New Indian PM tipped to do a vanishing act

Tim McGirk New Delhi
Wednesday 15 May 1996 23:02

India is now a country where everybody wants to become Prime Minister but nobody can hold the job. The record for the shortest stay in office may soon belong to Atal Behari Vajpayee, leader of the right-wing Hindu party, who was appointed Prime Minister yesterday and given until 31 May to prove his majority. Mr Vajpayee's premiership may be doomed to last no longer.

The latest elections have left India hamstrung, without a majority party. Mr Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the largest now in parliament, was given first crack at forming the new government. But the BJP, with its brand of communal politics, has many enemies; nearly all other parties have rallied against it, and although Mr Vajpayee is a poet of persuasive oratorical power, he probably cannot recruit the necessary MPs to buttress his minority government. The BJP and its Hindu revivalist allies need to find 69 others for a majority in the Lok Sabha.

At party headquarters in New Delhi, a gaudy pink chariot with painted horses is parked under the trees. The BJP leaders had ridden around in it like Hindu gods during the campaign but Mr Vajpayee last night seemed terribly mortal, bowed by the ungodly task of trying to forge a lasting government with too few men. Mr Vajpayee, who is in his sixties, looked weary rather than jubilant as he shuffled up to the stage, dwarfed by bodyguards.

He told supporters: "It's true we didn't get a clear majority but the vote was a mandate against the Congress Party, which has suffered a devastating defeat." In the next two weeks the Hindu nationalists will court MPs from smaller regional parties with promises of portfolios - 60 cabinet posts are to be dished out. Cabinet appointments for two BJP allies, the Akali Dal and the Haryana Vikas Party, are expected today. The BJP is also trying to lure in the regional parties by promising to give states greater freedom from New Delhi's steely grip.

A post-election survey identified Mr Vajpayee as the most popular choice for prime minister but his party is less popular than he is, for the BJP has been blamed in recent years for stirring up hatred between the Hindu majority and India's 120 million Muslims.

Mr Vajpayee suffered a blow yesterday when the regional parties united to throw their votes behind the BJP's main rival for power, the National Front-Left Front (NF-LF), a quarrelsome alliance of Communists, regional parties and parties representing Muslims and lower-caste Hindus.

The NF-LF's disarray was evident in that it took three days to choose a leader. Eventually, it rallied behind HD Deve Gowda, Chief Minister of Karnataka state. Asked to comment on his selection as a possible Prime Minister, Mr Gowda replied cryptically: "I've known happier sorrow in my life. I take sorrow and joy spontaneously."

But it was not for his oracular witticisms that Mr Gowda was chosen: he was a compromise choice acceptable to the Congress Party, which yesterday pledged "unconditional support" to a possible NF-LF government led by Mr Gowda.

A moderate, he is likely to leave untampered the economic reforms started by PV Narasimha Rao's Congress government. Still, Congress support is likely to be anything but unconditional. It is refusing to join the NF- LF as coalition partner, preferring to support it from the outside. Mr Rao is also wary of hitching his Congress Party to a government that may be as short-lived as the BJP's.

The NF-LF leaders last night demanded the President reverse his choice of Mr Vajpayee to lead the next government. "This has opened the door for horse-trading between now and 31 May," said an NF-LF spokesman. In the past, during key no-confidence votes, MPs who developed illnesses and missed parliament were later alleged to have taken bribes. Political observers will be watching who, on 31 May, catches a cold. Leading article, page 20

State of the parties

BJP and allies 195

Congress and allies 138

NF-LF 117

Others 84

Total seats declared 534

There are 545 seats in total. Counting in nine constituencies will take place in May / June. The President appoints the remaining two members.

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