Gandhi claims majority support

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The Independent Online
THE FOG of uncertainty hanging over the Indian political scene appeared to clear briefly yesterday Sonia Gandhi, the Congress leader, announced she had the backing of a majority of MPs and would shortly form a government.

After 30 minutes of talks with President Kocheril Raman Narayanan, the Italian-born widow of the former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, said that Congress had the support of 272 MPs in Parliament's lower chamber and would provide letters of proof within two days.

But almost before the dust had settled from her departing Ambassador car, the ousted Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) denounced her claims as "totally misleading". It pointed to several BJP opponents still publicly wavering in their endorsement of a Congress administration.

The BJP caretaker Home Minister, Lal Krishna Advani, met the President later in the day, pressing his party's claim that with pledges of support from 269 MPs - two short of a majority - it ought to be allowed to try to form a government.

The day of to-ing and fro-ing outside the President's residence heralded the start of many meetings he is due to have with political groups of every hue in the search for a stable government.

President Narayanan seized the initiative after four days of stalemate since the Hindu nationalist-led coalition was brought down by one vote in a confidence motion forced when one of its allies deserted.

The meetings were timed to begin after a special sitting of the House to pass the Budget and avert a government financial crisis. But it was adjourned after three attempts ended in uproar as angry MPs accused opponents of "horse-trading".

As leader of the second largest party in Parliament, Mrs Gandhi was first to meet President Narayanan.

Afterwards, fielding questions with a confidence that belied her 18 months' experience as a politician, she indicated Congress's intention to head the government that party bosses maintain she will lead as India's first non-Hindu prime minister. However, she conceded she had not yet won over the Samajwadi Party, which has a vital block of 20 votes, apparently giving the lie to her bold assertion that Congress had 272 in the bag.

Question marks still hang over several groups on the left, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Block, which jointly command seven votes and are reluctant to join the Congress bandwagon.

The apparent contradictions were seized on by K L Sharma, the BJP vice- president, who demanded Congress publish the list of all its supporters.

But the bluster and the BJP's attempt to stake a claim to form a new government is as much about giving Mrs Gandhi a rough ride as any realistic attempt to regain power.