Sat, 09 Oct 1999

Vajpayee's victory

The victory of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist-led coalition in India's parliamentary elections indicates that the majority of the country's 950 million population wants to keep the winds of change blowing as the world's largest democracy faces greater challenges in the third millennium.

Results of the elections, India's third since 1996, showed that Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies won 286 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (Lower House), compared to 129 seats won by the main opposition, the Congress Party and its allies. Remaining seats were taken by the left alliance and other minority parties.

Although voting in five flood-ravaged constituencies has been rescheduled for Oct. 28, the official announcement of the vote count on Friday provided confirmation that Vajpayee is India's first head of government voted to remain in power since Indira Gandhi in 1971.

Political analysts here believe that the 72-year-old prime minister and his BJP -- whose 13-month coalition collapsed after losing a confidence vote in April -- will bend over backwards to accommodate the aspirations of the people. It is also predicted to strive to maintain religious harmony between the majority Hindus, the minority Muslims and Christians as well as improving the country's economy in a bid to secure a truly stable coalition government this time.

Analysts also believe that Vajpayee's 22-party coalition, the National Democratic Alliance, gained popular support when New Delhi conducted a series of underground nuclear tests last year despite worldwide condemnation.

The tests alerted the international community to the fact that it must include India as a new emerging power in its efforts to achieve global stability and peace.

But Vajpayee's new government, scheduled to be formed next week, should not delay in fulfilling its promise to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, thereby affirming to the world its profession that the nuclear tests were only for national security and nuclear deterrence purposes.

Ties between India and archrival Pakistan improved when Vajpayee made a historic visit to Lahore in February to meet his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. Another move to placate decades of stormy ties between the two neighbors included the launching of a cross-border bus service from New Delhi to Lahore in March.

With Vajpayee back at the helm of the New Delhi government, it is expected that reconciliatory talks with Pakistan will again gain momentum to prevent a recurrence of the bloody border skirmishes which occurred in August.

Vajpayee's victory is also expected to bring new impetus to the country's eight-year economic reform drive, which has been held up after 1996 elections led to the establishment of successive shaky governments.

With ties with its neighbors on the mend, its economy strengthened and internal stability ensured, India is now in its best position in years to help spread the seeds of democracy in many Asian countries and play a more significant role in the international political arena.