NEW DELHI, India -- India's third election in as many years has returned the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to power, this time at the head of a 24-party coalition government that must decide whether to continue with a costly nuclear arms program and whether to come to an arrangement with neighboring Pakistan over disputed Kashmir.
The portents are not good. The same BJP officials will occupy key ministries -- External Affairs, Defense and the Home Ministry in charge of police and the judiciary -- leaving minor Cabinet posts to their coaltion partners.
With counting of votes almost complete yesterday, the National Democratic Alliance coalition headed by the BJP had secured a comfortable majority in the 543-seat parliament, winning 288 seats. Sonia Gandhi's Congress Party and its allies trailed at 130. The other seats went to independent candidates.
The result was a personal triumph for the avuncular BJP leader and incumbent Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, 74. And it was a rebuke to Gandhi, 52, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Political analysts have blamed the lopsided result largely on voter apathy. Only half the 605 million eligible Indian voters cast their ballots, and the highly organized local machinery of the BJP and its regional allies proved best equipped to benefit from the indifference.
"The BJP and its local allies won because they were better organized than Congress. They picked up people from their homes and transported them to the voting booth. They had scrutineers everywhere to supervise the vote count," said Kamal Mishta, a professor of political science at Chennai University.
Political analysts hope the coalition, whose members appear more interested in economic progress than saber-rattling, will tone down the boisterous nationalism of the BJP.
The last BJP-headed government carried out five nuclear tests, prompting Pakistan to explode its own devices and raising fears of a nuclear race between the hostile neighbors.
Finding a nuclear compromise that would placate everyone is not going to be easy.
The nuclear program has become a symbol of pride for militant Hindu fundamentalists allied with the BJP.
The new coalition government, unlike its predecessor, will have to show it can control a fundamentalism that views "the bomb" as a holy weapon against Muslims and wants no compromise in the dispute with Pakistan over divided Kashmir.
In a country increasingly focused on commercial progress, many of the BJP's coalition partners, most of them regional parties, may be more interested in cross-border trade than cross-border confrontations. Some of the key partners were expected to pressure the Hindu party to be more flexible with Pakistan to resolve or at least defuse the lingering Kashmir crisis.
"Quite a number of these parties know they can only stay in power in their own states by improving the local economy. They are not keen on the kind of BJP nuclear-test adventures and saber-rattling that prompted the U.S. sanctions," said John Cherian, a leading political commentator.
In Bombay, the Hindu core organization Shiv Sena, whose leader Bal Thackeray advocates a city purified of Muslims, won an overwhelming majority on its joint ticket with the BJP. The BJP has played down its affiliation with the militants, yet rarely mobilized security forces against them.
Many Indians are afraid that with the BJP back in power, the fundamentalists will stage fresh acts of intolerance and persecution against Christians and those Hindus deemed to be erring from the correct path.
How the coalition handles the influence of the militant Hindu factions may determine the duration of the 13th Indian Parliament. BJP leaders must now seek a consensus among its coalition partners on most issues, and the partners can walk out any time, forcing new elections.
If the election has given the Hindu party a lift, it has been a dramatic setback for the Congress Party and the Gandhi dynasty. Congress leaders had persuaded Sonia Gandhi to head the party in an attempt to revive it. Congress has been associated with the Gandhi family name since independence in 1948.
The Bombay Stock Exchange fell yesterday. Investors and businessmen had hoped for a clear-cut majority for either the BJP or Congress. This would have allowed a new government to go ahead with stalled economic reforms and infrastructure projects.
Such projects are sorely needed in a nation where national power and water shortages are chronic and rail disasters legendary.
Pub Date: 10/08/99