Search for stability

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 August, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 August, 1999, 12:00am

When India's Congress party engineered the April vote of confidence that ousted the rival Bharatiya Janata Party coalition after only 13 months in power, the chances of having a government led by Sonia Gandhi looked distinctly possible.

No one could have foreseen the dramatic events that have shifted the political ground since then. With six days until the elections, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has ceased to be a premier, deprived of office by a single vote. Polls suggest the electorate now sees him as the leader who triumphed over invading insurgents in Kashmir, and the man who triggered nationalistic fervour by expanding the country's nuclear forces. The row over onion prices which helped bring about his downfall seems forgotten as the economy revives and inflation drops sharply.

Across the political divide, the untried Mrs Gandhi has more to prove than her claim to be Indian in heart and spirit. Congress has been split by infighting and seems to have lost direction. It can count on certain votes only from India's 12 per cent Muslim minority.

But no matter how Congress attacks the BJP for intelligence lapses which allowed the insurgency to take place, victory is more likely to resonate in voters' minds than talk of security failings.

If, as the polls predict, the BJP takes around 300 seats in the 543-seat parliament, it could give India stability following three indecisive elections in as many years. That means laying aside extreme values in favour of internal unity. It also means overcoming distrust of Islamabad after the fighting at Kargil, and restarting peace talks.

Chastened by that experience, Pakistan Premier Nawaz Sharif may welcome renewed dialogue. Genuine and lasting peace would give both countries something to celebrate.