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Leading Article: A new chance for Indian democracy

INDIA'S CONGRESS party is facing a prodigious task if it is to win enough parliamentary backing to form the country's next government. Having led the country to independence and ruled it for most of the past 50 years, Congress is the most likely successor to the 13-month-old coalition government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The coalition lost a confidence motion earlier this week by one vote.

Congress, however, has only 139 MPs, well short of the 271 it needs to form a government. Its pool of future leaders is so uninspiring that the party has had to turn to Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born wife of the assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in the hope that her famous surname will give the party some electoral charisma.

But the increase of corruption and regionalism without ideology that has blighted Indian politics has not disappeared with the collapse of the BJP coalition. The BJP was defeated when it lost the support of the 18 MPs from a South Indian party run by Jayaram Jayalalitha. The film actress turned politician is famous not only for her collection of 10,500 saris and 350 pairs of shoes but also for bribes she is alleged to have taken while chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu. She decided to pull out of the government coalition when the BJP refused to sack the present governor of Tamil Nadu, where she and her associates face 48 corruption charges.

The BJP's government was mainly, but not all, bad. It did little to prevent a wave of violence against Christians and continued with nuclear testing. However, it did manage to negotiate February's Lahore Accord with Pakistan, in which India and Pakistan agreed to give advance warning of missile tests. The BJP government brought a measure of stability to India and showed the Congress that it had a fight on its hands. The decision by Congress to pass the BJP's budget has buoyed up the Indian stock-market and gained plaudits for its responsibility. What it really proves is that the parties essentially agree on the economic management of the country.

None the less, it does matter who is in power. The insurance industry, roads and rail all need to be modernised if the economy is to grow. Improvements to India's ailing infrastructure cannot occur without government backing; government backing is impossible when policy is in the hands of short- lived, bickering coalitions.

India's bureaucrats and superb judiciary have saved the country from the army coups and hyper-inflation of South East Asia and South America. But while the economy is still largely run by bureaucrats, it is unable to fulfil its subcontinent-sized potential. India may need to change its political system to the French model - with its combination of president and prime minister - if Indian democracy is to pull out of its spiral of descent.