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India Installs Nationalist Government Amid Concerns

By Kenneth J. Cooper
The Washington Post

India Thursday installed a new government dominated by Hindu nationalists committed to testing India's secular creed and free-market reforms but constrained by a tenuous grip on power.

The new government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, unlike the one he led for two weeks in 1996, is likely to survive an initial vote of confidence next week and remain in power long enough to build a record in office.

The direction that Vajpayee, a moderate, steers the new government could test the strength of the world's largest democracy, which was born in communal violence between Hindus and Muslims that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in 1947. The next year, independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic once associated with the Hindu nationalist brotherhood that founded Vajpayee's party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as its political wing in 1952.

"Deep down in the hearts of Muslims, I sense apprehension," said Ashgar Ali Engineer, an Islamic scholar in Bombay.

Political circumstances would appear to check the new government from moving too far or openly toward the BJP's conception of India as "one nation, one people and one culture" - that of the Hindu majority. About 20 percent of India's 950 million people are not Hindu; Muslims, the largest religious minority, make up about 12 percent of the population.

Vajpayee has taken charge of a coalition government that is supported by more than a dozen smaller parties that, with one exception, do not share a Hindu nationalist orientation.

In addition, the coalition does not control a majority of seats in Parliament's lower house. Even with the support of all its components' support, the 13-party coalition expects to survive a confidence vote scheduled for March 28 only by the grace of abstentions and vacant seats.

Since emerging from recent elections as the top-vote getter, the new ruling coalition has tried to extend its expected lifespan by moving toward the political center. The coalition agenda released Wednesday omitted Hindu nationalist issues that the BJP has previously emphasized and watered down its protectionist economic policies. BJP members sworn into the cabinet Thursday with Vajpayee are divided between moderates and hard-liners.

Vajpayee, 71, has also promised to try to build consensus on controversial legislation. The senior lawmaker, who served as foreign minister of a coalition government in the late 1970s, will double as foreign minister in the new government.