Hoping to end a three-week political crisis and reluctant to call new elections less than a year after the last national vote, India's president on Sunday accepted Inder Kumar Gujral as the country's new prime minister. Gujral was sworn in early today.
President Shankar Dayal Sharma gave the 77-year-old Gujral, an urbane two-time foreign minister and former ambassador to Moscow, two days to prove his United Front coalition has a majority in Parliament, which opens a special session today to debate the national budget. The president set a parliamentary vote of confidence for the new government for Tuesday.
Citing "considerations relevant to the national interest," Sharma said he decided against holding a midterm poll "so soon after the general elections held in 1996."
Gujral's appointment was widely seen as a compromise move that many hope will stabilize the shaky political scene. No single political party holds a majority in the lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha. The latest crisis was precipitated when the once-dominant Congress Party withdrew its support for Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, the outgoing United Front leader.
But in meetings Sunday, Congress Party leaders assured Sharma that the party will support Gujral.
"Nobody wanted early elections," said political analyst H.K. Dua. "Inder Gujral is a sober person who has the capability of holding the Congress Party in the fold. He is the least controversial of the leaders who were available for the job, and he has no faction of his own. He's nobody's man."
One of Gujral's first challenges as prime minister will be to repair cracks in the ruling coalition.
A regional party that controls prosperous Tamil Nadu state at the southern tip of India withdrew from the 13-party coalition after the party's leader, G.K. Moopanar, lost in the competition to become prime minister. The party holds only 20 seats in the Lok Sabha, but one of its members is Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, who will lose his Cabinet post if the regional party splits with the coalition.
Chidambaram is author of a new budget that contains major tax and tariff reforms that, although widely debated in India, have been sought for years by foreign investors. Government leaders said they will still ask Chidambaram to lead the debate on the budget.