Fall of BJP Government Triggers New Indian Elections; India-Pakistan Relations

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Fall of BJP Government Triggers New Indian Elections; India-Pakistan Relations

There was no principle involved in the toppling of India's right-wing, Hindu-based Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in late April. It came about as the result of a power play on the part of a temperamental and unpredictable regional leader, Jaya Lalitha, whose AIDMK Party controlled 18 crucial seats in the parliament that had helped Prime Minister Behari Vajpayee form the BJP coalition government only 13 months ago.

Lalitha Amma (mother), as the former film star is known by her followers in the state of Tamil Nadu, was unable to get the BJP to meet her demands, which included withdrawal of court cases against her, removal of her chief political rival from provincial government, reinstatement of the navy's chief, Admiral Bhagwat, and dismissal of Defense Minister George Fernandez. When Jaya Lalitha walked away with her 18 votes, the BJP government fell by a margin of one vote (269 to 270).

Jaya Lalitha was encouraged to leave the coalition by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi who now occupies his place as Congress Party chief. However, the events following Vajpayee's resignation showed that no one had worked out the details of forming an alternative government. With no political party commanding a majority vote in the parliament, necessitating a resort to more than half a dozen splinter groups to provide a thin majority, each was bound to ask for its share in the bounty. This horse-trading led to a political stalemate in Delhi with a predictable outcome: the president called for fresh elections.

The Westminster model on which the Indian system is based does not allow for an administration that has lost a vote of confidence to be invited back to form the government. President Narayanan could have asked the opposition to bring a no-confidence motion in the parliament against the BJP. Instead, he asked Vajpayee to seek a vote of confidence for his BJP-based coalition as early as possible.

The president thereby precipitated the crisis which Prime Minister Vajpayee had tried to stave off in various ways.

Soon after signing a landmark Lahore Declaration with Pakistani Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, Vajpayee ordered tests of India's Agni missiles to try to strengthen his public popularity. Pakistan answered the Indian tests with tests of its own with Ghuari and Shaheen missiles, thereby neutralizing the intended domestic political impact of the Indian tests.

Uncertainty is likely to prevail in the politics of India for some time to come. In the absence of any single party enjoying a clear majority, small regional and even local groups will continue to determine the life of a national government. Another significant phenonomen is the presence of powerful regional leaders who have been playing major roles at the national level, as was evident with the stance of Jaya Lalitha in recent months.

BJP has its stalwarts but has not gained nationwide grass-roots support. On the other hand, in recent years Congress lost both its traditional grass-roots support and its top leadership, particularly since Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. Rival party leaders seldom miss an opportunity to remind Sonia that she is a foreigner (vedeshi) by birth -- a slick move that sometimes works.

The call for new elections after only two years in a country with more than 450 million voters is a very costly affair and an administratively stupendous task. What's worse, there is every likelihood that the next election, like the last one, will produce a hung parliament with no party commanding a clear majority. But this was the only route open for President Narayanan to take.

THE PAKISTAN SCENE

The Ehtesab (accountability) bench of the High Court has found former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, guilty of misappropriation of public funds and of money laundering, and has sentenced the pair to five years in prison and a $5 million fine. …