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Saturday, April 17, 1999 Published at 20:48 GMT 21:48 UK


World: South Asia

Gandhi ponders bid for power

Potential prime minister Sonia Gandhi has been consulting party leaders

Sonia Gandhi, president of India's Congress Party, is considering whether to stake a claim to become the country's next prime minister after the collapse of the Hindu nationalist-led government coalition.


Mike Wooldridge reports: "Tricky negotiations ahead"
A spokesman for Congress, India's main opposition party, said that it was her decision how to form what would be the country's sixth government in three years.

Speaking after a meeting of the party's elite working committee, spokesman Arjun Singh said a decision on the structure of a new government for the world's largest democracy was expected in two to three days.

The government was defeated in a parliamentary confidence vote on Saturday by just one vote. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee subsequently tendered his resignation.

Political allies

The decline of Mr Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now gives Congress the opportunity to return to govern India as it has done for all but six years of the past half century.

However, BBC South Asia Correspondent Mike Wooldridge says that the Congress Party's present strength in parliament is such that it has tricky negotiations ahead on achieving a workable majority - either as another coalition or with the backing of those who joined Congress in defeating the BJP.


[ image: Defeated: Mr Vajpayee lost by one vote]
Defeated: Mr Vajpayee lost by one vote
Congress and a handful of its allies control only 145 of 545 seats in the lower house.

It would thus have to rely on the backing of more than a dozen smaller opposition groups, many of whom are traditional rivals, in order to win power.

Mr Singh said that Mrs Gandhi would decide on whether her party would lead a government or prop up a coalition from outside. But the initiative for the next step had to come from President Narayanan, he said.

"As soon as he starts the process of finding an alternative arrangement and asks the Congress president whether she can do it, she will say that I can," Mr Singh said.


Mr Vajpayee: "The president asked me to continue"
Mr Singh added that Mrs Gandhi had shown "no displeasure or hesitation or protest" at the prospect of becoming prime minister.

Italian-born Mrs Gandhi is no stranger to politics as the heir to India's Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, although she entered active politics only in 1998.

As the new prime minister she would succeed her murdered husband Rajiv and mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, and her mother-in-law's father Jawaharlal Nehru.

Defeat

Mr Vajpayee, whose coalition lost by a 270-269 vote, has been asked to stay on until a new administration is formed.

He had called the vote after the south India-based AIADMK, led by former film actress Jayalalitha Jayaram, withdrew its support. It held the 18 parliamentary seats on which Mr Vajpayee's government depended for its survival.

The prime minister fought to save his government during two days of debate, defending its controversial nuclear tests and arguing that one led by the Congress would put India's future at stake.

He was eventually defeated when the small regional Bahujan Samaj Party changed its position and voted against him.

In an early sign of the turbulence that lies ahead, several of the partners in the defeated alliance urged the president to give Mr Vajpayee another chance if Congress cannot guarantee in writing more support than that of the last government.

Congress leaders themselves are reported to fear that another coalition would be the victim of the same instability that plagued Mr Vajpayee's troubled administration.



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