a no-confidence measure, and promising that a new coalition was hours if not minutes away - Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party found themselves subject to the same kind of mercenary factionalism and petty fiefdom promoting that had led to the fall of the government in the first place.

The fall came when Jayalalitha Jayaram, a fickle member of the BJP coalition, a former actress and party leader from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, bolted.

Now, beneath gaudy colored tents erected against the record heat in Delhi, press officers and party leaders are, often like characters in an American soap opera, explaining why things all went so wrong. BJP officials accuse Congress for toppling the government. The Congress accuses Mulayam Singh Yadav, the leader of a "backward class" party in the heartland state of Uttar Pradesh, for suddenly revoking his crucial support of Gandhi. That act taken as Gandhi was within reach of the high office, became the falling apple that put Congress out of the running.

Blame game

Mr. Yadav, in turn, now blames Sonia Gandhi's new principal adviser, Arjun Singh, for complicity in the lack of police presence during the infamous attack on a Muslim mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu extremists - which set off riots and killings across India in 1992. (Congress leader P.V. Narasimha Rao was prime minister during the attack on the mosque, though its eventual razing was conducted by forces loosely affiliated with the BJP.) Yadav's main motive for turning on Gandhi, however, appears to be self serving.

Namely, that Congress politicians in Uttar Pradesh will seize votes of his Muslim constituency and diminish his influence.

(In the current Realpolitik of many Indian Muslims, it is preferable to form alliances with political enemies. When in power, parties like the BJP must not appear to create communal violence, they feel.)

And on and on.

Even the natural world entered the political scene. Since April 26, when it was clear Gandhi would not prevail, a main question is whether to hold elections before or after the fabled monsoons. The rains start in South India in mid-June, and often become cyclones by August, that bring paralyzing floods in North India - an inhospitable environment for voters and a fair election.

The BJP wanted elections prior to the monsoons to capitalize on Gandhi's evident miscalculation. Congress and Gandhi hoped to postpone elections to a later date to give the shy and often reticent widow of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi time to consolidate her own position. (A popular election mandate was considered a better option for Gandhi, since the current members of the Lok Sabha, India's lower house, presented her with the same fractious coalition Vajpayee had trouble with.)

Local politics stalls a nation

Perhaps the oddest outcome of Indian politics this month is to find two obscure and somewhat idiosyncratic local party leaders, Jayalalitha, as she is known, and Yadav, denied high office to Gandhi and Vajpayee, but also put in jeopardy an international treaty to limit the testing of nuclear weapons - a treaty the Clinton administration has spent much diplomatic effort in completing.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is due to be ratified in September. But 44 nations must sign the treaty to put it into force. India, which tested nuclear weapons last year under the BJP, is likely to miss the deadline, putting pressure on neighboring Pakistan, which tested weapons after India did, to review its signature - putting the entire process into a potential spin.

Diplomats are trying to put the best face on the new state of affairs, saying that it is possible to put an extension on ratification.

"This is the best instrument we have for stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons" says a Western diplomat in Delhi." We want to hold to the treaty. But if September rolls around and India hasn't signed, we aren't turning into pumpkins."

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