Arrow-right Camera


Center-Left Parties Likely To Become Next Rulers Of India

Mon., May 13, 1996

The momentum in India’s post-election maneuvering appeared Sunday to be working against the formation of the country’s first Hindu nationalist government and in favor of a center-left coalition that would govern with the backing of the Congress Party.

Still reeling from its election debacle, the Congress Party met and reelected outgoing Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao as leader of its parliamentary group, leaving until later a decision on his more important post as president of the party.

A meeting of senior party leaders decided earlier in the day to offer support to a center-left coalition, but to remain outside any new government.

Rao, 74, safe for the moment from the wrath gathering in the party at his lackluster campaign performance, offered a characteristically ambivalent formula for the approach the party will take to what many Indians expect to be a period of political stability.

“All the logic of the election verdict is that we will stay in the opposition,” he said. “Our decision rests not in what we will do, but in what we will not do - and what we will not do is unite with the BJP.” That is the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Other senior Congress Party leaders cut through the opaqueness of Rao’s statement to say the party would support efforts to stop the Hindu nationalists from coming to power by assembling a parliamentary majority from the election results, which left no party even close to a majority. The Hindu nationalists and their allies, including the Bombaybased Shiv Sena party, finished a clear first.

As the bid to top them gathered pace, the Hindu nationalists fought back. On Saturday, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, sent a delegation to India’s ceremonial president, Shankar Dayal Sharma, demanding that he appoint Vajpayee prime minister and give him three weeks to assemble a parliamentary majority.

Sharma, a Cambridge-educated lawyer with a lifetime in the Congress Party, demurred, saying no decision would be made before the election results were formally reported to him on Tuesday.

Vajpayee, who at 69 has spent 50 years in Hindu nationalist politics, voiced the frustrations of a political group that has risen from the wilderness of Indian politics - it won only two seats in the 1984 election, before beginning the ascent that won it 160 seats this time - to the threshold of power.

“The verdict of the people is sought to be subverted by manipulation and maneuver,” he said.

With only a handful of results still to come, the party line-up in the new Parliament was close to settled. According to Indian state television, with 522 seats decided in the 545-seat lower house, the Hindu nationalists and their allies will have 186 seats, the Congress Party and its allies 138 seats, and the center-left coalition, known as the National Front-Left Front, 113 seats.

The balance of power rested with a group of five regional parties, with 66 seats, and other splinter parties, with 19 seats.

Votes for 15 seats are still being counted. Six others will come from voting in the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir that concludes on May 30, and two seats are set aside for members of India’s Anglo-Indian population. The new Parliament is expected to be called into session by early June, with a confidence vote in the new government its first priority.

The latest results showed that one of the winners was Phoolan Devi, 36, known in India as the “bandit queen” for her past as a member of an outlaw gang that is alleged to have spent years killing and plundering in northern Uttar Pradesh state.

Devi, under indictment in the 1981 murders of 20 villagers, benefited from a strong showing by two lower-caste parties that took 22 of 85 seats in Uttar Pradesh, against 52 for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Ms. Devi’s Samajwadi Party, or Socialist Party, is part of the center-left alliance that has been feverishly trying to line up a parliamentary majority before a Tuesday deadline set by Sharma.

With Sunday’s decision by the Congress Party to support the alliance but not to join any alliance-led government, the group’s efforts now hang on a meeting set for Monday of the five regional parties, whose 66 seats would push the alliance well past the 273 seats needed for a majority.

But several obstacles appeared to lie in the way of a center-left government, among them differences over the alliance’s choice of prime minister.

Click here to comment on this story »