Collapse of coalition talks propels India into election

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INDIA, THE stop-go state, went into stop mode yesterday when party leaders and the President admitted failure in their attempts to find an alternative to the government toppled by a single vote 10 days ago. The caretaker Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, asked the President to dissolve the Lok Sabha (House of Commons) and elections will be called shortly - India's third in three years.

After more than a week of feverish talks between parties,India's political stalemate proved terminal. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which headed the fragile coalition and lost a vote of confidence on 17 April by 270 votes to 269, was unable to lure even a single MP across the barricades.

Congress fared no better. On Tuesday, the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, told President K R Narayanan she was in a position to form a new government, with the support of 272 MPs. But an important ally that had pledged support changed its mind. Congress had hoped to take power with the support of left-wing and lower-caste parties. Among them was the Samajwadi Party, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav.

At state level Mr Yadav's party was locked in battle with Congress and he was forced to renege on his promise.

After Congress admitted failure, the Third Force, which as the United Front ran the previous government, thrust forward the West Bengal communist leader Jyoti Basu as its choice for prime minister. With support from Congress, it might have worked. But Congress decided that even a mid- term election - the 5th such election since 1979 - was preferable to such a messy fudge.

Thus the BJP's first extended spell in government ended in confusion. The surprise is that it lasted as long as it did, and that was Mrs Gandhi's doing. From the start, the prima donna of Tamil Nadu, Jayaram Jayalalitha, had threatened to withdraw her vital 18 MPs if the government failed to do her bidding. Mr Vajpayee did what was politically feasible to keep her happy, but her demands were outrageous. Frustrated, she might have pulled the plug at any moment, but for more than a year Mrs Gandhi gave her no encouragement. Only in the past month did Congress apparently lose its nerve and tip Ms Jayalalitha the wink.

Congress had declined to act before because India was fed up with one election after another, and Mrs Gandhi insisted her party cultivate an image of responsibility in contrast to its former rampant opportunism. This posture lent the BJP-led government an air of solidity it did not deserve.

Yet in other respects the BJP had earned a turn at national power. In the minds of millions of Indians, particularly among the urban lower middle class, it represented the only clear-cut alternative to Congress, which has ruled India for most of the past 50 years. The BJP's leaders were seen as patriotic and untainted by scandal.

For the common man, the new government did exactly the right thing by staging the nuclear tests last May, soon after it came to power. But their inexperience in operating the levers of government was palpable. Towards the end of the year the price of onions and tomatoes - two staples - shot up. Many believe this was due to hoarding by BJP supporters bent on making money while the BJP sun shone and confident (rightly so) that the government would not dare to act against them.

The other stain on the BJP's record was the licence given to fanatical groups on the extreme right of the nationalist movement to attack Christians with impunity.

In four key states Congress support is on the rise. For millions in the countryside Sonia, despite her Italian origin, is a Gandhi and a figure around whom the party has united. That is enough.