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India's delicate passage - The Afternoon

Editorial (New York Times) ()
March 7, 1998

Title: India's delicate passage
Author: Editorial (New York Times)
Publication: The Afternoon
Date: March 7, 1998

India is once again entering a delicate and dangerous political
period After another tumultuous campaign, the main Hindu
nationalist party has fallen just short of a parliamentary
majority, but it still won more seats than any other party.

Whether it will be able to form a government, or even be invited
to do so by President K.R. Narayanan, is an open question. As
competing factions seek to round up majorities, the dash of
ideologies and jockeying over spoils in the next few days will
probably test India's stability and cohesion.

In the last election two years ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party,
or Indian People's Party, as the Hindu nationalist organization
is known, also won a solid plurality. But it failed to attract
enough parliamentary support to form a viable government because
nearly every rival group refused to sign on to the party's
noxious brew of Hindu chauvinism.

This time, because the Hindu party has fallen only about 20 votes
short of a majority, it seems in a better position to pick up the
necessary votes to form a government.

In the latest campaign the party's leader, Atal Behari Vajpayee,
tried again to portray himself as a moderate on religious issues.

Though he has not gone so far as to repeal the party's pledge to
dismantle India's long-standing protections for the country's
Muslim minority, he has promised vaguely to act only on the basis
of a consensus.

The problem is that Mr. Vajpayee's intentions might not be enough
to rein in the militant Hindu chauvinists, with their vision of
India as a Hindu state.

The rival claimant for power as an uneasy coalition led by the
Congress (I) party. which scored a more impressive showing than
seemed possible a couple of months ago.

The Congress Party's success was a tribute to Sonia Gandhi, the
Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the
daughter-in-law of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Sonia
Gandhi drew large crowds while defending India's secular
tradition and reminding people of her family's leadership and

It will not be easy for the Congress P" to gain the, trust of
other political organizations in its bid for power. The
temptation to put Mrs. Gandhi forward as a figurehead should be
resisted. Though she showed courage and conviction -in the
campaign, she has never done anything to qualify as the political
leader of a sprawling and fractious nation.

At this moment of maximum volatility, Mr Narayanan needs to move
swiftly to pick the party or coalition most likely to stay in
power long enough to tackle the country's immense social and
economic problems.

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