Muddy Politics? We Like It That Way, Say Indians

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The more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite trouncing its opposition at the polls, India's sixth government in three years looks set to be every bit as fragile as the fifth. Although Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata party-led alliance had won 284 of the 543 parliamentary seats according to projections released Thursday, his 24-party coalition may be bedeviled by the same fractiousness that brought down his last government in May. If anything, the results confirmed the trend away from the two dominant parties in the world's largest democracy. "Some observers had expected a swing back to the two large national parties, but this result was a resounding endorsement of coalition politics," says TIME New Delhi correspondent Maseeh Rahman. "With a 15- or 20-seat majority, Vajpayee’s government can once again be held to ransom by smaller parties with narrow agendas." The outlook is considerably worse, of course, for the other national party, Sonia Gandhi’s Congress, which looks to have won only 113 seats – its worst result since India's independence.

The decline of the national parties may pose a Herculean challenge for anyone trying to govern, but it also paradoxically reflects a growing political consensus in India. This election was principally a personality contest between Vajpayee and Gandhi; their parties are in broad accord on issues ranging from economic reform to nuclear weapons to the conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir. "Indian democracy may produce unstable governments, but the country’s political and economic direction has been remarkably stable for most of the decade," says Rahman. No matter who's at the wheel, the broad policy direction remains the same. And that has many voters making their electoral choices on a more parochial basis. Or not at all — voter turnout was only 58 percent, which is low for India.