Delhi vote threatens to topple coalition

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THE FATE of India's 13-month Hindu nationalist government was hanging by a thread last night after the first round of a two-day parliamentary debate on its future.

The Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, yesterday tabled a confidence motion in his Bharatiya Janata Party-led government on the insistence of President Kocheril Raman Narayanan after the withdrawal of a key ally from the 18-member coalition.

A vote will be taken tomorrow, but the future of the government deprived of the crucial support of former film star Jayalalitha Jayaram and the 18 MPs of her All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party looks bleak.

However if the government is toppled - making it the fifth to go in four years - it is far from clear which party will emerge to form a new, probably equally unstable, coalition.

Sonia Gandhi's Congress party is the second largest in parliament. But it may choose to support an alliance of non-BJP parties without formally joining them in government, rather than attempting to lead its own coalition.

The contentious debate took place yesterday against the threatening back- drop of neighbouring Pakistan's second missile test in two days. Both missile launches, of the Shaheen I and the earlier Ghauri II, showed that Islamabad is capable of striking deep into India. Pakistan had responded to Sunday's firing by India of its Agni II intermediate range ballistic missile in much the same way it trumped Delhi's decision to test five nuclear devices last May with six explosions of its own.

During yesterday's debate, the leader of the Congress party in Parliament, Sharad Pawar, criticised the BJP for launching of the Agni II, saying it was a direct contradiction to the prime minister's much-publicised efforts to reduce tensions with Pakistan.

However, analysts believe that if Congress or another coalition grouping comes to office after tomorrow's vote, none would have the power to conduct meaningful discussions with Pakistan, leaving the fractious neighbours in an uncomfortable limbo. Prem Shankar Jha, a leading political commentator, said: "If the BJP loses, everything will go on hold: talks with the US, talks with Pakistan. And going on hold means going backwards." But in the fractured landscape of Indian politics the big picture of national security takes a backseat, even though Ms Jayalalitha's excuse for withdrawing her support for the government was the controversial sacking of the Navy chief. Few doubt that the real motivation behind the move was that the BJP administration rebuffed her demand that it sack the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) state government of Tamil Nadu, where she and her associates face 48 corruption charges.

Consequently the DMK and its leader M Karunanidhi are among the many smaller parties, many not natural allies of the BJP, that government ministers have been frantically wooing for the past week.

With 39 parties in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament where yesterday's debate took place, the permutations are mind-boggling and almost impossible to predict before tomorrow's vote. The Congress with a handful of loyal allies controls 145 lawmakers in the fragmented 545- member lower house, far short of the 272 seats required to form a government. Several regional parties and Communists bitterly opposed to the BJP have said they would support an alternative government, with or without Congress participation.

But analysts say Congress would ideally have liked to have waited until next year before striking. Several state elections are planned then, in which it is expected to do well. "I am not sure if the Congress wants to play on this wicket. It is a fragmented house where anyone can hold you to ransom." said Ashish Nandy, a political analyst. Despite assertions by the prime minister that his party will cross the threshold for a simple majority, he would appear to be at least 14 seats short. Yet it is impossible to rule out tactical abstentions by the smaller parties to keep the BJP in power, rather than foist another general election on voters already jaded by the shenanigans of the politicians.