India's stunning poll results

Defying all predictions by political pundits, the Indian electorate has inflicted a stunning defeat on the BJP-led coalition. According to the results declared at the time of writing, the NDA is trailing behind the Congress Party and its allies.

What is significant is that Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee has conceded defeat. The one to be most surprised by the unexpected results is the BJP itself which had opted for fresh elections six months before they were due.

So confident were the party leaders about Mr Vajpayee's popularity and the success of his economic programme, that they had hoped to enhance their presence in the Lok Sabha (parliament). The BJP's electoral debacle proves how out of touch the rulers can at times be with the masses.

The Congress, which is in the lead, is unlikely to win an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha and will have to enlist the support of other parties to be able to form the government.

Uttar Pradesh's Samajwadi Party under its popular leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, is believed to be one of the prospective allies along with the Communist Party-Marxist and other left parties, which have registered impressive gains.

The stability of the coalition will depend largely on the consensus the coalescing parties forge on a common programme and the leadership provided by the prime minister, whoever it might be.

As the leaders jostle for office in New Delhi, this is also the time for them to analyze the factors which led to the virtual rout of the BJP. Of course the incumbency factor always works against ruling parties seeking re-election in a Third World country, but there was more than that in the Indian election results.

One very important reason for the BJP's defeat was that the masses strongly felt that they had been left out by the country's economic boom. As the champion of the free market economy, the BJP came to be seen as being responsible for the growing poverty of the rural masses.

In fact, the party's "India Shining" slogan clearly backfired with the common people. Congress was quick to capitalize on the situation and focused its campaign on the 300 million poor and projected itself as the party of the masses.

Another factor working against the BJP was its avowed commitment to Hindutva which translated into a policy of saffronization of every sector of national life. This alienated the non-Hindu minorities, especially the Muslims, who constitute a substantial vote bank in India.

As if that was not enough, the shocking massacre of the Muslims in Gujarat and the open connivance of the local administration in this dastardly act robbed the BJP of whatever little support it may have earlier enjoyed.

Congress's secular stance went down more favourably with the Muslim minority. Will the change at the helm in India mean a change in foreign policy directions as well? In Pakistan the main concern is understandably about the future of the peace dialogue which has just been launched.

From what has generally been stated by various party leaders, it appears that the government which takes over in New Delhi will sustain the BJP's policy vis-a-vis Pakistan and Kashmir. Since this did not emerge as a major election issue in the campaign, one can safely assume that the Indian electorate favours peace with Pakistan. It can only be hoped that the BJP in opposition will not suddenly turn hawkish on this issue.

Unity without principles

With Wednesday's announcement, the various political parties and factions that have used or abused the Pakistan Muslim League nomenclature have moved further towards broader unity.

What we now have is one Pakistan Muslim League - without the A to Z suffixes that have charactrized the breakaway factions. Also part of the new League is the Imtiaz Sheikh group of the Sindh Democratic Alliance.

The unity move is taking shape in phases. Last September five PML factions re-united. The new grouping announced on Wednesday will become larger when the three-party National Alliance headed by Mr Farooq Leghari joins the ranks.

Basically, the merger has one purpose - to broaden parliamentary support for the military-led administration. Even though the Jamali government enjoys majority support in the National Assembly, some of its partners are proving unreliable.

In addition, the MMA is a formidable opposition, and - thanks to the government's own follies - the PML-N and PPPP often make common cause with the six-party religious alliance. No wonder, the party in power should seek security in an enlarged grouping bearing a common brand name.

Chaudhri Shujaat Hussain's election as chief of the new party in no way disabuses the notion that the PML will continue to be a hand-maiden of the landed aristocracy.

It has always been so, notwithstanding the fact that the vagaries of politics once made a non-feudal retired field marshal its head. There is one more phenomenon peculiar to the PML: every military dictator uses its name to gather loyalists around him and to create a parliamentary majority.

Ayub Khan created the Convention Muslim League and joined it. Ziaul Haq remained in uniform throughout his eleven-year rule, but he created a Muslim League in a house that had been elected on a non-party basis.

Once Mr Junejo was sacked and Ziaul Haq was gone, the PML again broke up into several factions. President Pervez Musharraf still wears a uniform, but some observers see a link between a unified PML and the end of the year when the general is supposed to lay down his uniform.

The question whether or not he will join the PML belongs to the realm of speculation, but it is obvious that in either case, the PML will remain what it is - a conglomerate brought together by the expediencies of power politics.

As on previous occasions, so also now, one would be hard pressed to find a principle behind the merger. PML factions have invariably revolved round personalities, not principles.

As a consequence, when they unite they do so for reasons of expediency. For the people it matters little if some MNAs flock together to form a party or a grouping of parties or factions serve as a convenient platform for some power-seekers.

Even though the party that led the movement for Pakistan, the PML lost the moral high ground once the Quaid-i-Azam passed away, and it never recovered from the shock of the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan.

Since then it has been a party of political opportunists and carpetbaggers. Consequently, it has failed to develop roots among the masses. On the other hand, many other parties that played no role in the Pakistan Movement or which were formed in the post-independence period have done better in terms of a rapport with the masses.

Yet, while the larger unity of the PML factions must be welcomed for larger-term political and democratic reasons, those controlling the destiny of the new League should do some serious thinking.

An artificial union imposed from above or formed for reasons of expediency does not last long. What can ensure a better future for the PML is politics based on principles, dedication to democratic norms, and policies that would help improve the lot of the common citizen.

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