MAY 10, 1996
India's voters have ousted the Congress Party, which controlled the government for nearly half a century. Now, India's Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalists who won a plurality of parliamentary seats, must negotiate with socialist, communist and regional parties to form a coalition government. After background from the Independent Television Network, Charlayne Hunter-Gault discusses the election results with National Public Radio's Chirtra Ragavan.
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CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Elections this week in India brought to an end the five decades long reign of that country's ruling Congress Party and forced the prime minister to resign. We'll get a perspective on the historic election in a moment, but first this background from Alex Thompson of Independent Television News.
ALEX THOMPSON, ITN: Time and again returning officers announced a swing away from Congress to the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Congress dominated Indian politics for all but four of forty-nine years since independence, so this is a watershed for the BJP, and they know it.
PRAMOD MAHAJAN, BJP General Secretary: For the first time in the history of this country, a non-Congress homogeneous party has emerged as the single largest party and Congress has been pushed back to about 156.
ALEX THOMPSON: That's in a lower house of 545 seats. Small wonder Congress officials appear depressed, for after the years of domination, it's a time for introspection.
V. N. GADAGIL, Congress Party Spokesman: I think the party will have to do some self introspection, find out where we went wrong, and then decide how to revitalize the party.
ALEX THOMPSON: Including its leadership. Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao is in his mid 70's, so are many colleagues. Congress, itself, was for decades more of a movement for independent India from the days of Nehru than Nehru party. Congress's Gandhi dynasty from Nehru to Indira could command a colossal public mandate as if it were a block vote. But from the time her son, Rajiv, was in power, India was democratizing. Dynamic regional and ethnically based parties began to make Congress look a tired and complacent colossus.
DAVID TAYLOR, School of Oriental and African Studies: There has under the surface been a decline in its support. Its policy of trying to appeal to every single section of the population has faded in the face of parties which are much more focused in their appeal in class or caste terms.
ALEX THOMPSON: But the BJP probably won't have a majority either, although the BJP cut its political teeth over ethnic confrontation such as the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque. During this election it's been shouting from the rooftops that India's 12 percent Muslim minority have nothing to worry about. But the ethnic dangers of a landslide BJP victory have been avoided. As India's Communists are quick to point out, it's all about striking deals and coalescing with the smaller parties.
JYOTI BASU, Communist Party Leader: In that sense, the third force is going to play a very crucial role both in the foundation of the next government and as far as Indian politics in the times ahead.
ALEX THOMPSON: So the BJP may well end up as the biggest single party but it'll be a coalition government with little room for maneuver, and then India's electorate of 590 million, the world's biggest, will almost certainly have to go out to the polls all over again in a couple of years or sooner.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For more on this story, we turn to Chitra Ragavan, a correspondent for National Public Radio. She's just returned from covering the Indian elections. Chitra, thank you for joining us. First of all, tell us briefly about the Congress Party and why it lost.
CHITRA RAGAVAN, National Public Radio: The Congress Party is the party that led India to independence. It's the party of India's most famous dynasty, Jevar La Nehru, the prime minister, his daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi. And they were able to dominate Indian politics for most of its 50 years after independence, and ironically, I think, its dominance is what has now led to its downfall. There are many who say that this is an indictment of the Congress Party's centralization of government, that it grabbed power at the center and held onto it, and that it had become so corrupt at the core. At least that's what the voters were perceiving, and that's what all of the public opinion polls were saying, and that's what people were saying to us, wherever we traveled. But the party had become so corrupt at its core because it had been in power so long that its politicians and its leaders were simply in office to line their own pockets. It was time to throw the bums out, and that's what the voters did.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And what about the party that was victorious?
CHIRTRA RAGAVAN: The party, Bharatiya Janata Party, ironically rose to prominence in the 1980s even as the Congress Party was in the midst of a huge financial scandal, and many political analysts say that it wasn't as much that Hindus--the BJP or Bharatiya Janata Party is a Hindu Nationalist Party, and--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: They want to turn India into a national state.
CHIRTRA RAGAVAN: They want to turn--yes--they want--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Into a Hindu state, sorry.
CHIRTRA RAGAVAN: Into a Hindu state, where there are uniform rights for all religions. They feel that Muslims get unfair privileges, and they want to be equality but many feel that this is going to be a pro-Hindu governance.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, there are, what, 82 percent of India's 932--930 some million people are Hindu?
CHIRTRA RAGAVAN: They are Hindu.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And this is what they said they're going to do?