NEW DELHI — LEADERS of the struggling Congress (I) Party, India's major political force for four decades, chose party loyalist P. V. Narasimha Rao to succeed assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as president. Amid mounting criticism of Congress disarray, the party's working committee voted unanimously in naming the veteran politician.
But the 69-year-old Narasimha Rao, who has had recent health problems, was expected to serve only for an interim to carry the party through tough elections scheduled to resume next month.
It is also unclear whether Mr. Narasimha Rao would be given the position of prime minister if the Congress Party wins the national election that was interrupted by the May 21 assassination of Mr. Gandhi in a bomb explosion.
Voting will resume June 12 and 15.
Under the Nehru-Gandhi family, the president of the party was also head of the parliamentary contingent, and when Congress was in power, prime minister.
That could change as the party heads for a major restructuring and possibly even a split that could alter the election outcome and the face of politics in modern India.
Watching from the wings are leaders of the communist parties and the forces under former Prime Minister V. P. Singh and the caretaker government of Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar.
Their ranks include many Congress Party defectors who could reunite with fragments of the Congress to force a united front against the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), political observers say.
The appointment of Narasimha Rao is aimed at maintaining unity and controlling damage from the party's hasty and controversial attempt to name Gandhi's Italian-born widow, Sonia, as Congress Party president.
Mrs. Gandhi has refused the post and resisted repeated efforts by Congress members to pressure her to take the job. Although her Italian background has been controversial in India, the Congress Party was gambling that her leadership would draw a sympathy vote for the party.
Mrs. Gandhi's nomination was engineered by a small coterie of Rajiv Gandhi's cronies who are not elected officials and whose political fortunes are linked to the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Analysts question whether an outpouring of sympathy will come and carry the Congress back into power as cracks appear in the party and resentment has erupted openly over Mrs. Gandhi's appointment.
Leaders of various Congress factions are beginning to distance themselves from the decision, which has tarnished and embar-assed the organization that spearheaded India's independence struggle against the British.
Several senior Congress members have called for decentralization and more democracy within the party long overshadowed by the personality cult and politics of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Analysts say Narasimha Rao, a Cabinet minister under both Rajiv Gandhi and his mother, Indira Gandhi, lacks the charisma and presence to prevail in the long run as senior politicians jostle openly for the upper hand.