Leader of the low-castes proves key for Indian govt
* Support of "untouchables" leader Maywati shored govt
* Mayawati, other supporters, seen fickle, reform-suspicious
* Govt may rule till 2014, but no big-bang reforms-analysts
* Congress confident of passing crucial bills
By C.J. Kuncheria
NEW DELHI, April 28 (Reuters) - The pivotal role played by a self-proclaimed leader of the "untouchables" in ensuring India's Congress-led government's victory in parliament highlighted the importance of smaller parties and a rough road ahead for reforms.
Last-moment support from Mayawati, chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party that champions lower castes, helped the ruling coalition trounce by a wide margin an opposition sponsored vote of confidence on Tuesday over a hike in fuel and fertiliser prices.
But the fickleness of the allies who supported Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government underscores the difficulties he and his reformist aides would face in their efforts to further open up the economy and cut down subsidies.
Bills include those to allow more foreign stakes in pension and insurance sectors, and to permit foreign universities to set up local campuses, are all on hold due to political opposition.
"When it comes for foreign investment or opening up products to market forces, like in the case of petroleum, reforms become a major issue. They can't go to the (smaller parties) for support," D.H. Pai Panandikar, head of think-tank RPG Foundation, said.
While few expected the government to lose the vote over high inflation, disputes over a women's bill and a cricket scandal had seen many allies of the coalition either withdraw their support or waver in their support.
Enter Mayawati, who goes by one name and who was touted as a possible prime minister before she performed worst than expected in last year's general election.
This year, her million-dollar spending on statues of herself and parks in Uttar Pradesh, one of India's poorest states, has raised a storm of criticism. But despite this, her 21 lawmakers proved crucial in giving Congress a stable majority.
Congress has 207 members in the 545-member lower house of parliament. On Tuesday, the government had the support of 289 members, just 16 over the half-way mark, a pointer on how close a vote can go if the opposition effectively unites.
While Mayawati charged Singh's government of policies that caused hardships to people, she appeared keener this time to court government favour and deflect criticism as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state.
"While we should have normally voted against the government, we do not want communal forces to return to power in the garb of these issues," the former school teacher told a news conference.
Singh's government was also brought home safely by a thinning of the anti-government alliance, when the 27 members of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) walked out on the vote, just weeks after they had demanding it.
Like Mayawati, they blamed the Congress for high inflation and other woes, but cited as reason for their shift a reluctance to vote alongside 'communal forces,' shorthand for main Hindu-nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
MAYAWATI, OTHERS, SEEN FICKLE
The 54-year old Mayawati is no friend of the Congress. Both parties are locked in a bitter struggle to control Uttar Pradesh, the state which sends the most number of lawmakers to parliament.
The party, which has tried to spread its wings beyond Uttar Pradesh with limited success, has earlier aligned with both the Congress and the BJP, guided by its founding agenda of being in power and using the government to benefit its lower caste voters.
"She has saved the goverment, but where do we go from here? In the future she will not maintain this position," said Sudha Pai, a professor at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University and an author of a book on the party.
Pai said Mayawati's decision came on expectation the Congress would pipe down its criticism of issues like using government funds to build colossal states of herself.
Analysts say the Congress looked set to rule till its five-year term ends 2014, but would have to wheel out its dealmakers each time crucial legislation is up for approval, further complicating the rocky road to freeing up the economy.
"I think it is a somewhat stable equilibrium," Abheek Barua, chief economist at HDFC bank, said. "There is a symbiotic relationship between the Congress and the smaller parties." (Editing by Alistair Scrutton)
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