Saturday, October 9, 1999

Indian elections
may bring stability

Bullet The issue: Results of the Indian elections have returned Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to power.
Bullet Our view: The victory may mean a welcome end to a succession of short-lived governments.

INDIA may have gained a measure of stability with the victory of the Hindu nationalist party BJP and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in the national elections. The party and its allies apparently have won 296 seats in the lower house of parliament, giving the alliance a majority of 24 -- considerably more than it had in the previous parliament -- and a better chance for survival.

Vajpayee becomes the first prime minister since 1971 to win back-to-back elections. His previous government collapsed in April and efforts to forge a new ruling coalition failed, forcing elections.

The new government will be India's sixth since 1996. The frequent changes have been a major obstacle to effective leadership.

The attainment of political stability is not assured. Commentators said that forming and holding together the new government would not be easy.

Vajpayee's own party made no net gain of seats in the election, which means BJP lawmakers will represent just over 60 percent of the ruling alliance compared with about 70 percent in the last parliament. It was also unclear whether the BJP's second-largest partner in parliament, the Telugu Desam Party of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, would formally join Vajpayee's National Democratic Alliance.

Vajpayee has promised to revive negotiations with Pakistan, proceed with reform of the over-regulated economy and refrain from hostile action against Muslims and other minorities. He must restrain the Hindu militants in his own party if India's multiethnic, multireligious democracy is to thrive.

It was just a year ago that India under Vajpayee's leadership and then Pakistan exploded nuclear devices in defiance of world opinion, raising the specter of a nuclear war.

Last summer India and Pakistan skirmished over Kashmir, but Vajpayee won praise by handling the dispute with restraint. The election returns could be interpreted as a vote of confidence in his ability to prevent another full-scale war with Pakistan.

One important confidence-building step would be the signing by both countries of the nuclear test-ban treaty, which both governments are committed to do. Also needed are bilateral agreements on restricting missile testing and production of nuclear materials.

Meanwhile the Congress Party, long India's ruling party, slumped to its worst defeat ever. It was led by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of a former prime minister, who was drafted reluctantly for the job in an attempt to save the party.

The defeat may have been the last gasp of the Gandhi dynasty, which has produced three prime ministers, including the nation's founder, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The appeal of the Gandhi name evidently has worn thin. India should turn elsewhere for its leaders -- and in this election it has.


Right to sue HMOs
should be assured

Bullet The issue: A bill to expand patients' legal rights has been approved by the House.
Bullet Our view: Congress should enact the House bill instead of a more limited Senate version.

HEALTH maintenance organizations would at long last be made accountable for decisions that lead to the injury or death of patients under a bipartisan measure approved by the House.

Opposition to such accountability on the basis that it would "unleash lawyers" is off base. Lawyers already are actively involved in medical malpractice cases but those are aimed at doctors, who may be saddled with liability for abiding by the dictates of HMOs.

Sixty-eight Republicans broke from their party's leadership to support the proposal, sponsored by Reps. John Dingell, D-Mich., and Charles Norwood, R-Ga.

"Since 1974," Norwood said, "managed-care insurance plans have enjoyed a near-total immunity from any legal accountability for injuring and killing the citizens of this country for monetary gain. No thinking, feeling American can agree to let that stand."

The bill, which would set uniform national standards for health insurance covering 161 million people, is supported by labor unions, consumer groups and the American Medical Association, whose members are angry that HMOs have compromised their decision-making autonomy as physicians.

The bill not only would guarantee patients access to emergency care and medical specialists, it would let them appeal HMO decisions about their coverage to an independent board. HMOs would be prohibited from retaliating against doctors who fight for their patients' needs.

The Senate passed a bill in July that also includes the right to appeal HMO decisions to an independent panel, but it would apply to only 48 million people and would not expand the right to sue HMOs for denying care or providing substandard treatment.

The chance of Congress agreeing on a compromise between the two bills is slight. In a further complication, the House bill is tied to tax-break proposals opposed by Democrats and the White House. Democrats said the tax breaks could jeopardize the passage of any bill coming out of conference.

Failure to give consumers the right to sue HMOs would make health care a prime issue in next year's presidential campaign, a prospect that congressional opponents of HMO accountability would be wise to avoid.

Published by Liberty Newspapers Limited Partnership

Rupert E. Phillips, CEO

John M. Flanagan, Editor & Publisher

David Shapiro, Managing Editor

Diane Yukihiro Chang, Senior Editor & Editorial Page Editor

Frank Bridgewater & Michael Rovner, Assistant Managing Editors

A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor

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