The 360 million Indians who voted in the country's third general election in four years might wonder why they even bothered. After several weeks of campaigning, a month of balloting and over $200 million in taxpayers' money spent on the process, the country finds itself where it was at the start: governed by an alliance of disparate political parties headed by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.There's one substantive difference: the government is now assured of the support of more than 300 members in the 545-seat parliament, where Vajpayee's previous coalition had lived dangerously on a wafer-thin majority. The larger cushion just may give the Prime Minister the luxury of governing without having to haggle constantly with his partners. He'll have ample breathing space, but managing a large coalition can also test your skills severely, says Balveer Arora, professor of government and politics at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. In addition to political oxygen, Vajpayee has received a fresh infusion of adrenaline. The election result is a personal triumph for the Prime Minister, cementing his standing as the country's most popular leader in more than a decade. In a contest devoid of serious issues, the BJP-led alliance had relied mainly on the charisma of this genial, portly political veteran to beat back the challenge from the Congress Party and its Italian-born leader, Sonia Gandhi. Even if the BJP managed only to equal its tally of seats from the last election, it's clear other parties in the alliance benefited from their association with Vajpayee.
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For the Congress, there was no such consolation. Sonia herself won in both the constituencies she contested (she will have to give up one of the seats), but her party received its worst-ever electoral drubbing--ending up with just 112 seats, down from 140. It's a resounding slap in the face, says Arora. It is also sweet revenge for Vajpayee: Sonia had been instrumental in bringing down his previous coalition in April, making this election necessary.
But winning might have been the easy part for Vajpayee. Governing will pose an altogether more difficult challenge. The fractious nature of his previous coalition meant the Prime Minister spent more time trying to keep his allies in line than solving India's many problems. Now, he faces an overflowing in tray. Perhaps his most urgent task is to kick-start the stalled economic-reform process. The government is deep in debt but has borrowed even more heavily this year to meet increased expenditure on populist measures, ranging from fuel and fertilizer subsidies to higher allowances for its employees. The bills are mounting, and after this summer's border war with Pakistan-backed infiltrators in Kashmir, India's defense budget is almost certain to expand. With the elections over, Vajpayee can no longer postpone unpopular--but vital--measures such as downsizing the government, increasing tax revenues and reducing subsidies. Many harsh decisions will have to be taken in the coming months, Pramod Mahajan, a senior BJP leader, informed the nation on television last week. BJP spokesmen say Vajpayee is determined to take those decisions, but it's not certain that all the other parties in his coalition have the stomach for unpleasant tasks. Two of them complained last week when, just before the counting of votes began, Vajpayee's caretaker administration hiked diesel prices by 40%.
Luckily for the Prime Minister, his most important supporter has impeccable credentials as a reformer. Before the election, Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, was widely acclaimed for his prudent economic initiatives and his disdain for pork-barrel politics. Now he has an additional claim to fame, as living proof that unpopular decisions aren't necessarily political poison. His Telegu Desam Party won 29 of the 42 parliamentary constituencies in the state and recorded an emphatic victory in the state assembly elections that were held simultaneously. Says Sudhir Jalan, president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry: Naidu's re-election sends out all the right signals. The people are looking for progress.
Vajpayee's victory sent out positive signals, too, most notably to the Bombay Stock Exchange, where the benchmark index shot up to a record high last week. Investors were doubly pleased when the rating agency Moody's raised its outlook on India's foreign and domestic currency debt from stable to positive, which could speed the flow of foreign investment into the country.
As it gradually became clear that he would be heading a government with a fighting chance of surviving the minefield of coalition politics, Vajpayee began receiving well-wishers carrying garlands and sweets to his official residence. The loser, meanwhile, remained confined behind the high walls of her bungalow. In a statement, Sonia Gandhi commented tersely: The result calls for introspection, frank assessment and determined action. The Congress leader was describing the task ahead for her party. But it is also good advice for Vajpayee as he finally gets back to the business of governing.