Crucial vote for Indian coalition

A confidence vote in the Indian parliament today will determine whether the 13-party coalition can remain in power. Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda refused all week to buckle under pressure to step aside after a key ally, the Congress party, withdrew support on Easter Sunday.

Many doubt that Mr Gowda can shore up enough support for his left-leaning United Front to rule, now Sitaram Kesri, president of the Congress party, has turned on him. But the United Front has no intention of complying with Mr Kesri's demands that Congress form the next government. "No serious political party would change its leader under pressure from the outside," a United Front leader, Surjeet Singh, said last night. "It's final. We will go to the people."

For Mr Gowda to retain leadership today, either the right-wing Hindu Bharatitya Janata Party (BJP) must abstain from voting, which is unlikely, as they stand to gain most from the fall of the government, or renegade Congress party members must break ranks and side with him.

Congress, which backed the United Front coalition from the outside, was humiliated in elections last spring after corruption charges were filed against party leaders.

Mr Kesri objects to the United Front's pursuit of allegedly corrupt officials within Congress. The former farmer from Karnataka is raking up dirt on the former Congress prime minister, Narasimha Rao, and Mr Kesri himself.

Mr Kesri blamed Mr Gowda's government for failing to stem the rise of the BJP, which now controls the Punjab and will take turns heading the state government of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state. He also protested against the Prime Minister's recent meeting with Bal Thackeray, head of the fundamentalist Shiv Sena (Shiva's Army) in Bombay.

Critics accuse Mr Kesri, 82, of putting his own survival ahead of his party, and there are fears that Congress may split over his brash gamble to unseat Mr Gowda.

Questions about sleaze are still unanswered. Mr Kesri may have timed his move to ward of investigations into his own finances; he had long been the Congress party treasurer and was thought to be above lining his own pockets when he was cited for "accumulating disproportionate assets" and then fined for income tax evasion.

Mr Kesri apparently fears the Prime Minister was plotting to frame him in a lurid murder trial, and reportedly confided this to Jyoti Basu, a communist leader from Calcutta, and two other statesmen who attempted to broker a deal between the former allies.

After police questioned Mr Kesri about the kidnapping and brutal killing of his personal physician, Dr Surendra Tanwar, he was livid with Mr Gowda for allowing the investigation to be reopened. The doctor's body was found in a Delhi suburb in October 1993.

According to Vinod Mehta, the editor of a newsweekly in the Indian capital, Congress "has jeopardised a widely popular budget, derailed a historic opportunity to mend relations with Pakistan and undermined investor confidence ... to satisfy the irrational whims of a reckless geriatric."