Atal Bahari Vajpayee, leader of India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and prime minister of the country for the last eighteen months, was invited to form the country’s next government on October 11 by the country’s president, K R Narayanan, on October 11. The final elections results were announced on October 9 after a month of polling and three days of counting.
Vajpayee’s BJP-led National Democratic Alliance won 297 seats in the 537-seat Lok Sabha (parliament). The Congress Party, which had hoped to defeat the BJP under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, won just 134 seats, along with its minor allies. Other parties won 106 seats. The formation of a BJP-led government should be a formality following this result, but may take some time as the BJP’s allies will try to hold out for as good a postion in government as possible before committing their votes to Vajpayee.
Vajpayee was forced to call the elections after losing a vote of confidence earlier this year, when a key ally from the south of the country, former actress Jayalitha Jayaram, withdrew her support. However, his position in the new Parliament is likely to be consideably stronger now that he has won a convincing victory.
Vajpayee’s victory can be attributed largely to three factors: the continued support of the right-wing Hindu organizations, despite Vajpayee’s pretensions of representing a ‘liberal’ wing of the BJP; the nationalist sentiments aroused by the confrontation over Kargil; and the decline of Congress.
India’s ruler for 42 of its 52 years, Congress has now suffered its worst-ever election performance. However, the result is not a particular surprise. Analysts had long been warning that the wheels could come off the Congress carriage, and polls over the previous month had shown that Vajpayee would win. However the scale of the defeat shocked many people.
The cracks in Congress could only be papered over by an appeal to Sonia Gandhi, a foreign-born housewife, to come out of seclusion to lead the party. After this crashing defeat, it remains to be seen whether Gandhi - a first-time member of parliament - will lead the parliamentary opposition. Debate about Congress’s future has already started; however, many people seem unable to look further than Gandhi’s daughter Priyanka.
One thing which was never likely to change, whatever the election result, was India’s regional belligerence. India’s defence ministry went into the international arms market last month with a $1.45bn weapons wishlist, including sophisticated equipment from France, South Africa and Israel. India has already invited price quotes for 48 Hawker jet aircaft from British Aerospace and a squadron of Mirage 2000-D jets, capable of carrying nuclear missiles from France.
This last is part of the nuclear defense proposals published by the national security advisory board in August, which envisage a system of land, air and sea-borne nuclear weapons capable of dominating the region. The military, and their contacts in the west, were clearly confident that India’s military policy would not change, whatever the outcome of the elections. And that confidence can only be bad news for other countries in the region, particularly Pakistan.
Muslimedia: October 16-31, 1999