India's 'iron lady' tightens electoral grip at state level

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has tightened her already firm grip on India with a crushing victory in just-completed state assembly elections. By capturing at least seven of nine states contested (and expected to take another), the prime minister extended her personal and party control over key assemblies and received a strong stamp of approval from voters for her rehabilitated 4 1/2 month-old government.

The victory also solidifies her restructuring of the ruling Congress-I (for Indira) Party to bring in younger blood and reward loyalists who stood by Mrs. Gandhi and her controversial son Sanjay during her 34 months out of power.

The only exception to her victory came in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where the Congress-I ran in an alliance with a regional party. A rival regional party took a substantial early lead. The nine states were ruled by opposition parties until mid- February, when Mrs. Gandhi's government, then back inpower just over a month, dissolved their legislatures on grounds that they were not cooperating with the center and no longer reflected the voters' will.

Electioneering violence, a hallmark of the Indian political scene, reached record highs in the hotly contested state races. By the end of the two-phase polling held May 28 and 31 across two-thirds of India's vast territory, 59 were dead -- including six candidates -- and hundreds injured. In the northern state of Bihar alone, 22 were killed and more than 100 injured May 31 in election clashes between rival political groups.

The electorate of 240 million people braved sizzling summer weather to turn out at a rate of 48 percent May 28 and an estimated 50 percent three days later. In several villages, the Indian press reported, voters staged boycotts for local causes. In one they stayed home because none of the three candidates would donate the $315 needed to repair the local temple. In another all but one refused to vote because authorities had yet to provide electricity or clean drinking water for the village.

Throughout the campaign, voters grumbled that they had seen little or no change in the price spiral, power and commodity shortages, and lawlessness that Mrs. Gandhi pledged to halt in her winning parliamentary election in January this year. But the victory underscored her personal popularity.

Mrs. Gandhi, aides estimate, traveled 25,620 miles by plane, helicopter, and car to campaign for Congress-I candidates in 380 state assembly constituencies.

The opposition parties, decimated by her massive win in January, have since splintered even further into squabbling groups. No less than seven national parties joined the state election fray -- two factions each of the old Janata and Lok Dal parties, two Communist parties, and a breakaway faction of the Congress Party.

In addition, there were regional parties, independent candidates, and disgruntled Congress-I rebels running alone after being denied party tickets. Not all the parties competed for each of the 2,230 state assembly seats, and alliances were struck to narrow down the field in many races. But many voters, faced with a bewildering array of claims, clearly saw the Congress- I as the only viable choice.

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