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India's coalition felled by first lady of misrule

THE 13-MONTH-OLD Indian government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fell by a single vote yesterday, and all because of an almost spherical lady politician named Jayalalitha.

For Indian journalists, the former movie queen with the very pale skin and the genteel English accent, who has 10,500 saris and 350 pairs of shoes and whose twinkling gold cape and sari conceals (it is rumoured) a bullet-proof vest, has long been a source of innocent merriment.

Ever since the BJP took office, however, Jayaram Jayalalitha has been a disaster waiting to happen, and yesterday disaster duly arrived. The 18 MPs loyal to Ms Jayalalitha's party, the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham Party, had been a vital part of the fragile coalition when it was formed in March last year. But right from the start she threatened trouble, besieging the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, with extravagant demands.

Last week she did what she had so long threatened and pulled the plug, informing President K R Narayanan that she was withdrawing her party's support from the government. Yesterday, despite days spent negotiating with an assortment of minority parties, the government lost a crucial vote of confidence in parliament by a single vote. Over the next few days it will become clear whether India must go through yet another general election nobody wants.

For this state of affairs, Ms Jayalalitha is squarely to blame. The faults of Mr Vajpayee's government have been many and glaring. With its supporters in the paranoid Hindu right, its rampant militarism, its winking at the unprecedented wave of violence against Christians, it has been in many ways a sinister administration. But it gave India something which compensated for most of its failings: the beginnings of stability, consistency and coherence.

Its predecessor, the ludicrously mis-named United Front (UF) government, comprising a rabble of bickering minority parties, never got that far. But Mr Vajpayee's government, dominated by his own BJP, with allies like Ms Jayalalitha relegated to the sidelines, had the vital ingredient of coherence which the UF government lacked. It wasn't pretty, but at least it was going somewhere.

Ms Jayalalitha's strike last week, in contrast, marks the triumph of all that is negative and destructive in Indian politics: the triumph of petty regionalism over national interest, the triumph of greed and corruption over legal and political process, and the apotheosis of a personality cult that is grotesque by any standards.

Revolutionary Leader, Walking Goddess, Primordial Power, Mother - the forms by which Ms Jayalalitha is required to be addressed are many, but all emphasise the near-mythical, god-like dimension of the stature she enjoys in her base in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Starting where her late mentor and lover, the film star turned politician M G Ramachandran left off, she owed her early success to the awe in which she was held by the uneducated masses who flocked to the films in which she starred.

Screened by awe and mystification, she abused power in the immemorial way of sleazy Indian politicians. While chief minister, it is alleged, she embezzled tens of millions of rupees in kickbacks.

When she fell from power in the state in 1995, her successor ensured that she was put on trial for her crimes, and she has already spent time in prison before her bail came through. Her party's participation in the national government had two principal aims: to have the cases against her quashed, and the present government of Tamil Nadu dismissed.

Mr Vajpayee's government compliantly ensured that her corruption cases will meander through the justice system for a long time yet. But her rival's government remains in place in Madras. Ms Jayalalitha pulled out of Mr Vajpayee's coalition because she saw it becoming imperilled, with Congress growing more aggressive, and she wanted to be well placed to make her mark on the next administration.

What happens next is far from clear. Ms Jayalalitha is too tainted and unpredictable to make a tempting coalition partner for Congress, even if she swallows her objection to a "foreigner" - the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi - ruling India. The "third force" looks even weaker and more fragmented than before. The uncertainty will persist for some time - and presiding over it, India's first lady of misrule.