GANDHI FACES KEY LOCAL VOTE

Beleaguered Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has a lot riding on state elections in Tamil Nadu Saturday. If his Congress (I) Party does well, it could boost his sagging political fortunes prior to national elections this year and even encourage him to hold the vote earlier. Mr. Gandhi has been haunted by election losses and political scandals.

An opinion poll in The Hindu newspaper, showed Congress (I) running second in a colorful race against three Tamil parties, headed by a former actor and two former actresses.

``Congress won't win a majority. But if it comes up with a strong showing, Gandhi could form an alliance, control the state government, and demonstrate that he still has that appeal,'' says K. Kasturi Rangan, a Madras-based editor.

The Tamil Nadu election has turned into a political vaudeville, starring ex-show business personalities. The state, where some Tamils chafe at dominance by India's Hindi-speaking majority, has been under central government rule since the 1987 death of Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran.

After his death, the party split between his wife and mistress, both of whom are contesting the poll. But a former Ramachandran ally who became his rival is considered the front-runner.

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