Sun sets over ruling parties in old Empire

Andrew Marshall, Foreign Editor, on the sudden demise of India's Congress Party and South Africa's Nationalists Party and South Africa's Nationalists could be
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The Independent Online
Within the space of a few hours yesterday, the parties that ran India and South Africa more or less for 50 years were both out of power, and looking set for long periods in the political wilderness.

The Congress party in India took a drubbing at the hands of the voters, and was heading for its worst election result ever. "There is no denial of this fact that people have rejected us," said Pranab Mukherjee, the Foreign Minister, grimly.

South Africa's National Party (NP) stepped out of government to protest at the country's new constitution, but also because tensions in the government of national unity had become too much. "The National Party has felt for some time now that our influence within the government of national unity has been declining," said FW de Klerk, party leader and vice-President.

Last night, Narasimha Rao, India's Prime Minister, was reported to be preparing to resign today, and the victorious Hindu nationalist BJP was trying to find coalition partners. Mr de Klerk, the Deputy President, and his fellow ministers will leave office on 30 June, allowing time for orderly transition in a government that will continue to be a coalition between Nelson Mandela's African National Congress and the mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party.

There could not, in most respects, be two parties with less in common than Congress and the NP. One has historically been predicated on the overthrow of colonial rule, the other on the maintenance of white domination through apartheid. Congress is avowedly secular, dedicated (in theory) to overcoming the communal differences of a sub-continent. For most of its life, the National Party has built walls to enforce those differences, and done it in the name of religion.

But both have been the overwhelming parties of power in their nations since the end of the Second World War. Both were created largely in reaction to British colonial rule. And both aimed at the governance of multi-ethnic countries that were created by British colonialism, though with diametrically opposed philosophies.

Both face hard tasks in opposition. Congress is exhausted, riven, drained of ideas, and widely regarded as corrupt. Its defeat was long-expected.

The NP has already met its apocalypse - the end of apartheid - and faced it down. It has started to reshape itsimage, but there are hardline party members who will try to stop that. It is an uphill task, and one reason for the party to leave government now is to show voters that the leopard can change its spots before elections in 1999. "We believe that the development of a strong and vigilant opposition is essential for the maintenance and promotion of a genuine multi-party democracy," said Mr de Klerk.

Britain has close ties of blood, history, and trade with both these nations and the efforts of both to create unity out of diversity are hugely significant to us. In South Africa, where bloodshed was predicted, democratic political succession seems to be working, but the rebuilding the nation will take decades. In India there is a serious risk that the victory of the BJP will demonstrate the limits of the nation's post-independence secular vision that Congress once symbolised.

The shattered myth, page 10

Into the wilderness, page 11

Leading article, page 16