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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 22, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 42

Keep an Eye on the Ball
By playing up the economy, PM Vajpayee's BJP-led Alliance wins a historic victory
By TODD CROWELL and RITU SARIN New Delhi

main pakistan indonesia india malaysia The prime minister's office is located in a sandstone building overshadowed by the Presidential palace in New Delhi. There civil servants spent the month of India's general election working on a single policy document. By the time their boss, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, returned with an increased majority, the "agenda for the first 100 days" was on his desk. As a key aide reported, "Since the prime minister was out campaigning, we used the time preparing. The agenda was ready for the incumbent - whether it was him or her.''

The reference to "her" was to the Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi. But as the first election results began to trickle in on Oct. 6, it was clear that the Italian-born candidate would not be moving into the sandstone office. The National Democratic Alliance, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had won a comfortable majority of 303 out of 543 parliamentary seats. The Congress suffered its worst beating since Independence. It lost 29 seats, winning only 112. As one consolation, Gandhi did win the two parliamentary seats she contested.

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Special Report: People's Will?
Coalitions, caucuses, even a coup - democracy in Asia is getting more complicated and messy. Are the people's demands still getting through?

Pakistan: Here We Go Again After grabbing power for the fifth time in 52 years, Pakistan's generals may put in place a civilian government sooner rather than later

Timeline The ups and downs of Pakistan's recent history

Indonesia Win or lose, B.J. Habibie stands in the shadows

Malaysia Speculation continues over the election date

Precedent Can Anwar run for Parliament from Prison?

India Will the new government survive?

Into Thin Air How to sell a candidate

Vajpayee The Indian PM remains beholden to his Hindu nationalist benefactors. Yet increasingly he is being his own man

Viewpoint India elected an old PM with new friends

  RELATED STORIES
ASIAWEEK
India's Election: Slander Rules
The BJP is once again targeting Sonia Gandhi in a 'presidential-style' campaign (10/01/99)

CNN
Vajpayee takes office amid crisis in Pakistan
(10/13/99)

Victory for Vajpayee in India
(10/07/99)

TIME
India: Now Go To Work
Vajpayee gets another chance in India. It's time to deliver (10/18/99)

But Vajpayee's victory is less impressive when examined closely. The BJP election machine stalled at 182 seats, exactly the number of seats it held in the last Parliament. The coalition's increased majority came from the successes of the smaller, mostly regional, groups and the addition of new allies that together make up the 24-party Alliance. So the actual BJP "content" of the coalition has fallen from 70% before the election to 60%. It was the defection of just one small party that caused the government to fall last April and triggered the latest elections.

Yet there were signs that the new coalition may prove durable. The process of forming the government went smoothly. "We're not expecting any trouble from our allies," said senior BJP leader P. Kumaramanglum. "Unlike last year, there have been no differences of opinion, no bickering over portfolios." Add to that election fatigue - India has held three national elections in as many years - and the utter disarray evident in Congress.

There was plenty of bickering at Congress headquarters. Several Congress satraps like former finance minister Manmohan Singh lost their seats. As the outlines of the debacle became clearer, Sonia Gandhi retreated into her old reclusive self. Introspection, she said, was the need of the hour. But the younger generation of Congress leaders felt this was not enough. Heads must roll, and roll they did. There was a spate of resignations from party office-bearers as those younger leaders who had won their seats got the purge they wanted.

The country as a whole reacted positively to the prospect of a stable government, especially after the Alliance crossed the psychological barrier of 300 seats. One of the first happy images of the new regime was of brokers in the Bombay Stock Exchange sending up clusters of balloons to mark the Sensex piercing the 5,000 mark. Another positive indication came from the international credit agency, Moody's Investor Service, which revised its outlook for India from stable to positive after the results were announced.

The reactions of the markets indicated confidence that the new government would downplay controversial and divisive sectarian issues, like the construction of a Hindu temple at Ayodhya where militants had destroyed a mosque, and concentrate on boosting the economy. Vajpayee had hinted at a five-year moratorium on the party's Hindu nationalist agenda or Hindutva, during the campaign. Given the nature of the Alliance, most political observers agree that the BJP would gain more by projecting a secular face for its second coming.

"The clear message of 1999 is that people are looking forward to stable polity to ensure rapid socio-economic development," said the triumphant Vajpayee. Political analyst Yogendra Yadav says that "if some BJP leaders make noises about a return to Hindutva, it will be more for the sake of the party's brand recognition than anything else. Otherwise, what will differentiate the BJP from Congress?" To be watched is the forthcoming visit of Pope John Paul II and any action against Christian non-government organizations.

The 100-day agenda for the new government lists 11 pieces of legislation, which the BJP will try to pass in the next session of Parliament. They include: key infrastructure projects like construction of highways and improving primary education and the availability of drinking water. Among the other pending measures - many of which got stuck in passage when the government fell in April - are bills to curb money laundering, address crimes in cyberspace and open up the insurance sector to foreign equity investment.

"I'm convinced we'll see a government that will put the economy and business issues on the front-burner and politically sensitive and socially contentious issues on the back-burner," says Amit Mitra, secretary-general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. The ministry of finance is also said to have its own new agenda for ushering in the next generation of reforms. "All in all, there is a feeling that the government will get cracking on the economy," says economist Sanyaja Baru.

But while the markets cheer the return of the BJP - or at least a stable government - Vajpayee must still address a host of challenges. Foremost is dealing with Pakistan, where his counterpart Nawaz Sharif has been ousted. Then there are the individual state leaders within India and their parochial concerns. Even before the prime minister could be sworn in, Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala was demanding a roll-back in diesel prices. The government did not oblige, but this might have been an early indication of things to come. The PM must also raise money to cover the costs of the war in Kashmir and to bail out the deepening fiscal crisis in several states.

Handling Pakistan, keeping relations on track with China and building a national consensus on signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty will be the foreign-policy priorities. But in the end, the measure of the new government's success or failure will be whether it delivers or not to the people at home.

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