NEW DELHI, NOV. 2 -- Last summer, following an embarrassing squabble in his minority government, India's enigmatic prime minister, V.P. Singh, was asked by an interviewer whether he had learned anything about leadership during his months in power. "Yes, I have learned a lesson," Singh replied. "I think I have to be more firm. Maybe I was too quiet and tolerant."
These days, nobody accuses Singh of meekness. In an abrupt change of political style, the self-effacing, consensus-building prime minister has made two bold decisions: to implement a controversial affirmative action plan for lower castes and to confront India's Hindu militants. In the aftermath of Singh's actions, his government stands at the brink of collapse amid a wave of social and religious unrest.
Many Indian commentators see the identity of the nation at stake in the present political crisis. Some accuse Singh of cynically hurling India back toward the dark days of religious and caste violence that prevailed 40 years ago, after India achieved independence. Others see the prime minister as making a principled stand against opportunistic politicians and religious activists who are eager to take his chair if he falls.
Singh's opponents say the centrist prime minister has lost his political bearings. They say that while abandoning the quiet style that defined his career, Singh has confused boldness with recklessness, jeopardizing his national standing, his party's future and India's stability.
The prime minister's supporters reply that, although Singh may be in trouble at the moment, his decisive stands on such crucial national issues as social justice for lower castes and the separation of church and state in India will serve him well if new elections are held. For the first time, Singh has positioned himself to become a national leader with mass support across India, these supporters argue.
"Rather than being all things to all people, he's decided to be some things to a substantial section of the electorate, who will send him back to office," said Bharat Karnad, former editor of the political journal India Week.
For now, however, Singh is engulfed in crises.
His affirmative action plan has alienated much of India's upper-caste urban elite, particularly the media, which generally supported Singh in his 1989 campaign against then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Singh's decision to forcefully prevent Hindu militants from building a temple on the site of an existing mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya has sparked a fresh round of religious riots and has led the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party to withdraw the parliamentary backing that has kept Singh's government in power.
Spurred by the prime minister's troubles over religion and caste, dissidents within Singh's party are manuevering to oust him before elections can be called. The latest blow was delivered Thursday by a faction of Singh's centrist Janata Party that earlier had offered staunch support. Three leading cabinet members released a statement urging "immediate and effective steps . . . to avert the present drift to disaster."
The statement suggested that an urban faction of the Janata Party led by Commerce Minister Arun Nehru join a group of rural-based party dissidents in a revolt against Singh prior to a parliamentary confidence vote scheduled for Nov. 7. But today, several other Janata leaders rallied to Singh's side in public statements, saying they opposed any change of leadership and were prepared for elections.
If the confidence vote goes forward, Singh is expected to lose, which probably would lead to new elections by January.
Some politicians see Gandhi's Congress Party as the most likely winner in an election. Because of the Congress Party's history -- it has governed India for all but four of its 43 years of independence -- Gandhi could mount a campaign promising stability and strength at the center. And Gandhi likely would benefit from three-way contests in many parliamentary districts among Congress, the Janata Party and the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Gandhi held a slight edge over Singh in a national poll conducted in September by New Delhi's Marketing and Research Group, which accurately forecast last year's election. According to the poll, the Congress Party would win a slight parliamentary majority if there was total disunity among Singh's party and its former allies.
The poll was conducted before the latest round of religious conflicts, which have polarized many northern voters.