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Wednesday, April 28, 1999 Published at 21:43 GMT 22:43 UK

World: South Asia

Vajpayee on the offensive

Mr Vajpayee said political instability was ruinous for India

India's caretaker Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has launched a scathing attack on his political opponents for bringing down his Hindu nationalist-led coalition government and sparking the country's third elections in as many years.

Mike Wooldridge reports from Delhi: "A bruising election campaign is in prospect"
In a nationwide broadcast, Mr Vajpayee said the instability caused by his opponents - who have not been able to form a new government - was ruinous for India.

Mr Vajpayee's 13-month-old government was defeated on 17 April after opposition parties joined to topple it in a confidence vote.

But the main opposition party, Congress, was unable to put together a majority to form a new government, leading to the dissolution of parliament and the countdown to elections which must be held within six months.

[ image: Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi failed to form an alternative government]
Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi failed to form an alternative government
Congress moved on Wednesday towards backing leader Sonia Gandhi as their candidate for prime minister.

Her choice is seen as controversial because, although a member of the Gandhi political dynasty by marriage, she is Italian by birth.

But a senior Congress figure, Arjun Singh, told reporters it would be the most natural thing as she is the leader of the party.

'Cynical game of numbers'

Mr Vajpayee, who remains as leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), addressed the nation just hours after a speech to the Confederation of Indian Industry, in which he warned that the economy would be the main victim of political uncertainty.

He told the industrialists: "Irresponsible and unprincipled politics has played tricks with the people's mandate. The cynical game of numbers has scored over the basic norms of democracy.

"The worst victim of this power game has been the economy and India's image abroad. The loss suffered by the country is both measurable and intangible," he said.

Stock markets are reported to have lost 700bn rupees ($16.4bn) since 14 April, when the 18 MPs of the AIADMK party left the coalition, plunging the government into crisis.

Mr Vajpayee admitted that his ruling coalition had made mistakes while in office, but had learnt from them and taken policy measures on a range of fronts, from infrastructure to information technology, to strengthen the economy.

He maintained his alliance would return to power to complete its unfinished economic agenda, which would mean pushing ahead with internal liberalisation, globalisation and steps to encourage foreign investment.

'Sympathy vote'

Mr Vajpayee also referred to last year's nuclear test blasts that were ordered by his administration.

Our South Asia Correspondent Mike Wooldridge says it has been unclear how the BJP, would seek to capitalise electorally on the tests, given the controversy they aroused.

But, he says, Mr Vajpayee appeared to signal that the party will do so and will portray itself as the government that was prepared to take the flack for developing a nuclear deterrent where its main opponent, Congress, was not

The prime minister said his government had taken steps that others had shied away from in order to make India strong.

Our correspondent says that the BJP did not fare well in state elections a few months ago, but it seems to believe it can ride the crest of a sympathy vote, if the public can be persuaded to see them as a wronged government.

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