By Robert Marquand , writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
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. …