Indian regime set to lose vote of confidence

Collapse of newly elected right-wing Hindu party bodes ill for stability, writes Tim McGirk
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New Delhi - India's new Hindu nationalist government looks set to fall today, less than a fortnight after taking power. The opposition parties are pushing through a no confidence motion in parliament which the minority government of Atal Behari Vajpayee is unlikely to survive.

The collapse of the right-wing Hindu party's leadership will probably usher in a series of short-lived and quarrelsome coalition governments. After recent elections, no party is close to a majority in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

From the moment Mr Vajpayee, 69, was sworn in on 16 May as leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the largest group in parliament, he has been scrambling to muster support for his minority government but without success. Fearing possible defections, the opposition left-wing parties corralled their MPs inside a state guest house in New Delhi, keeping them well fed and far away from the BJP's coaxings.

In today's vote, the Hindu nationalist party and its allies may fail by 60 or 70 seats to grasp the needed majority. It will be challenged by the United Front (UF), a hastily assembled coalition of 13 parties which must rely on outside backing from the Congress party, led by the outgoing Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao.

The next contender for Prime Minister is Dev Gowda, leader of the UF and master of humility. "I will not describe myself as an economic reformer. I am just a peasant. I know what is good for the poor people," he said recently. Mr Gowda's first task of choosing a cabinet - one that will keep all 13 parties and Congress happy - will be the test of whether Mr Gowda is the dozy country bumpkin he pretends to be.

With the future so uncertain, all party leaders sought help at the weekend from the divine. Mr Vajpayee visited the Sikh's holy shrine, the Golden Temple, and the Hindu Durgiana Mandir, both in Amritsar, Punjab, while Mr Gowda ventured south to pray to Hindu gods. Mr Rao had offerings performed in his residence by pundits, though his favourite guru, Chandraswamy, is in jail facing criminal charges.

In parliament yesterday, Mr Vajpayee played down his party's reputation for religious chauvinism. "India would never become a theocratic state... Even if such a demand were made in the future, we will oppose it tooth and nail," he told the Lok Sabha while his opponents hooted.

Trying to shed its image as a party which appeals only to the upper-caste Hindus, Mr Vajpayee had appointed a Muslim, a tribal and an untouchable Hindu to his stillborn cabinet. But the Congress speaker, Sharad Pawar, dismissed this as mere illusion and jeered at the BJP for selecting "an ornamental Muslim".

Mr Vajpayee accused the other parties of "ganging up" on the BJP. What the premier says is true: the UF is united only in keeping the Hindu nationalists out of power. Now that they are succeeding in ousting the BJP, Mr Gowda's unruly team of left-wingers, lower-caste parties and regional strongmen may start feuding once they have moved into their plush government bungalows and start riding around New Delhi in their bullet-proof Ambassador cars.

A self-confessed yokel like Mr Gowda may be easily mastered by the Congress party leader, Mr Rao, a consummate intriguer. The Congress said it would endorse a UF government as long as it followed "pro-poor" policies, but Mr Rao's support may have many hidden strings.

Mr Vajpayee has not accomplished much for India during his brief term in power, but the Hindu nationalists are pursuing longer-term goals. The BJP strategists are confident that the leftist coalition will inevitably shatter and Congress will withdraw its backing for Mr Gowda. Then India will face another round of punishing mid-term polls. Mr Vajpayee is hoping that the tameness shown by the BJP during its brief tenure will convince the voters that only the Hindu nationalists can restore stability to Mother India.