India’s rulers must

India’s political uncertainty continues despite the seating of a new government. In a country that has seen four prime ministers in the last two years, the tenuous coalition government led by the Hindu-affiliated Bharatiya Janata Party and its 18 allies leaves much unsettled. Recent elections had left the party in the lead but short of majority rule. Last week, the party’s coalition, headed by prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, narrowly won its crucial parliamentary confidence vote. Two years ago, Vajpayee’s government failed a similar vote. This time, for sheer political survival, his party had to modify its agenda significantly while bargaining for coalition partners.
Much of the party’s success in the recent election comes from fanning Hindu sentiments. India was born in the midst of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims; 50 years ago ethnic strife claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Those tensions are only thinly buried in modern India. Although 83 percent of India’s billion people are Hindu, it is also the home of more than 120 million Muslims.
Critics fear that the BJP-led government may exacerbate tensions between the Hindus and Muslims, thereby igniting a communal conflict. In 1992, BJP activists razed the Ayodhya mosque in Uttar Pradesh, claiming that the site was the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. This touched off nationwide riots that killed 2,500. Tempered by the political circumstances, the party leaders promise to moderate their aggressive religious policies and uphold India’s secularity. To allay concerns about ethnocentrism, Vajpayee promised that his government would “strive to create consensus and dissolve all confrontationist trends” in India.
To accommodate its coalition partners the party also watered down its economic policies. The party’s campaign platform had promised to protect India’s industry from international competition and discourage foreign investment in the consumer sector. Such rhetoric raised concerns among India’s trading partners, including its biggest investor and partner, the United States. Today, the U.S. Commerce Department rates India as one of the world’s largest emerging markets. For a country that was only forced to open up its insular economy seven years ago following severe foreign exchange crisis, BJP’s protectionism offered a step in the wrong direction.
The country’s economy could further be jeopardized by the party’s intent to declare India as a nuclear power. It is true that India has to contend with the increased strategic power of China following the fall of the Soviet Union, India’s long-time regional ally. However, India could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region with Pakistan and China. At a time when India needs major loans to support its economic growth, its nuclear ambition will definitely be penalized by the international banks.
India’s political future now depends upon how Vajpayee steers his tenuous government with such diverse ideologies. The party deserves commendation for tapering its extremist religious and protectionist positions. Only further moderation and pragmatism can ensure India a stable government and a prosperous future.