India bundles out PM after 12 days in office

Hindu nationalists set record for shortest-lived government since 1947, writes Tim McGirk
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The Independent Online
New Delhi - India's shortest-lived government in recent history fell yesterday, 12 days after Atal Behari Vajpayee, leader of the Hindu nationalists, took office.

Mr Vajpayee resigned yesterday rather than face a humiliating no-confidence motion in the New Delhi parliament which would have revealed that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government was nearly 100 seats short of the 272 seats needed for a majority.

The Hindu nationalists had watered down their mix of religion and politics, but their last-minute concessions to India's 120 million Muslims failed to win over any MPs. The BJP may be India's largest party, but its Hindu chauvinism has scared away many of the smaller regional parties Mr Vajpayee so desperately sought.

During a two-day scalding of the Hindu nationalists by the opposition parties in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament), Mr Vajpayee, 69, a genteel poet and statesman, declared: "I have an aversion to the kind of politics that is being practised today. I want to quit politics, but politics will not quit me." Soon after, Mr Vajpayee pushed his way through a crowd of BJP supporters gathered outside the bullring-shaped parliament and delivered his resignation to the Indian President, Shankar Dayal Sharma. Mr Vajpayee's term was the shortest of any prime minister in India's 49 years of independence.

With no party close to approaching a majority, the President may turn next to the second-placed Congress Party of Narasimha Rao. But a Congress spokesman said Mr Rao would refuse the offer and instead give his backing to a centre-left coalition known as the United Front. With Congress and the far-left parties backing this coalition from outside, the United Front's leader, Deve Gowda, may be ready to form a government by tomorrow.

The United Front may last longer in office than Mr Vajpayee did, but not a single political observer in New Delhi is willing to bet that Mr Gowda serves his full five years. Some observers predict that the United Front may fall apart within months or even weeks.

The United Front - 13 parties lumped together for the single purpose of driving the BJP out of power - can easily come unstuck now that Mr Vajpayee is out. The leftists, regional and lower-caste parties within the front are missing any common thread.

The United Front may also be missing a strong leader. Mr Gowda, 63, is the coalition's third choice, after a former prime minister, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, and Jyoti Basu, the Communist leader, both looked at the odds facing a United Front government and swiftly refused. Able and reputedly honest, Mr Gowda is unknown outside his native state, Karnataka, where he served as chief minister.

A farmer and a vegetarian, he portrays himself as a simple man, preferring roadside curry stands to New Delhi's posh hotels. Like many other Indian politicians, Mr Gowda leans heavily on pet astrologers. No stargazer, though, could have foreseen the bizarre twist of events that led to him becoming a potential prime minister. He will be India's first prime minister who does not speak Hindi; his native language is Kannada. Mr Gowda is also one of the few lower-caste Hindus elevated to the premiership.

Most prime ministers have belonged either to the priestly Brahmin caste or the Kshatriya warrior caste.

What might make Mr Gowda's government more durable than the BJP's is his moderation. He will press ahead with the economic reforms, started by the Congress, which knocked the 40-year-old rust off India's socialist economy. Mr Gowda's first task will be to choose who, among the 13 parties in the coalition, are given the key ministerial portfolios. Everyone, it seems, is fighting for the finance and home ministries.

Mr Gowda met last night with the President, who is expected to give him a month before proving his majority in the Lok Sabha. In these tumultuous times of Indian politics, anything could happen by then. In an impasse, the Hindu nationalists are likely to push for mid-term polls.