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Wednesday, August 18, 1999 Published at 17:48 GMT 18:48 UK

World: South Asia

Analysis: The real election issue

Stable government continues to elude India's politicians

By Delhi Correspondent Daniel Lak

For the third time in three years, voters in India are going to the polls in a general election.

Indian Elections 99
Full results
The only real issue is whether the chronic instability that has plagued Indian politics since the late 1980s can be laid to rest with the election of a strong government.

This election was called last April, a little over a year into the mandate of a coalition government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The government fell in a vote of confidence caused by the desertion of a key coalition ally.

Opposition parties, primarily the second largest party in parliament, the Congress, tried desperately to put together an alternative government, but failed to find any common ground.

So the country faces an election that probably very few voters want.

Congress hopes for revival

The Congress party, led by the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, is hoping to arrest a long political slide that began in 1989.

Congress was once India's natural party of governance. Now it is grappling with the notion that an electorate fractured along regional, religious and caste lines can only return hung parliaments, and coalitions are crucial.

That fact has been widely accepted in the BJP.

Once it was a party obsessed with ideology, uncompromising and convinced that its Hindu-centric vision of India was correct.

Now with the apparently moderate and accommodating Atal Behari Vajpayee at the helm, the BJP leads an alliance of socialist, regional and centrist parties - none of which share its views on the intrinsic link between Indian culture and Hindu faith.

Informed voters who do not cast their ballots along religious or caste lines will probably look closely at the personality of the leader of a party or coalition, and his or her chances of forming a stable government.

Vajpayee proves an asset

That is why pollsters and commentators are giving the edge to the outgoing Prime Minister, Mr Vajpayee.

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His personal popularity is high, even among those opposed to his party, the BJP.

His handling of the recent conflict with Pakistan in Indian-administered Kashmir won him plaudits around the country.

Mr Vajpayee is definitely his party's and his coalition's greatest asset.

The Congress leader, Sonia Gandhi, remains a largely unknown quantity.

The widow of the assassinated former Prime Minster, Rajiv Gandhi, she is a deeply private person and appears uncomfortable with the aggressive hurly-burly of Indian politics.

At first, her leadership of the party after last year's general election was praised inside and outside Congress.

But the issue of her Italian birth forced a split in the party after this election was called.

Opinion polls say Congress has to work hard if it is to gain any ground in this election.

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Those same surveys, always taken with a grain of salt in a vast land like India where more than 600 million are eligible to vote, point to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance being returned to power with more seats, but the Indian parliament remaining as fractured as ever with up to 40 parties represented.

Searching for stability

A majority for any single party now, or for the foreseeable future, is highly unlikely.

One of India's most popular comedians, Jaspal Bhatti, summed up the public mood recently by holding a mock press conference and announcing that since India was in the habit of going to the polls, the next two general elections would be held simultaneously to save money.

Humour aside, it is safe to say that most Indians hope Mr Bhatti is wrong, and that the next election does produce the stability the country needs to face its challenges.

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