Congress split shatters myth of Indian unity

With the elections has come the end of an era in politics, but the outcome remains unclear. Tim McGirk reports

New Delhi - All the technicolour chaos of the Indian elections - with its cast of campaigning eunuchs, cow herders, Marxists, and film stars - is reducible to one clear result: Indians are disgusted with their politicians. Come election time, any member of parliament in India faces being dumped. And the Congress Party, which has governed India for all but four years since independence, has been dumped - hard.

The president, SD Sharma, has advised the Congress prime minister, Narasimha Rao, to resign, but last night he had yet to issue a response.

Indians have reasons to be resentful of Congress. Look at what this marvellously multi-faceted country has accomplished in 50 years: it can (probably) deliver a nuclear bomb; it can launch satellites and, barring a weak monsoon, it can feed its 920 million people. What it cannot do is provide most of its people with jobs, clean drinking water, schools, and medical care. This is the fault of politicians, who wear the simple khadi cotton of Mahatma Gandhi, but are among the most venal anywhere.

During campaigning, astrologers and pollsters jostled for front-page space. The only poll that made sense was one carried on Monday by the Times of India, in which 25,000 voters were asked: "How would you describe the work done by your MP in the last five years?". Fifty-three per cent replied "nothing", while 17 per cent said "very little". Elections are the one time at which Indians can vent their anger, and this they have done.

Final results will not be tallied until today, but Congress seems doomed to its worst defeat ever. Even in the southern and western states, considered to be Congress strongholds, voters revolted against Mr Rao's party. Safe states such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka were all falling to Congress's opponents. Midway through counting, it appeared that Congress would lose nearly half its seats. At most, Congress may scoop just 135-140 seats, far below the majority it needs in the 543- seat Lok Sabha, the lower house.

Congress officials yesterday conceded defeat. The party was beset by a corruption scandal, defections, and a suicidal alliance made by Mr Rao in Tamil Nadu with Jayalalitha, a blimp-like former starlet. But the rot ran far deeper.

Nehru's Congress dominated for so long because it was meant to be a mirror of Indian society.

That mirror has cracked, splitting the Congress - and the nation - into a thousand fragments. Few in India believe that the secularism offered by Congress today is anything but an illusion. Muslims left Congress; they mistrusted Mr Rao after he failed to stop Ayodhya's mosque from being torn down by Hindus. Lower- caste Hindus deserted for more radical parties demanding social change and upper-caste voters left to join the right-wing Hindu parties, which they believed best protected their supremacy.

The election count also shows that a predicted tidal wave by the Hindu right failed to materialise. The simple reason is that there are relatively few upper-caste Hindus at the pinnacle of this social pyramid, while multitudes of lower-caste Hindus seethe underneath. Nevertheless, the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies may emerge as the largest bloc in parliament, with a predicted 175-185 seats. Supporters proclaimed that the BJP's defeat of Congress was "a landmark in India's history". But the BJP also appears to be falling short of a majority.

Right-wing Hindus may find few takers to form a coalition. Their anti- Muslim rhetoric, coupled with their upper-caste bias, will ensure that the BJP will never hitch up with the second-placed party, the National Front-Left Front, a fragile amalgam of socialists, Marxists, lower-caste parties, Muslims and regional autocrats. The NF-LF is set to amass more seats than Congress, between 140 and 150. The BJP's best bet is to coax over some Congress MPs.

If the BJP leader, Atal Behari Vajpayee, fails to patch together a government, the NF-LF may try its hand. The leftists, too, will chase the remaining Congress MPs to be partners. Left-wing leaders, such as VP Singh, a former premier, has already opened talks with Congress rebels who want to oust Mr Rao. If the rebels succeed in their coup against Mr Rao, the NF-LF will deal directly with Congress. But if Mr Rao clings on, the NF-LF may try to lure away a breakaway faction.

The NF-LF has no shortage of prime ministerial aspirants. Everyone within the alliance, it seems, wants the job. But the front-runner is Jyoti Basu, 80, a realpolitik communist who has been chief minister of West Bengal state for 19 years.

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