Political stability has been a rare commodity in India of late. In the last three years, the country has had five governments and three general elections. The cycle seems to have been broken in the national elections held five weeks ago, however. As the final results come in, it looks as if Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee will be the first incumbent Indian prime minister in nearly three decades to be voted back into office. His win could prove to be a soothing influence on India’s fractious politics and holds out the hope of economic reform for the country and of stability in South Asia.
Mr. Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party appears set to hold the 181 seats it had in the last session of the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament. Its 23 partners in the National Democratic Alliance will provide the rest of the votes that give the government a healthy majority in the 543-seat Parliament. Analysts expect the alliance to have at least a 20-seat cushion; the most optimistic projections give the coalition a 29-seat margin.
Some skepticism is in order. After all, Mr. Vajpayee’s last coalition consisted of 24 parties, and it collapsed under the strain of managing such a disparate collection of politicians and their egos. In addition, the BJP’s support seems to have peaked. It continues to be the biggest party in the coalition, but it clearly cannot govern without partners.
This represents a critical shift in the political balance of power toward smaller, more locally based parties. That, in turn, could translate into growing demand for more power and political competence at the state level. There is evidence that this is already happening: The parties that have governed well at the state level are profiting in the national ballots. Good governance could bubble up into national politics as well.
But unlike his previous governments, the one Mr. Vajpayee now heads commands a substantial majority in the Parliament. That means that his coalition will not be held hostage to the demands of small parties, as in the past. In addition, the win is a personal victory for the prime minister, and his stature should help stabilize the government. After two terms in office, Mr. Vajpayee is viewed as a popular, charismatic politician. He is almost single-handedly responsible for changing the image of the BJP from a fringe grouping of nationalist, religious zealots to a moderate party of the center.
All of that will strengthen Mr. Vajpayee’s hand when he returns to office Oct. 27. If he is bold, he will waste no time getting down to business: He knows the ropes, and his government has been cooling its heels after losing a confidence vote in April.
Economic reform is expected to top the political agenda. During the campaign, Mr. Vajpayee promised to push for liberalization of the finance, insurance and telecommunications industries. The outgoing finance minister said that “within three days” the new government will pass legislation designed to prepare for the opening of the insurance sector. Although liberalization promises to be difficult, the prime minister’s position is bolstered by the fact that the two biggest parties in his coalition also support reform. The high hopes for action were evident in the market’s response to the election results. After a strong rally, it closed at a record high.
Mr. Vajpayee is also thought to want to push for better relations with Pakistan. He should. Tensions have been high since the two countries traded tit-for-tat nuclear tests and fought a 10-week war over Kashmir last summer. Although the prime minister’s credibility was damaged after the initial incursion into Kashmir, the retreat of the Muslim guerrillas enhanced his nationalist credentials. He is now in a better position to negotiate with Islamabad, and his record suggests he will do so.
Of course, things could change quickly. The Kashmir episode ended well for the prime minister, but the initial charges that he had been lulled into a false sense of security by his “bus diplomacy” with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif were damaging. An upsurge in sectarian violence is possible, as is the disintegration of the coalition under the weight of its members’ collective egos. Although election returns show the Congress Party reeling, it too could come back. Indian politics are notoriously fickle.
Mr. Vajpayee’s hope is that his country’s politicians will heed the results of this ballot. Indians have opted for stability, reform and moderation. They are tired of revolving-door governments and political stagnation. The message in the ballot is that it is time that the politicians in the world’s biggest democracy put their constituents first.
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