Opportunity Knocks Too Soon for Sonia Gandhi

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Sonia Gandhi ought to be careful of what she wishes for. Having worked hard to oust Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government -- which fell by a single vote Saturday -- Mrs. Gandhi's Congress party now faces the uncomfortable prospect of having to form its own government on the sticky wicket of a hung parliament. "Any government formed in the present parliament will be very unstable," says TIME New Delhi correspondent Maseeh Rahman. Vajpayee's was the fifth national government to fall in three years, because of the instability created by the growth of a slew of regional and fringe parties at the expense of the major parties in the world's largest democracy. "Only new elections can break the deadlock, and those should come by the end of the year," says Rahman. "The danger is that if Sonia leads a shaky coalition into power now, she'll develop the same negative image that Vajpayee suffered from at the head of an unstable government."

Congress had hoped to topple Vajpayee closer to the likely election date in November, and then sweep in Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of slain former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi -- as the savior of a political system that has lost the confidence of its electorate. But the issue was forced by Jayaram Jayalalitha, the former film star who withdrew her minority party from Vajpayee's coalition over corruption charges against her, leaving the government without a parliamentary majority. But with India's economy in the doldrums, Vajpayee's party may relish the opportunity to fight an election against Congress free of the burden of incumbency.