The Putsch Went Poof

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MASEEH RAHMAN New DelhiIndia's politicians never miss an opportunity to extol their country as the world's largest democracy. Their claim isn't just rhetoric. For half a century, despite abject poverty and a population of nearly a billion, India has demonstrated its commitment to an open political system. Unpopular governments get voted out, powerful leaders are humbled at the hustings and parties that misread the public mood pay a heavy price. Sonia Gandhi, head of the Congress Party and the country's newest political star, may pay dearly for orchestrating the defeat in parliament of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's government, and then failing to come up with an alternative. As a result, parliament was dissolved last week, 13 months after it was installed, and Vajpayee now has to assume a caretaker role until fresh general elections, the third since 1996, can be held. There was no issue whatsoever for bringing down the government, complained the defeated Prime Minister, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) heads an 18-party coalition. Is this the way the country should be trifled with?

There was no answer from his main adversary, who withdrew behind the high walls of her New Delhi bungalow to ponder a horrendous miscalculation. Gandhi's carefully cultivated image as a high-minded leader averse to the wheeling and dealing of the political bazaar has been besmirched. What's worse, her failure to form a minority, Congress-only government and her reluctance to cobble together an alternative multi-party coalition has made her appear politically unskilled. With the Congress and other opposition groups blaming one another for the mess, the crowd of supporters outside her home has melted away.

As if by a miracle, the BJP-led coalition suddenly appears stable and united. It lost its majority in parliament after the desertion of 18 legislators who owe allegiance to the mercurial south Indian politician Jayaram Jayalalitha, a target of corruption cases. But instead of collapsing after its defeat, the coalition is holding together. Now its leaders talk of fighting the next elections on a shared political platform. Says Sudheendra Kulkarni, a Vajpayee aide: Out of this crisis, our coalition has come out stronger, more cohesive and more determined to pursue a common program.

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Sonia Gandhi is no outsider, but what qualifies her to lead India?
The coalition's agenda for the next election still has to be firmed up, and the task will not be easy. But with the Congress in shock, the BJP is hoping to capture the middle ground as the best representative of India's diverse religious, linguistic and caste groups. The party may even be willing to abandon sectarian issues, such as the promise to construct a temple in place of the mosque demolished in 1992 by Hindu zealots in Ayodhya. It will first have to overcome opposition from associated Hindu groups whose leaders were only recently justifying attacks on Christians. Says Aswini Ray, professor of international studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University: India's demography is forcing the BJP to transform itself into a broad social coalition similar to what the Congress was historically.

Vajpayee is the BJP's best bet for such a metamorphosis. A genial and popular leader, he has been derided during much of his term for presiding over an ineffectual government. Even the underground nuclear tests he ordered last May--provoking copycat tests by Pakistan--failed to boost his image. But he appears transformed ever since his history-making bus journey to Lahore in February for peace talks with Pakistan Prime Minister Mian Mohammed Nawaz Sharif. He has shown a greater determination, for instance, to push through economic liberalization. And, although parliament's dissolution will slow things down, he has promised business leaders that his government will soon outline plans for new reforms. The domestic political uncertainty will no doubt affect the dialogue with Pakistan, as well as negotiations with the U.S. over India's signing of the nuclear test ban treaty. But with Vajpayee emerging confident from the crisis, analysts believe his government's recent initiatives will not be derailed. Amid the confusion last week Vajpayee's team was discussing a possible visit to India by Nawaz Sharif. Peace with Pakistan will be one of our important election campaign planks, says Kulkarni.

The Congress faces the daunting task of creating a credible political platform for the coming election. The charge that the BJP is an anti-minority, Hindu nationalist party no longer appears so convincing. Similarly, claims that the Congress alone can provide political stability will likely be greeted with disbelief. And there are few major differences between the Congress and the BJP on key issues such as the economy and national security.

Although dates for the next election haven't been announced, Vajpayee went into full campaign mode last week, appealing to Indians on the government's television channel: Friends, democracy rests on one belief, that when the leaders of a nation cannot solve a problem, the people will. In a country where political fortunes can change overnight, it is still too early to guess how the people plan to clean up the mess. One thing is certain: both the BJP and the Congress will be scrambling to ensure they are not left out of the solution.

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Sonia Gandhi is no outsider, but what qualifies her to lead India?