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Vajpayee’s BJP Wins Large Majority In Indian Elections

By Pamela Constable
THE WASHINGTON POST -- NEW DELHI, India

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party headed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has won a comfortable majority in India’s parliamentary elections.

The decisive outcome promises the nation a period of political stability for which it has long yearned and solidifies the evolution of Vajpayee’s BJP into a mass political movement after years of being viewed as a fringe religious group.

With official results from five weeks of elections almost complete, the BJP and its allies in the 24-party National Democratic Alliance won 284 of 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, while the opposition Congress party and its allies won 130. Leftist and other parties accounted for 99 seats and, as of late Thursday night, the winners of 30 seats had not been determined.

Vajpayee’s solid victory came as a relief to many Indians who feared that a close result in the third national election in four years would leave the country with another narrowly based government distracted by political horse-trading and instability at a time of high regional tensions over Kashmir and international controversy over India’s nuclear weapons program.

India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons and missiles capable of delivering them in the past 18 months, and they fought in a 10-week border conflict this summer in the mountains of Kashmir, the long-contested Himalayan region.

Vajpayee appears eager to return to the negotiations with Pakistan that he initiated last winter, suggesting his re-election may lead to reduced tensions with Islamabad despite the Kashmir dispute. At the same time, advisers in Vajpayee’s outgoing government have elaborated a defense doctrine, making it clear the country intends to equip itself with modern nuclear weapons to be able to retaliate swiftly against any nuclear attack.

“We have been voted back to power to continue the good governance that Vajpayee has been giving to the people of this country,” BJP spokesman Venkaiah Naidu told journalists. The voters’ verdict, he said, is a mandate “for the continuance of good governance” and “against the destabilizers” in Congress and other parties that brought down the Vajpayee government in April by a one-vote margin.

Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, issued a statement saying her party will “accept unhesitatingly the verdict of the people.” She said the election result “calls for introspection, frank assessment and determined action.” The 53-year-old Gandhi, the widow of the assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, took the party reins last summer in what turns out to have been an unsuccessful attempt to revive its fortunes.

A relaxed and triumphant Vajpayee, 76, spent Thursday telephoning political allies and inviting them to join his new government. Party leaders later this week are expected to chose Vajpayee, the longtime BJP head, as prime minister. Parliament is scheduled to take office Oct. 21.

“For the first time in 27 years in India, an incumbent prime minister has been returned to office. That’s remarkable,” Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said Thursday night. The others have been defeated, assassinated or otherwise unable to complete their terms.

The election was a major logistical feat, with more than 650 million voters going to the polls in 90,000 locations.