Gandhi Slips in State Voting : Losses by Ruling Party Revive India Opposition

Times Staff Writer

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on Wednesday suffered his first political defeats since taking over the national leadership from his assassinated mother as voters installed opposition governments in two key south Indian states.

Overall, in state elections concluded this week, Gandhi's ruling Congress-I Party won in eight out of 11 states, including Uttar Pradesh state, the party's northern India stronghold. However, lopsided losses in the heavily populated southern India states of Andhra Pradesh and here in Karnataka, as well as in the smaller state of Sikkim, took the shine off the victories.

The losses in the south, coupled with the ruling party's poorer than expected showing in Maharashtra state, served to revive the opposition, which suffered heavy losses in the December elections for the national Parliament.

Before voting ended Tuesday in states with a combined population of 280 million, some observers had expressed fears of one-party Congress-I rule, and even Gandhi aides privately hoped for a relatively strong showing by the opposition.

Gandhi had expected to lose in Andhra Pradesh, where Telegu-language movie star N.T. Rama Rao heads a powerful regional party. But here in Karnataka, home of India's aerospace industry, the prime minister said he had expected Congress-I to win control of the state government away from a coalition headed by Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde of the Janata Party.

Instead, as the results slowly came in Wednesday night, the Janata Party easily won a majority, capturing more than 140 of the 224 seats in the state assembly compared to 62 for Congress-I. The Karnataka election was a nearly direct reversal of the national elections in December, when Congress-I won in more than 140 of the state's assembly districts.

Janata Party leaders here were quick to herald the reversal as a breakthrough in the wave of sympathy that helped Congress-I in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination Oct. 31 and as a sign that Rajiv is vulnerable to opposition challenges.

In Maharashtra, where Bombay, India's most important business and industrial center, is situated, an opposition coalition gave Congress-I a tough race but Gandhi's party eventually won a majority. With 267 out of 288 districts reporting, the Progressive Democratic Front trailed Congress-I 100 to 148, with minor parties winning the rest.

The opposition was led by former Congress-I leader Sharad Pawar, and his coalition's strong showing added luster to his political reputation.

New Figures Emerge

In fact, the state elections may eventually reorder the ranks of opposition leaders in the country. Among politicians likely to emerge at the top of the list in coming elections are Pawar and Hegde, the 59-year-old soft-spoken attorney from Bangalore. Hegde, especially, is seen here as having outsmarted Gandhi.

After the national elections for the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament) in December, Hegde dissolved the state assembly he headed, even though new elections were not required for another two years, and declared that it was his "moral obligation" to seek new approval for his party in assembly elections after its defeat in the national vote.

His act was editorially acclaimed in all the major Indian newspapers as well as by Gandhi himself. However, the move also served to dilute the sympathy vote attached to Rajiv Gandhi and attract a different kind of sympathy to Hegde.

In addition, Hegde has established a reputation in this city as an honest and effective leader. Previously, he served here as finance minister in a Congress-I government before splitting with the party during the Indira Gandhi emergency period in 1975. During his two years in that office, he supervised the digging of 29,000 wells in the Karnataka countryside, bringing additional water to 25,000 villages.

3 Major States

With this round of state elections completed, three of the major Indian states remain in opposition party control. They are West Bengal, controlled by the Communist Party-Marxist, Karnataka (Janata) and Andhra Pradesh (Telegu Desam). The state of Tamil Nadu is ruled by a regional party closely allied with Gandhi's Congress-I.

Of those state ruling parties, however, only Janata is capable of challenging Congress-I nationwide in future elections.

"We were rooted out in the national elections," one Karnataka state minister said. "But now we have established a hold in Karnataka. This is the beginning foundation to rebuilding the Janata as an alternative to the Congress-I."

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