Vajpayee faces tough challenge

Associated Press

New Delhi, April 24:

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s governing coalition is fighting hard to maintain its edge as India’s drawn-out parliamentary election process approaches its crucial halfway stage.

Latest opinion polls suggest Vajpayee’s existing partnership may not secure the majority it needs to form a government, and might have to seek the support of smaller parties to stay in power.

Increasingly concerned, Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party is trying hard to mend fences with estranged Muslims, who comprise nearly 14 per cent of India’s more than 1 billion people.

Today, ruling coliation and opposition Congress party added weight to their campaigns by recruiting more than two dozen movie stars, including Sunil Dutt, Sunil Shetty, Ranjeet and Poonam Dhillon, took to the streets in Mumbai. Campaigning is not permitted tomorrow. Monday’s third phase of voting will cover 137 seats in 13 states, including Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Karnataka. Maharashtra, Jammu-Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh. The ballot will decide the fate of Gandhi, as well as her son Rahul, who is making his political debut.

But it will also be crucial for the ruling coalition, with Defence Minster George Fernandes defending his seat.

The first two rounds of the elections took place on April 20 and 22, and covered 142 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. The voting will be completed on May 10, and counting of votes will begin on May 13. Vajpayee could remain prime minister for a second five-year term even if his existing coalition fails to secure the 272 Parliament seats. But to do so he would have to seek support from smaller parties or independents.

That could make his government less stable and blur the focus of his economic reform programme. An opinion poll published yesterday by The Indian Express newspaper and New Delhi Television News projected Vajpayee’s coalition could win as little as 255 seats. It was based on an April 8-14 survey of voters eligible to cast ballots on Monday. The maximum predicted was 275 - a very narrow gap in the poll that claims a three per cent error margin.

The poll projected the main opposition Congress party, headed by Gandhi, and its allies would win only 175-195 seats.