India prepares for its sixth PM in six years

The government of Indian Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda last night lost a parliamentary vote of confidence and resigned. Mr Gowda challenged his opponents to face him in new general elections, before going to the presidential mansion to formally tender his resignation.

However, President Shankar Dayal Sharma asked him to contine as caretaker prime minister until new arrangements are made.

The crucial confidence vote in the Lok Sobha, was lost by 292 votes to 158. Surprisingly, there were 6 abstentions.

Political manoeuvres in India, the world's largest democracy, are now starting to rival Italy, as New Delhi prepares for its sixth prime minister in just over six years. No Indian prime minister from outside Congress, the party of the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty, which presided over India's birth as a nation, has ever completed a full five-year term.

Mr Gowda was quickly "hurtling his way to extinction," political columnist Vinod Mehta said, prior to the crucial vote. Since most Indians dread any political deal which might unleash religious separatism, it seemed pragmatic to sacrifice Mr Gowda for stability. Few had expected him to last even 10 months in charge of his squabbling coalition.

Yet most analysts were expecting unlikley political alliances to emerge in order to prevent the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from ruling. It is only a half century since independence wrenched the subcontinent into pieces, and most families in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh (former East Pakistan) still mourn for relatives slaughtered during partition because of their religion.

Sectarian riots blazed across India just five years ago, after Hindu zealots pulled down a controversial mosque at Ayodhya, and tension still runs high.

The BJP holds 162 seats, the largest single party in Parliament, far more than the Congress Party's 140. (The United Front's 178 seats are patched together from over a dozen regional parties.) But BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee, age 70, failed last spring to come up with sufficient allies to form a government. The Congress party, as the traditional advocate of secularism, supported Mr Gowda's motley 13-party alliance from outside primarily to block the BJP.

When Sitaram Kesri, the Congress president, announced on 31 March that he would no longer prop up Mr Gowda's United Front, he blamed the Prime Minister for betraying their mutual stance against communalism by meeting the notorious fundamentalist Bal Thackeray.

Anger against the Congress president for sending the government into free fall without bothering to consult his colleagues was evident in some of the fist-shaking speeches which resounded in the Lok Sabha during over 10 hours of long-winded debate yesterday.

"India cannot be run on personal ego," one coalition member shouted. "We must make adjustments. What are the consequences of elections? Huge expenses and injustice to the people. It is ridiculous to ask for another mandate."