Fri, 11 Feb 2000

Indian coalition faces popularity test

By M.R. Narayan Swamy

NEW DELHI (AFP): India's ruling Hindu nationalist-led coalition faces its first popularity test since assuming power four months ago when four diverse states go to the polls this weekend.

The three-stage elections will also be an acid test for opposition leader Sonia Gandhi, whose leadership has come under sharp scrutiny since her Congress party suffered its worst-ever defeat in last year's general elections.

"It is the most significant popular test since Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee formed his coalition government," said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.

"It may not be a mini referendum, but it is a major test."

Some 96 million voters are eligible to take part in the staggered elections spread over Feb. 12, 17 and 22 in the states of Bihar, Haryana, Manipur and Orissa.

Most eyes will be on Bihar, which borders Nepal and has a reputation as India's most lawless state, ridden with inter-caste violence. It also has the second largest electorate of any state, with 60 million registered voters.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist BJP party, which dominates India's ruling coalition, is making a determined effort to unseat a regional party that has ruled Bihar for a decade and is bitterly opposed to the government in New Delhi.

The BJP will contest Bihar with three allied parties, but their once bright prospects have been dimmed by internal bickering, despite Vajpayee's appeals for unity.

A victory in Bihar would be a shot in the arm for Vajpayee.

The prime minister's spectacular victory in September-October general elections has been tainted by his government's decision to free three jailed pro-Kashmiri Muslim militants in exchange for 160 hostages on a hijacked Indian Airlines plane.

The other states going to the polls are tiny Manipur in the insurgency-prone far-east, bordering Burma, the northern state of Haryana that is ruled by a BJP ally and the eastern cyclone- ravaged state of Orissa, now under Congress rule.

Most analysts and newspapers expect the BJP and its allies to win in Haryana and Orissa.

With Manipur considered politically insignificant, failure by the Congress party to win any of the other three states could have serious consequences for party leader Sonia Gandhi.

The Congress state government in Orissa has been heavily criticized for failing to address the aftermath of an October cyclone that devastated coastal areas and, according to the official toll, claimed 10,000 lives.

"A washout would lead to challenges against Gandhi within the party," Rangarajan told AFP. "It would be against her style of leadership and her policies."

Another analyst, G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, agreed.

"The elections are more of a test for Sonia. If she has to retain her authority over the Congress party, she has to win in at least one of the three major states.

"If Congress loses all states, it could lead to a challenge against Sonia and a major introspection among colleagues.

"The party has been in a sullen mood since the election disaster last year. They need a victory to get over this."

Rao said a hung verdict or defeat for the BJP and its allies in Bihar could strain the coalition fabric in New Delhi.

"If the ruling coalition is not in a position to form a government in Bihar, it will mean disturbance for the central government. The warring allies will blame one another."

Hundreds of thousands of police and paramilitary forces will be on duty for the polls, particularly in Bihar where past elections have been accompanied by widespread violence.

The results are expected to be known by Feb. 25.