NEW DELHI — Caretaker Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao reasserted his leadership Sunday as his Congress (I) Party, rocked by election defeat, pledged to join with other secular parties in an effort to bar Hindu nationalists from forming India's next government.
"All our forces would be guided by one principle . . . that is to keep communal forces out of power," said External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, a powerful Congress leader and Rao ally.
In the evening, Congress members from both chambers of India's legislature thumped their desks as they unanimously reelected the 74-year-old Rao their leader in Parliament.
It was an ostentatious display of unity by a political machine that had just suffered its worst defeat in national elections after leading India for a total of more than 44 years.
Some party members have blamed Rao's brand of leadership--a mixture of blandness and skillful, behind-the-scenes intrigue--for the debacle. But at a meeting earlier Sunday of the powerful Congress Working Committee, party officials said, there were no objections raised to Rao continuing as party president.
The issue, however, may rebound later this week. The committee is scheduled to meet again Wednesday, and the possibility of separating the premiership and the party presidency may arise then.
The United News of India said Rao agreed at the committee's closed-door meeting to let the issue--tantamount to a reduction in his power--be discussed and that his assent softened the opposition of some committee members to his reelection as party president.
In a statement, the committee accepted the verdict of the voters "with humility" but said a government including the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the biggest winner in the national parliamentary elections, would be "a threat to the secular foundations of the Indian Republic."
Mukherjee said Congress leaders have not yet decided whether to join with the National Front-Leftist Front--a loose coalition of secular, leftist and Communist parties--in trying to form a non-BJP government or merely to support the other parties during votes in Parliament. "The option is open," Mukherjee said.
With almost all the ballots counted in the national vote, the arithmetic shifted to make Congress support indispensable if the NF-LF is to come to power. By Sunday evening, the BJP and its allies had collected 181 seats in the 545-member Parliament.
BJP gains in Bihar state helped cut the NF-LF total to 108, fewer than originally projected. Congress has won 137 seats.
The NF-LF, hostile to Congress during the election campaign, quickly toned down its rhetoric in the face of the BJP's triumph. As recently as Friday, its leaders demanded that Rao be replaced as Congress president as a condition for the formation of an anti-BJP alliance, but many were moving away from that demand over the weekend.
Rao resigned Friday after nearly five years as prime minister. President Shankar Dayal Sharma asked Rao to stay on as caretaker until a new government can be formed.