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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

A Check on the BJP
India votes for an old prime minister with new friends
By PANKAJ PACHAURI


photo
PANKAJ PACHAURI
is a senior editor and news anchor with New Delhi Television

After 28 years India has again voted for a sitting prime minister, but the voter has also asked Atal Bihari Vajpayee to change his team. Ditch old friends and select new ones. After an election lasting more than five weeks, the final result for Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was a "zero sum game." The BJP has emerged as the largest partner in the governing coalition but has nearly the same number of MPs as before. The last Vajpayee government fell for lack of one MP. This time he has a clear majority, but the center of gravity has shifted because his partners in the alliance have won many new seats. In fact, the three largest groups in his coalition are new partners who joined him soon before the elections. That gives a clear message to Vajpayee: We trust you, but do not trust your party.

Vajpayee's National Democratic Alliance relied heavily during the election on his personal acceptability across the country. In opinion polls, he was the first choice for prime minister. The BJP managed to rope in new political friends solely because it projected Vajpayee as its candidate for the top job. Now he needs to draw on this quality to steer his administration. The challenges are numerous. First, his alliance is clearly not homogenous. It includes Shiv Sena, a party of rabid Hindu fundamentalists whose chief was denied the right to vote in this election by the Supreme Court for his venomous speeches against the minorities. And on the other side of Vajpayee are leaders of Janata Dal (United), who oppose legislation seeking better representation of women in the legislature.

    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

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

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

Such disparate groups have not come together to rid India of its many ills - population explosion, corruption in public life, illiteracy, inadequate sanitation or something as basic as unavailability of drinking water. They came together to share the spoils of power. To manage their ambitions - and those within his own party - is the first challenge Vajpayee faces. The distribution of portfolios is his immediate headache. But in the flush of newly gained power, this hurdle can be surmounted by juggling demand, supply and egos.

Indian voters have seen this jockeying for power during Vajpayee's last government, pulled down by an ally when its demands were not met. They are aware of the pitfalls of coalition governments, none of which has ever completed its full term. But despite this they have voted in a new alliance. The reason is simple. People do not want an unbridled BJP to take the reins of a nation which lacks social and regional homogeneity. At least two of the current partners in power clearly stated before the elections that if the BJP worked on its Hindu agenda, they will quit the alliance. That threat keeps under check the fundamentalist streak within the BJP.

The party had to abandon its controversial manifesto to put together its winning coalition. Now when its partners are stronger than before, it dare not pick up its plans to rebuild a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, where its supporters demolished an ancient mosque in 1992, or impose a common civil code in a nation where the population of religious minorities is more than half of Europe's. By voting for the BJP's partners in big numbers, the masses - described as millions of illiterate or semi-literate voters by the chief election commissioner - have ensured a delicate power balance in the country.

At the same time by overwhelmingly voting out inefficient governments in many states, the people have also set out another tablet of stone for the new government: perform or perish. The lone state chief minister to be voted back this time is Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh. His technology-based economic reforms have received a big thumbs up by his people. And as if to show the way forward, his party's presence in the national Parliament has been more than doubled. Indeed, his Telugu Desam party is the second-largest group in the government.

For the other national heavyweight party, the Congress, which has ruled India for most of its independent years, the voters seem to have delivered the same message: You need to perform to rule the people. The Congress projected Sonia Gandhi as its lucky mascot. But by giving the party the worst tally in its 110-year history, the voter has told Sonia Gandhi that it is not good enough to be a member of a charismatic dynasty to become a ruler. She too has to work hard to be able to rule a demanding democracy.

The Congress party has already started a series of changes in its ranks. But the big question it faces is about the party president. Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin has driven away many Congress supporters. The urban chattering classes have deserted the Congress ever since it projected her as its prime ministerial candidate. They say their pride is hurt to see a foreigner ruling them. The Indian constitution, which says nothing against it, may be damned.

But all is not lost for the Congress. Despite the drubbing at the polls, it garnered the largest share of the popular vote. It still rules some of the largest states in the country, which could be its pillars for constructing a new edifice. All it has to do is to admit that the Indian voter has changed. The voter can be fooled by catchy slogans sometimes, but not always.

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