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Rivals woo President to become India's PM

WITH most results from India's general election declared, the nation is once again confronted by monumental uncertainty, from which only criminals and opportunists will profit.

The Hindu nationalist BJP has improved its standing dramatically since the last election, taking, along with its allies, 37 per cent of the vote nationwide and more than 250 seats. But this is still 20 seats short of an overall majority.

Meanwhile, Congress has also improved on its former position, and with its allies holds around 166 seats.

The two groupings will each now work furiously to persuade President K R Nara yanan - whose role is very similar to, and derived from, that of the Crown in the British system - that they deserve to form the next government.

The BJP will do this by recruiting as many of the 20-plus independent MPs as it can. The Congress is already negotiating with the third force, the United Front, about forming a coalition government.

But the decision is the President's alone. He is more than likely to take a punt on the BJP and its venerable candidate for prime minister, Atal Vajpayee.

He will be predisposed in their favour because the BJP is the largest single party, and although it has entered into some unlikely alliances for a nationalist party - with secessionist Sikhs, old-fashioned Socialists and the former film star, Jayalalitha, who has been in prison facing massive corruption charges - these connections were cemented before the election, giving them a certain respectability.

Congress and the UF will have a tougher job impressing him, conversely, because they have made such a hash of things over the past 18 months.

In that arrangement the UF ran the government while Congress propped it up from outside, rather like a flying buttress.

The upshot was two brief, frail premierships, both brought down by Congress.

This time Congress wants to run the government as the dominant partner in a conventional coalition.

Whatever Mr Narayanan's decision, India is in for another debilitating bout of horse-trading from which, as the recent farcical realignments in the Uttar Pradesh state legislature demonstrated, the main beneficiaries will be those politicians rootless and slippery enough to slither from one party to another at short notice.

The victim again will be the Indian nation and people, burdened with another spatchcock government.

The fortunes of the main parties have varied wildly from state to state. In Uttar Pradesh Congress was exterminated, even at Amethi, long known as the "pocket borough" of the Gandhi-Nehru family.

But in Maharashtra, the bridges built by Congress leader Sharad Pawar to Dalits ("Untouchables") and Muslims dealt the BJP's sinister regional ally Shiv Sena a crippling blow.

Also in Uttar Pradesh, Indian romantics will be sorry to learn, the "Bandit Queen" Phoolan Devi has lost her seat after a recklessly indolent first term.