New Delhi — Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's party suffered a setback in important state elections. It could be a major defeat for the charismatic, matriarchal figure of Indira Gandhi, and her heir-apparent son, Rajiv.
With nearly 70 percent of the vote counted after a Wednesday vote, Mrs. Gandhi's Congress Party was being overwhelmed in the state of Andhra Pradesh and , in early returns, the opposition had a comfortable lead in Karnataka. The party showed its only modest gains in the Marxist-run state of Tripura, in the isolated northeast.
But, it is in the two key southern states of Andhra and Karnataka where far more is involved. In both, the Congress Party has never been defeated in state contests before. And both stood out in their support of Mrs. Gandhi, when others rebelled against her in the past, including her defeat in the 1977 national elections, and her controversial period of ''emergency'' rule. Indeed, Andhra Pradesh is her home constituency, and has always been considered her personal ground, much in the same way as Massachusetts equates with the Kennedy clan.
And, it was in Karnataka, that she began her political come-back after a 1977 defeat.
In both states, however, her fractious national party was challenged by regional groups: in Andhra, by a party led by a popular film idol and founded only seven months ago. In Karnataka, an opposition coalition of the national Janata Party joined with another new regional group.
And, in both states, although the elections were ostensibly for state assemblies, the real issues involved were Mrs. Gandhi's concept of highly-centralized government, and her highly personalized political style.
In Andhra, which Congress Party officials had conceded would be the real battleground, local film star N. T. Rama Rao and his Telugu Desam Party were sweeping to victory, at time of writing, capturing 105 assembly seats, compared to 23 for the Congress Party out of a total of 285 seats. Seven incumbent Congress ministers have, thus far, gone down to defeat.
In the last Andhra state elections in 1978, Mrs. Gandhi's party - though at a low in national strength - captured nearly 40 percent of the state's 31 million votes.
Yet, it is Karnataka that has given the greatest surprise. As opposed to Andhra, there was no charismatic challenger involved. Mrs. Gandhi was confident that her Congress Party - which captured 43 percent of the vote in the last state elections four years ago - would remain entrenched. However, the state's chief minister was defeated by a substantial margin of 5,000 votes. Seven other state ministers have, so far, been defeated as well.
Indeed, the over 50 million voters in the three states involved were the last big election test for Mrs. Gandhi, before the next general elections, scheduled for 1984.
Mrs. Gandhi has been a master at campaigning, a charismatic figure with extraordinary personal appeal. She campaigned hard in both Karnataka and Andhra, stumping for an unprecedented 19 days.
But her party has been marred by defections and dissension. Regionalism is a growing force. Inefficiency in state governments had become an issue.
Does this mean that Indira Gandhi is losing her grass-roots support?
Foreign officials caution that although this could be happening in southern India, the north has a different political texture.
The most serious challenge Mrs. Gandhi is now facing certainly appears to be within her own Congress Party.
There has been no distinction between the lady and the party, and a defeat will certainly complicate her ability to manage domestic politics.
And, within her own dynastic family, there could also be significant shifts.
Her son, Rajiv, heir apparent after his flamboyant brother Sanjay's death in 1980, could clearly be a casualty of the elections. His mother had hoped to install him as head of the party in March. But, after a tireless effort in the Karnataka campaign, the lackluster Rajiv clearly made little impact. Though diplomats caution that it is highly premature to write him off, he has almost certainly suffered a setback.
Yet, basking in at least indirect glory in all this is the controversial Maneka Gandhi, Indira's widowed daughter-in-law, the two have been involved in an acrimonious battle for the last six months. Maneka, who plans to form her own political party to perpetuate the legend of her husband, Sanjay, was given five seats in Andhra by Rama Rao.