INFIGHTING IN INDIA. India's embattled premier hangs on to a splintering party. Gandhi's moves to eliminate dissent could backfire

The emergence of a growing opposition within India's ruling party confronts Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with a political challenge that has major long-term implications. Mr. Gandhi's staunchest critics are reportedly planning a series of nationwide rallies to demand his ouster, and there are signs that dissidents in the premier's Congress (I) Party may form alliances with other opposition parties. And Gandhi is believed to be considering another shake-up in government - the 10th in his 2 years in office - to repair the damage to his leadership and personal image.

Though analysts in New Delhi do not expect Gandhi's imminent fall from power, a string of events has created a schism in the party that could mark the beginning of his unmaking, they say.

For months now, Gandhi has been beset by widespread criticism over allegations of corruption, a crushing electoral defeat in state elections last month, unabating discontent in his party, and what is seen as grave misjudgements and petulant behavior. His govenment has been increasingly unable to deal with worsening communal violence.

Gandhi's current crisis stems from his moves to eliminate dissent in the party by the July 19 expulsion of former Defense and Finance Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh. This, and recent other expulsions of other senior personalities, was followed by the resignation of one of his most professional aides, Defense Minister Arun Singh.

The Cabinet shuffle is expected to take place before Parliament convenes July 27, and changes within the party also are in the offing. But, says Jaswant Singh, leader of the opposition Janata (People's) Party, any changes ``will be purely cosmetic.''

Many observers believe that Gandhi will remain in power until the next national elections are due in 1990, despite mounting calls for mid-term elections. Gandhi, some observers point out, can still capitalize on the influence of his family which has ruled India for most of the last 40 years. In addition, the opposition parties have remained disunited and unable to present a feasible alternative to Gandhi so far.

``I really don't see any serious threat to Gandhi in terms of his government falling or his removal as party leader,'' says Pran Chopra, of the Center for Policy Research.

However, Mr. Chopra says, ``If the balance of probability was in favor of Gandhi winning the elections, now the balance of probablity has turned against him after the recent expulsions.''

Several Congress (I) state ministers and party officials have already broken ranks to protest the expulsions. It is unclear whether they will form another party. Most are rallying around Singh as the prime leader in any move to oust Gandhi.

V.P. Singh is the most influential figure among the widening circle of those who are openly critical of Gandhi. As finance minister, Singh was the moving force behind Gandhi's early programs to weed out corruption and pursue tax evaders.

Gandhi abruptly shifted him to defense early this year while Singh was undertaking investigations of illegal financial transactions by private firms.

Singh resigned his last post as defense minister in April under strong pressure from other Congress (I) leaders after he announced an investigation into a defense deal involving payoffs to Indian middlemen.

Singh initially remained within the party as a member of the upper legislative house, professing loyalty to Gandhi while campaigning publicly against corruption.

According to Congress (I) officials, he was expelled for indulging in ``antiparty activities.'' But Singh reportedly said that he was expelled because of a letter he wrote urging Gandhi to prosecute the brother of a close friend suspected of financial wrongdoing.

Most observers agree that Gandhi's opponents will require some time to rally mass support. Singh himself is not known to have grassroots political support except in his northern home state of Uttar Pradesh, considered a Congress (I) bastion.

Some analysts say political events in Uttar Pradesh are crucial to any snowball effect in the movement to oust Gandhi. So far, however, this remains only in the realm of possibility. It is reported that certain opposition leaders may be willing to unite with Singh and support him as flag-bearer of a broad alliance.

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