DATE=12/15/1999 TYPE=BACKGROUND REPORT TITLE=YEARENDER: INDIAN POLITICS NUMBER=5-44991 BYLINE=JIM TEEPLE DATELINE=NEW DELHI CONTENT= VOICED AT: INTRO: Nineteen-99 was a tumultuous year in Indian politics. It was the year that Sonia Gandhi --the Italian-born widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi -- emerged as a major force in Indian politics. She won her first race for a parliament seat. However, the big winner in 1999 turned out to be Atal Behari Vajpayee -- India's 75-year-old Prime Minister. He began the year as the head of a weak coalition government but later won national elections, becoming the first Indian prime minister since 1971 to win a second consecutive term in office. V-O-A's Jim Teeple has more on the year in Indian politics. TEXT: // ACTUALITY OF SOUND CHANTING SUPPORT FOR SONIA GANDHI // Text: Crowds of Sonia Gandhi supporters gathered outside her sprawling, colonial-era mansion in New Delhi's diplomatic enclave on April 17th. It was a warm Saturday afternoon and Sonia Gandhi's Congress Party had just brought down a weak coalition government led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party. The defeat was a shock. Predictions had Mr. Vajpayee winning a parliament vote of confidence by one vote. Instead, he lost by the same margin. Later that day, Mr. Vajpayee submitted his resignation to India's President K-R Narayanan, saying he would stay on until a new government was formed. Mr. Vajpayee's government was brought down after just 13 months in office. One of his coalition allies, Jarayam Jayalalitha -- a former movie actress from the state of Tamil Nadu -- withdrew her 18 seats from his coalition and offered her support to Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party. The move forced a Parliament vote of confidence. However, Sonia Gandhi quickly discovered it was far easier to bring down a government than form one of her own. In the days that followed, both the Congress Party and the B-J-P worked furiously to line up the necessary 272 votes to form a government and avoid a national election. While Mr. Vajpayee avoided the public spotlight Sonia Gandhi made a statement she was soon to regret. // GANDHI ACTUALITY // I don't know how many numbers (votes in Parliament) they claim to have. They say, I believe, they have 270. Well, we have 272 and we hope to get more. We are confident we will get more. // END ACTUALITY // It soon became clear that Sonia Gandhi's erstwhile political allies were as fickle as those of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Allies that helped her bring down the government avoided meetings with Mrs. Gandhi -- holding out for concessions the Congress Party president was unable to deliver. After a week of crisis maneuvering, it became clear that neither Sonia Gandhi nor Atal Behari Vajpayee had the support to form a government and national elections were scheduled for five voting dates in September and October. Following his defeat in Parliament, Atal Behari Vajpayee enjoyed a burst of popularity from a public and a party that felt he had been unfairly brought down. His previously tenuous position as undisputed party leader was solidified and most polls showed the prime minister in a strong position to win reelection. The situation was far different for Sonia Gandhi. Following her inability to form a government, recriminations against her quickly began. Three prominent Congress Party regional leaders questioned her ability to leader the party -- saying only native- born Indians should aspire to high office in India. Mrs. Gandhi quickly showed that, although she might not be able to control allies outside the party, she had a firm grasp on the party itself. In a dramatic announcement, she resigned her position as Congress Party president -- calling the bluff of dissidents within the party who had questioned her leadership abilities. Panicked party leaders quickly expelled the three dissidents and called on her to return as Congress Party president. She did one week later, at a party conference where she rejected accusations she was not "Indian enough" to head the Party or run for office. // GANDHI ACTUALITY // No longer shall we tolerate the negative forces which seek to target the dignity of a woman through calumny and falsehood this is an attempt to rule by sowing suspicion by dividing brother from brother and by indulging in the partisan politics of hate. // END ACTUALITY // // OPT // While Sonia Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee positioned themselves and their parties for an election showdown, India's election commission scrambled to make preparations for the country's third national election in three years. India Chief Election Commissioner M-S Gill said, even in the best of times, Indian elections are not easy to prepare for. // OPTIONAL GILL ACTUALITY // An Indian election is the mother of all elections -- 600 million voters, which is not a joke. It worries and frightens one. And we have a whole range of arrangements to look at -- security, seasons, the monsoon, education -- all sorts of things. // END OPTIONAL ACTUALITY // Over five days in September and October, Indian voters trooped to the polls. Concerns over election violence were high, but election officials later said disruptions and violence in the 1999 election were minor compared with past elections. As the voting got underway it became clear fairly quickly India's venerable Congress Party was heading for a major defeat. The defection of three party regional party leaders dealt a serious blow to the party's chances in key states like Maharasthra, home to Bombay -- India's commercial capital. // OPT // Ramesh Dubey -- a candidate for parliament in the northwest part of the city -- was running on the ticket of the Nationalist Congress Party - a breakaway political party which split from Congress Party in May. Mr. Dubey said Sonia Gandhi's place of birth was the reason he left the Congress Party and it was why he was running for Parliament. // OPTIONAL DUBEY ACTUALITY // Yes, I left because we don't want a foreign lady as the Prime Minister of India. // END OPTIONAL ACTUALITY // In India, parliament candidates are allowed to run for more than one seat. Sonia Gandhi won both races she ran by overwhelming majorities -- entering parliament for the first time. However, she led her party to its worst defeat in memory, losing more than 30 seats in Parliament and calling into question once again her leadership abilities. And, just six months after his government was defeated by one vote in a parliament confidence motion, Atal Behari Vajpayee became the first prime minister since Indira Gandhi in 1971 to win a second term in office. In the process, she led the B-J-P to its biggest victory ever. With its coalition partners, the B-J-P now controls more than 300 seats in India's 545-seat lower house. Party leaders say they are confident they will be able to serve out a full five-year term in office. //REST OPTIONAL// Following his election victory Mr. Vajpayee said his top priority was to push ahead with economic reforms. Economic liberalization was begun nearly ten years ago. However, the reforms were slowed down in recent years by a lack of political consensus over how much privatization and foreign investment should be allowed in India. Sonia Gandhi says she accepts full responsibility for her party's poor showing in the election, but that she will stay on as Congress Party president and lead the opposition in Parliament. (Signed) neb/jlt/WD 15-Dec-1999 02:36 AM EDT (15-Dec-1999 0736 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .