Gandhi's flashy men stymie opposition

In Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh State, they have pitted the flamboyant son of the last maharaja against Atal Behari Vajpayee, the venerable leader of the conservative Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party.

Mr. Vajpayee seems genuinely overwhelmed by the princely gadfly, who dashes from village to village in a sparkling new helicopter or atop a pedigreed stallion, much to villagers' delight.

In Uttar Pradesh State's politically charged city of Allahabad, they have come forth with a swashbuckling film idol, Amitabh Bachchan. He is challenging a veteran politician and leader of the Democratic Socialist Party, H. N. Bahaguna, for his parliamentary seat.

They are the new managers of the ruling Congress (I) Party, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's hand-picked personal court of old school chums and management executives, former airline pilots and celluloid stars.

They have so startled the quarrelsome and dispirited opposition with their choice of off-beat candidates to face the country's political elite - in their very bastions of power - that the opposition's campaign has been rather limited nationwide.

Many opposition leaders are simply too frightened to leave their own constituencies.

Thus as the final brushstrokes are placed on a largely lackluster campaign, which will take potentially 390 million voters to the ballot boxes beginning Monday, there is only one issue: Should Rajiv Gandhi be kept at the helm of the nation to continue the Nehru dynasty?

A resounding victory has been predicted for Mr. Gandhi by the influential news magazine India Today. To the surprise of many pundits, the magazine has projected that the Congress (I) will win 366 of Parliament's 511 contested seats.

(The number of seats to be contested is now down to 509. Elections have been postponed in the city of Bhopal following the disasterous gas leak on Dec. 3, and two candidates have been murdered since the India Today poll.)

If Mr. Gandhi were indeed to capture 72 percent of Parliament's seats, it would be the most sweeping mandate in the nation's political history. It would also translate into 53 to 55 percent of the popular vote, well ahead of his party's previous high of 49 percent in the 1957 poll.

At no time since India's independence in 1947 has any party captured more than 49 percent of the popular vote.

Turning his disadvantages into advantages - his political inexperience and the fact that he is only 40 years old - the scion of the house of Nehru and former airline pilot who entered politics reluctantly, has, in many respects, been handed victory by the opposition parties.

Their petty and public feuds have only highlighted Gandhi as the only leader unencumbered with political baggage and thus capable of delivering much wanted change.

An average of 10 contestants are vying for each constituency, an unflattering commentary on opposition efforts to forge unity.

Of India's 22 states, only in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu in the south, and in West Bengal to the east, will there be a virtually straight fight between Congress (I) and the opposition for every contested seat.

The most viable candidates, in both Kerala and West Bengal, will come from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - the only party among India's eclectic band of 38 national and regional groups that has presented the voter with anything approaching tangible ideology.

Everywhere one turns in West Bengal's capital of Calcutta, run by the Marxists for more than seven years (successfully or unsuccessfully depending upon one's political views), one is assaulted by a war of words: graffiti on every wall, every street-corner, and every lamppost.

It is Marx and Lenin versus India's imperial house. And for every outstretched palm of the Congress (I) - the party's election symbol - there are 20 hammers and sickles crying out from the walls. (Election symbols are vastly important in a nation where nearly 7 out of 10 voters are illiterate.)

But, even in Calcutta, Rajiv Gandhi is confident of making impressive inroads.

''Don't think there's going to be an opposition left after the votes are counted,'' he told reporters after a campaign swing.

Did he feel that this was healthy for democracy?

''If that's what the people want, then it can't be harmful.''

It was reminiscent of the often-elitist talk of Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi showed himself her son.

''Without Indiraji (the respectful term for Indira Gandhi) around, the excitement of elections has disappeared,'' said Bharatiya Janata leader Vajpayee , even before the campaign began.

Little did he realize that he would barely be able to leave his constituency of Gwalior, such was the attraction of old royalty.

And N. T. Rama Rao, the petulant and charismatic film star who still rules the southern opposition stronghold of Andhra Pradesh State - in spite of Mrs. Gandhi's efforts to oust him - has remained in his state out of preference.

After a late November effort by opposition leaders to subdue individual egos and force them to agree on common candidates, Mr. Rama Rao returned to Hyderabad in a huff.

He has refused to campaign outside Andhra, where he probably will capture a majority of his state's 42 seats.

Whether it will be a true victory for the opposition or for Rama Rao's indefatigable fan clubs that are running his campaign is, in the context of imperial democracy, hard to say.

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