NEW DELHI — IN the backyards of ''Bollywood,'' the thriving Indian film capital in Bombay, campaign managers from the nation's ruling Congress Party have been busy pirating Hindi film tunes to sing the praises of Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao.
Now that the countdown to the general election - scheduled for late April and early May - has begun in earnest, India's 590 million voters will be bombarded with an ever-increasing crescendo of songs and film clips that extol the achievement of the Congress Party and its leader.
As the largest democracy in the world with about 940 million people, India is no stranger to campaign hysteria. But sexy movie tunes and catchy slogans promising prosperity may not be enough to see the less-than-charismatic Mr. Rao through a second term.
A recent corruption scandal, the largest in India's history, has tainted almost all of the major political parties. And a severely shaken Congress Party is for the first time in nearly 50 years preparing for the polls without being led by a member of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty.
Whoever wins this election will have a mandate to lead India into the 21st century. On the vote's outcome rests the country's unfinished economic reforms, the secular basis of the Indian state, and the process of eliminating corruption from public life.
With most political analysts predicting a hung Parliament, Rao is well aware that without the Gandhi mystique his centrist party, which holds a slim majority in the lower house, could lose ground to the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the leftist National Front-Left Front coalition.
As in previous years, the results of this election will be determined by voting in large states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu, as well as by the outcome of the complex process of forming alliances with minor parties and seat-sharing arrangements.
Congress has recently been decimated in Uttar Pradesh, the party's traditional heartland and India's most politically important state. With Bihar firmly in the hands of the Janata Dal party and the credibility of Congress in Maharashtra looking thin following its loss of support from the state's Muslims for failing to protect them against violence from right-wing Hindus, Rao is hoping that a strong showing in southern India will once again pull the party through.
But Rao lacks the charisma of Rajiv Gandhi, whose May 1991 assassination in Tamil Nadu sparked a wave of sympathy that gave Congress the edge it needed to emerge as the largest party.
In this scenario, Rao is closely monitoring developments in the $19-million corruption scandal now before the courts. Although the scandal has led to arrest warrants being issued against several Congress Cabinet ministers, it has also equally tainted the reputation of most other opposition parties.
Know as the ''Jain hawala'' case after the owner of a diary which allegedly contains the names of 115 politicians and bureaucrats who took bribes, the scandal is casting an ever-lengthening shadow over India's political landscape.
Until the scandal broke in mid-January, the main opposition party, the BJP, which preaches a return to traditional Hindu values and would restrict foreign investment in certain areas, was expected to increase its position considerably. But the party's stand on corruption took a beating after its president and one of its chief ministers were charged with involvement in the scandal.
The BJP's Hindu platform also flopped when its glitzy trans-India pilgrimage was abandoned last week after attracting little enthusiasm among voters. Internal dissent and economic mismanagement in many of the state governments under BJP rule has also tarnished its image as a viable alternative.
The wild card in the election pack is the loose coalition of the National Front and the Left Front. Known here as the ''third force,'' it garnered a respectable 27 percent of the vote in the 1991 election and could improve its showing through strategic alliances.
But the coalition is tainted by memories of its failure to form a cohesive national government from 1989 to 1991. Crucial talks in the next few days will determine whether the NF-LF can rope in strategic allies like the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and become a serious contender for power.
Congress must also decide on allies and seat-sharing arrangements with several regional parties before nominations close on April 3.
Voters' response to the scandal may determine the election outcome. ''This has made people feel that there is no one aboveboard and now let's really get together and drive these people out,'' says former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee. ''And the best way to drive these people out is to make sure they are not voted back.''
Although the case has raised hopes that the long overdue process of cleansing the political system is about to begin, it may also lead to widespread disillusionment among voters. ''This corruption is everywhere: it affects our lives everyday,'' says Ashok Desai, a shopkeeper in the Lajpat Nagar market. ''So why should I bother to vote? All these parties are corrupt.''