Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

India Elections Bring Forth a BJP Governing Coalition but Do Not End Nation's Decade-Long Instability

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

India Elections Bring Forth a BJP Governing Coalition but Do Not End Nation's Decade-Long Instability

Article excerpt

India Elections Bring Forth a BJP Governing Coalition But Do Not End Nation's Decade-Long Instability

India's constitution provides that a new government must be elected every five years. But the country's more than 250 million voters have been forced to go to the polls four times during the past decade. And the results of this year's election, a coalition government headed by Attal Bihari Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has only confirmed the political instability stalemating the second largest country in the world, with a population nearing one billion.

The repeated elections have resulted not from any alteration in the political environment, but from the unwillingness of the coalition components to stay together for long. In large part, it was the leadership of the Indian National Congress Party that caused premature collapses of two coalition governments during this period. Commenting on the current election results, which gave no party a clear majority, the Financial Times of London editorialized on March 5 that India was "condemned once again" to live with a coalition government.

The February-March elections confirmed the reality that the BJP represents the Brahminic elitist north, while the parties from which it was forced to seek support, AIADMK from Tamilnadu and TDP from Andhra Pradesh, represent non-Hindi, southern bastions of Dravidian culture. Thus the latent north-south divide across India surfaced clearly for all to see.

AIADMK leader Jayalalita put recognition of Tamil as an official language as one of the pre-conditions for her party supporting a BJP-led coalition government. She knew very well that there was no chance of her demand being met, because that would open up a Pandora's box of other regional and linguistic claims. But she was making a political statement and putting the Hindi-belt on notice that it cannot ignore the non-Hindi south in national decision-making any more.

LITTLE PLAYERS PLAYING BIG ROLES

The final election tally showed that the BJP group captured 253 of the 545 Lokh Sabha (lower house of parliament) seats, the Congress Party won 166, the United Front (UF) 96, and other groups won 31 seats. This was only slightly different from the 1996 elections. Now BJP has 10 more seats than it had in the previous Lokh Sabha, and the Congress Party has 6 fewer.

These inconclusive results have once again lent undue weight to splinter groups and small parties that are not known outside their states. Similarly, leaders who have local or, at best, statewide political support or name recognition now have been catapulted into decisive roles in forming a coalition government, since any such government needs the support of at least 272 members in the Sabha.

Coalition governments formed with philosophically divergent components entertaining different political goals are often short- lived. However, the splinter groups that enabled the BJP to form a government may temper BJP's bellicosity against lower-caste Hindus and other religious minorities. The tail can be expected to wag the dog, or at least to moderate its conduct, if the smaller players can transcend their restrictive regional agendas and develop broader, long-range national perspectives.

All India Anna Dravida Munatantra Kazagham (AIADMK) of Tamilnadu, led by former Chief Minister Jayalalita, offered "unconditional" support to BJP but initially refused to join a coalition government. She knew that BJP would do almost anything for her very valuable 18 seats. In fact her "unconditional" willingness to help BJP was conditioned by her demand that her rival in Tamilnadu, the DMK state government, be dismissed. Other factions that have joined the BJP camp from other areas also have their own regional or local scores to settle, which they hope to push through a BJP coalition.

Similarly, Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh, who suddenly shot to prominence upon the death of his famous father-in-law, N. …

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