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India's Time of Transition

Events in India can never be ignored. It has nearly 1 billion people and is projected to overtake China by 2025. It's the dominant power in South Asia. It has vast, largely untapped, economic potential. And it has a half-century of experience with democratic governance.

India has also had five different governments in the last three years, and will soon get its sixth.

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This uncertainty in government keeps away investors who could help India's emerging economy. Consistent economic reforms - steps toward greater privatization and less protectionism - would allay doubt. But those steps demand strong, consistent political leadership.

So does continued rapprochement with neighboring Pakistan, a process just begun by outgoing Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Mr. Vajpayee's ouster was engineered by small regional parties within his ruling coalition. Their complaints were not serious policy differences but petty matters of pride and political retribution. The prime minister himself was not at issue. In fact, Vajpayee's relative moderation reassured many who lamented his rise to power as head of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The baton could now pass to the Congress Party, which has governed India for all but six of its 51 years of independence. The party of Nehru has been trying to rebuild popular support after long bouts with scandal and internal fragmentation. Its leader is Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991.

Her famous family name rallies a certain amount of support, and the party's leaders are promoting her as the next prime minister. Mrs. Gandhi's foreign birth and Roman Catholic faith are issues with some Indians. But more to the point is her largely untested leadership ability. She, too, might have to head a coalition government dependent on some of the same volatile small parties that bought down Vajpayee and the BJP. Guiding policy through that obstacle course will take considerable skill.

Also likely is yet another national election - if not immediately, then later this year. That could sort out the political scene, and might give Congress an opportunity to boost its strength in parliament, where it holds many fewer seats than the BJP.

India, clearly, is still in mid-transition from decades of one-party rule marked by socialist themes at home and studied nonalignment abroad. Today's globalizing world, by contrast, demands open markets and broad international engagement. Whoever leads India through this transition will need extraordinary vision.

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