Unsettled India

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 March, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 March, 1998, 12:00am

After a campaign marred by ethnic violence, electoral fraud and voter fatigue, counting finally starts today in the fifth Indian election in two years. Whatever the result, it is unlikely to alleviate the country's problems or provide the firm government India so desperately needs to lead it out of its present political morass.

The process has merely heightened the sense of deja vu which has hung over the poll from the beginning. Little over half of the 605 million electorate bothered to vote, an understandable response less than a year from the last election. It is virtually certain that the people will again face a hung parliament of uncertain duration, cobbled together by the flimsiest of uneasy regional alliances.

Both the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and the rival Congress party are predicting they will take the largest share of the vote, and the margin between the major parties looks likely to be extremely small.

There is no doubt that the decision of Sonia Gandhi to come out of her isolation and lead the Congress Party's campaign has improved its fortunes. The real question is whether she has done a service to the national interest. It can be argued that without her there to split the vote, the BJP might have been given a mandate to rule. Although in the days of the Nehru dynasty the Congress party took power almost as a sovereign right, it is today hampered by internal divisions, and lacks a strong personality able to unite the party and revitalise the political scene.

Until India frees itself from the downward spiral of uneasy coalition governments, incapable of lasting out the full term of office, the economy will continue to stagnate, and investor confidence will ebb away. The world's largest democracy desperately needs strong leadership, and although the BJP's image is shrouded in disquiet over fears of Hindu extremism, and doubts about its commitment to a secular state, there is no doubt that it is gaining rapidly in popularity.

It may be the only party capable of breaking the political deadlock of the past decade. At its debut in 1984, the BJP won two seats, to the Congress party's 415. A current exit poll predicts that this time it will take 244 seats, making gains in all corners of the country.

Like most political parties, the BJP might have proved more pragmatic if given genuine power to rule, but this election will not prove or disprove that theory. It may simply show once more that coalition government in India has a limited lifespan.