Support for Gandhi Rapidly Wanes

Weapons scandal is latest in series of setbacks dimming reelection hopes for his Congress party. INDIA'S LEADERSHIP

PRIME Minister Rajiv Gandhi faces a deepening crisis over a weapons scandal and his strategy to win reelection. Last week, newspaper disclosures that a Swedish weapons supplier paid up to $100 million to win an Indian arms contract tightened suspicions surrounding Mr. Gandhi's beleaguered government.

The reports in The Hindu, a widely respected newspaper, provide the strongest evidence yet that an Indian agent, and possibly high-level Indian officials, were paid bribes in 1986 to award the $1.4 billion contract to Bofors AB of Sweden.

In tandem, Gandhi suffered a setback when the upper house of the Indian Parliament failed to clear two constitutional amendments that were crucial to his reelection plans. Gandhi, who came to power after the 1984 assassination of his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, must call elections by January.

The amendments, which failed to win a two-thirds majority, were aimed at giving more powers to local government councils and more discretion to the central government in disbursing rural development funds. The changes would have beefed up Gandhi's reelection chances in this largely agricultural nation of 800 million, analysts say, although now the ruling Indian National Congress (I) Party intends to use the defeat to divert attention from the corruption charges.

The developments charged the political atmosphere and seemed to be pushing Gandhi toward disbanding Parliament and calling a new poll ahead of the December/January timetable.

However, over the weekend, the prime minister, who accused his political opponents and investigating newspapers of waging a ``campaign of innuendoes,'' dismissed suggestions of early elections made by his own party officials. He pledged to make an election issue of the amendment defeat, calling it ``antipeople and antidevelopment.''

Analysts said dissolving the Parliament could backfire on the government by triggering mass defections by disgruntled members of Gandhi's Congress Party. Gandhi commands support of a majority of the 390 Congress members of the lower house of Parliament.

Political observers say that concerns over Congress's reelection prospects are growing. Congress leaders, who exert powerful leverage at the state and local levels, are perturbed by Gandhi's handling of the weapons controversy, spreading communal violence, and the imbroglio in Sri Lanka, where Indian troops have been fighting Tamil militants.

Chimanbhai Mehta, a Congress member who was suspended from the party earlier this year after he called for new leadership, said Gandhi's support of the bills was ``antidemocratic and encouraged mafia politics.

``They were not earnest about passing the bills but just wanted to accuse the opposition, which has suggested constructive and democratic amendments,'' he said.

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