Huge Loss Looms in India for Gandhi's Ruling Party


Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi appeared headed for political disaster today as official results from one of India's bloodiest elections indicated that his ruling party would lose its majority for only the second time in history.

Using final totals from almost half of the nation's districts and substantial totals from the rest, statistical analysts on state-run television predicted that Gandhi's Congress-I party, which has governed the nation for all but 30 months since Indian independence in 1947, will lose more than half the seats it has held in the nation's 543-member Parliament.

About 130 people were killed during the three-stage election, with voting on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

Officially, as of midday today, winners have been declared for 222 of the 524 seats up for election, with Congress-I having won just 80. Analysts on government television predicted that the ruling party would win a total of 200 seats, compared to the 415 it won during the last general election five years ago.

Even after all votes are tallied, no clear winner is likely to emerge from the polls, the analysts said, basing their projections on what they called "irreversible trends" in most of the races.

The opposition National Front alliance led by former Gandhi aide Vishwanath Pratap Singh was leading for just 91 seats, having been declared official winners in 51 contests.

The television analysts said that the most startling result was the emergence of a third force in Indian politics, the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which was ahead in 75 races after having won only two seats five years ago.

The most likely outcome of what several independent analysts already are calling a landmark election will be a "hung" Parliament, in which Congress-I may be the largest single victor but will not be able to govern without forming coalitions.

"It is going to be a very close finish," said Prannoy Roy, a prominent Indian statistical analyst.

It would be the first time in Indian history that a coalition would attempt to rule, and analysts said it would herald a new era of uncertainty and instability on India's traditionally dynastic political landscape.

"In any case, Rajiv Gandhi's leadership of the party is going to be challenged--that is without doubt," said independent political analyst Bharat Wariavwalla. "It is clear he is now a liability to his party. And the whole defeat can be neatly blamed on him."

Privately, several senior ruling party members agreed.

The 45-year-old Gandhi, who inherited the mantle of leadership from his mother, Indira Gandhi, after her assassination in 1984, made himself the centerpiece of the ruling party's monthlong campaign, barnstorming the nation by jet, helicopter and limousine and addressing scores of rallies.

The election also was billed as a report card on Gandhi's five years in power, during which the young leader had vowed to usher in a new era of science and prosperity in long-impoverished India. Most analysts concluded that the dramatic swing against Congress-I is largely due to Gandhi's failure to meet the nation's heightened expectations, as well as persistent charges of corruption that reached as high as Gandhi's own office.

Gandhi had pledged to rid government of such corruption, and charges that he personally may have profited from kickbacks on an Indian arms deal with the Swedish firm Bofors in 1987 was a major plank in the opposition's campaign.

"Rajiv certainly will be in trouble if we fail to get a majority, and we will most likely go for his head if we win less than 200 seats," said one senior ruling party leader as early trends emerged.

In fact, the fate of Gandhi's own seat in Parliament remained uncertain today. After documenting widespread abuses, including armed intimidation and vote fraud by the ruling party in his Amethi constituency, the federal election commission ordered new polling today in 97 of the district's 930 polling stations. Counting also will begin there today.

The Amethi race had been billed as "Gandhi vs. Gandhi--the battle of the grandsons," with Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, running against Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the father of Indian independence.

But polling in Amethi was so tainted by violence and fraud that human rights organizations and intellectuals condemned the race there as symbolic of the bloodshed and rigging that took place in many areas nationwide.

The prime minister has denied that his party workers committed abuses in Amethi. But, at a press conference Sunday, his opponent, Rajmohan Gandhi, said, "The whole election was a fraud from A to Z on their side."

Rajmohan Gandhi then called for the prime minister's resignation and declared that he will not accept the official results of the Amethi poll, win or lose.

Although the prime minister is expected to retain his seat when the final count is in, many of his key party colleagues were faring poorly elsewhere in the nation.

Gandhi's trusted interior minister, Buta Singh, lost badly, as did several other powerful Cabinet ministers. His Speaker of the house, Balram Jakhar, lost in the north Indian state of Rajasthan, a traditional Congress-I stronghold where the party is not expected to win any seats.

In fact, a large majority of Gandhi's candidates were heading for defeat throughout the north Indian "cow belt," which has been the ruling party's main vote bank for four decades. And some of the prime minister's most bitter foes were taking their places.

Gandhi's estranged sister-in-law, Maneka Gandhi, who attracted international attention in 1982 when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi expelled her from the family home, was leading by a large margin in a remote district of India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, where Gandhi's cousin, Arun Nehru, who split from the ruling party in 1987, also was expected to win handily.

The only bright spot for the ruling party today was in the four southern states that have been under opposition control for the past several years. There, Congress-I surprised all analysts by sweeping Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, where the regional opposition party of film idol N.T. Rama Rao was dealt a humiliating defeat.

"It is a major vote for change--not only at the center, but a vote for change everywhere," said pollster and analyst Roy, who was anchoring state-run television's election coverage. "All over, they're voting against the party in power. The electorate has become more critical."

For analyst Wariavwalla, the result is not simply an indication of negative voting. "It shows that the Indian electorate is a very intelligent and discriminating electorate," he said.

And analyst Pran Chopra, of New Delhi's Center for Policy Research, added: "It shows that gimmicks are not enough. There has to be a system, and there has to be a program. And the people clearly have created a situation in which a coalition becomes necessary."

The formation of such a coalition, though, is likely to take days or even weeks, the analysts concluded.

"What's going to become critical in this election are the smaller parties," said Roy. "And who will become the next prime minister . . . will take some time to decide."

Given its large new voting bloc, for example, the Hindu national Bharatiya Janata Party has flatly refused to form a coalition with Gandhi's party.

"I will not support any government which includes the Congress-I," declared L. K. Advani, the party's president, after winning his New Delhi seat by an overwhelming margin Sunday night.

"We are entering into an exciting period," Wariavwalla said. "But the most important thing to see is that for the first time in 42 years, the dominance of one party and the dominance of one family has been broken."

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