Indians Resume Voting In Disillusioned Mood

Disarray in Congress Party boosts prospects for Hindu radicals

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

JUST a few days before voting in India's election, Vasudev Mahto says he's confused and undecided. For years, the fisherman has backed members of the Nehru-Gandhi family: Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and her son, Rajiv Gandhi.

Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in a bomb explosion three weeks ago interrupted the election and left the long-ruling Congress (I) Party in disarray and Mr. Mahto without a standard-bearer.

Still, sympathy is unlikely to sway him. In the distance, he points to a sprawling government fertilizer complex. But in his tattered thatch village on the banks of the venerated Ganges River in central Bihar State, Mahto has no electricity and no well.

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"We gave Rajiv Gandhi our votes. He was the king, and we're sorry he's dead," says Mahto. "But what did he do for us?"

Less than a month after Gandhi's ashes were scattered in tribute over the sacred Ganges, India resumes voting June 12, grasping for new direction.

Gandhi's death, breaking his family's dominance of post-independence India, has left a vacuum in Indian politics but is having little impact on Indian voters and the election outcome, analysts say.

Before the start of voting last month polls showed Gandhi poised to return to power but his party failing to win a majority.

Gandhi became prime minister after his mother's assassination in 1984 and later won a resounding mandate from voters. He was forced from office in an election five years later.

Voting, staggered over three days for security reasons, is already finished for 40 percent of the 537-seat lower house of the Indian Parliament. The poll, which began May 20 and was suspended after Gandhi's May 21 murder, will be completed June 12 and 15 in crucial Congress Party strongholds in the south and west, as well as parts of the key north Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Analysts say a repeat of the 1984 sympathy vote is unlikely. The squabbling Congress Party squandered voter confidence when Congress leaders clumsily and unsuccessfully pressured Gandhi's Italian-born widow, Sonia, to take over the party, and pro-Congress mobs rampaged against opponents in some states.

No heir apparent

Party leaders finally chose Congress veteran P. V. Narasimha Rao as party chief, although three state party leaders are actively campaigning to be prime minister if the party comes to power. The Congress Party "has played havoc with the sympathy vote," writes Nikhil Chakravartty, a New Delhi political analyst.

Congress Party cohesion has become an issue as India reaches for firm footing in the wake of the assassination, widespread election violence, and months of religious and social strife.

Capitalizing on party disarray is the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which wants to replace India's traditional secularism with a state dominated by the Hindu majority.

In the first round of voting before Gandhi's death, exit polls showed a swing away from the Congress Party in Delhi and a handful of other north Indian cities. Polls showed solid BJP gains.

Leftist and centrist politicians are now scrambling to set aside differences and build a post-election coalition to keep the BJP from power. Analyst Chakravartty observes that "the possibility of the largest single party forming a coalition government with the support and participation of other parties is definitely in the cards."

The state of Bihar is a key strand in the complex new web of Indian politics. In the past, Congress dominated Bihar and neighboring Uttar Pradesh State by allying Brahmins, the social superiors in India's caste hierarchy, with Muslims, lower castes, and Harijans, or untouchables.

Caste has always driven Bihar politics. But never so much as now after an increase of violence last year over a controversial plan to reserve more prestigious government jobs for lower castes.

Backing the plan cost former Prime Minister V. P. Singh his job and earned him the enmity of upper caste Hindus in northern India. But in Bihar, Singh is a hero to many lower castes who now dominate the state government controlled by Singh's party, the Janata Dal, the cornerstone of a left-leaning coalition.

Assertive lower castes

"For the first time in India, the lower sections are asserting themselves," says Ram Prith Das, a government employee. "Of course, the upper castes are upset. They don't want our people to rise up."

The Janata Dal, however, faces a tighter race in Bihar after Gandhi's assassination. Political observers predict the state will mirror the nation and produce a mixed mandate with no party in majority.

In the Congress Party, officials say they are disappointed that Sonia Gandhi turned down the party presidency. Nevertheless, they insist sympathy for the family is turning into support.

"We are finding more sympathy, particularly among women," says B. K. Bhardwaj, a Congress Party worker in the central Bihar town of Beguserai. "We will welcome Sonia Gandhi as our leader at any time. She's lived in India for 25 years and has borne the children of the Nehru family. The way she wears her sari shows she's an Indian."

Switching to BJP

However, Amrindra Kumar Singh says he is part of the growing wave of upper caste Biharis backing the BJP.

"I come from a Congress family. My grandfather and father backed Congress and I did too," says the lawyer who now belongs to the BJP.

"But faith in the Congress is failing and its stability is being questioned. The Congress is a one-family party."

And in Samaria Ghat, the Harijan village on the banks of the Ganges, Toona Devi voices the bitterness and apathy that are growing toward the country's venal politicians.

"Fill up our stomachs first. Then they will get our votes," says the elderly woman in a ragged sari. "They worship the Ganges, but they don't worship the village by the Ganges."

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