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India's future may hang on whim of a screen goddess

India's national politics is not dead. If you take the gravely magnificent Sikh who heads the Election Commission, Dr MS Gill, at his word, it has never been in better shape. But regional politics, like a horde of maggots, is eating it alive.

Dr Gill and his two fellow commissioners have the job of ensuring India's election runs as smoothly as possible. They stagger polling dates to ensure enough troops in areas of insurgency, reschedule polling in constituencies where rigging has been outrageous, and count the dead. 1998, Dr Gill announced, had been the best Indian election ever. "We are very much satisfied with the manner in which the general elections were conducted," he said on Tuesday, handing formal notification of the results to the President.The turn-out was the highest yet, at 62 per cent; 65 people were killed countrywide, compared to 213 in 1996.

The only thing wrong with the election was the result - or lack of one. Atal Behari Vajpayee, parliamentary leader of the Hindu Nationalist BJP, went to see the President on Tuesday. He congratulated Mr Vajpayee on winning the largest number of seats, though he did not ask him to form the new government, but to produce letters of support from his allies proving he had the wherewithal to do so.

Yesterday at 5pm Mr Vajpayee was supposed to hand over the letters. But there was a hitch. The letter from the BJP's most important, and awkward, ally in the south had yet to arrive. Before the first budget, or confidence vote, even before the formal invitation to govern, Jayalalitha, the ageing icon of south Indian cinema, was putting the boot in.

Commentators have remarked on the number of extraordinary women playing important roles in the election. At least three have emerged with their power greatly enhanced. In the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi now stands on the brink of leadership. And two others will be crucial props to Mr Vajpayee's new government.

With her immaculate appearance, hauteur, precisely enunciated English and crowds of hysterical fans, Jayalalitha is a frightening mixture of Imelda Marcos and Evita Peron. She became one of the biggest stars of Tamil cinema, making 115 films. Then she switched to politics and brought her fans with her.

They retained the fans' mind-set, prostrating themselves at her feet, walking on fire to prove their devotion, coining ever more syrupy titles for her - Walking Goddess, Goddess of the Heart.

She became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1991, and was responsible, it is alleged, for corruption and self-aggrandisement. Beaten in regional election of 1996, she was charged with corruption offences and went to jail. The cases still hang over her, but after a dramatic success in last week's poll, she is bent on revenge. Her promised external support to the BJP government is conditional on their doing two things: dismissing her deadly rival's government in Tamil Nadu and quashing the charges against her. It will be difficult for them to do either.

In West Bengal, Mamata Bannerjee is, by contrast, as homely as an onion, but is another fiery populist. Her link to the BJP is recent and tenuous and her only preoccupation is local. She wants the new government to dismiss the Communist administration in her state, which will be almost impossible.

Since the crumbling of Congress, more Indians vote for regional parties that campaign on purely regional issues. With no national body able to command a majority, these have formidable power, that is eating away at India's ability to produce a government. The answer is constitutional change; but that would require a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Mr Vajpayee will be lucky if he can get a majority of one.