Gandhi in need of a strong mandate

There were nearly as many holidaymakers queued up at reopened stores Wednesday as there were party workers marching through New Delhi, stripping the Indian capital of election graffiti and posters.

It was the most activity the Indian campaign had seen since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi called for an election soon after his mother's killing. The election is critical for Mr. Gandhi, who needs a mandate to become more than Indira Gandhi's dynastic heir.

New Delhi, along with two-thirds of the nation, cast its ballots on Monday. The rest will do so today and tomorrow, for 509 members of Parliament's lower house.

Two million police and paramilitary troopers guard the country's more than 400,000 polling booths. But there still have been occasional outbreaks of violence. On Monday, 15 people, including one candidate, were killed, and 150 were injured during the voting. (On Wednesday a politician in the Andhra Pradesh State assembly was shot dead, Reuters reports.)

But it was not a particularly violent election, as it had not been a particularly violent campaign. Nor was it particularly enthusiastic. Only an estimated 60 to 65 percent of those eligible to vote on Monday went to the polls. A low turnout has always worked to the advantage of the ruling Congress (I) Party which, as the country's richest and most efficient political machine, is able to marshal its voters irrespective of apathy.

And such marshaling is imperative for Rajiv Gandhi, whose victory needs to be strong. Only a simple majority of 256 parliamentary seats would, in the view of Congress strategists, be as ominous as an outright defeat.

The legacy bequeathed Gandhi by his mother, and the awesome problems involved , are compounded by a quarrelsome party over which he needs to establish his own control.

Elections have been postponed in the beleaguered states of Punjab and Assam, both of which are measures of the enormity of the problems that, following the elections, Mr. Gandhi must face.

Indicative of the estrangement of the nation's 15 million Sikhs was the statement of Gurdachan Singh, a private taxi owner who voted on Monday for the ''opposition.'' Any candidate was fine, he said, as long as he didn't have to cast a ballot for the Congress (I).

Yet the opposition has gone into the electoral battle so disorganized that it has not even presented the voters with the name of a common candidate to lead the country.

''They are asking people to vote for a nameless, faceless phantom,'' a Western diplomat said.

Not only has the opposition not agreed on a common prime ministerial choice, but no individual party is contesting enough of the 509 seats to be able to capture a simple majority.

There are few who doubt that Mr. Gandhi will win this week's election, but there were two key imponderables Wednesday, the second election eve.

One was how the crucial Muslim vote will swing. In the past, Muslims have supported the Congress. Because of the concentration of their population, they can influence the outcome in as many as 75 constituencies.

Equally important is how the country's 460 million Hindus vote. In the past they have divided their vote between the Congress (I) and the Hindu-fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party. This time there are indications they could solidly favor the Congress (I) following Mrs. Gandhi's Army assault on the Sikhs' Golden Temple last June and, a month later, her toppling of Kashmir State's Muslim chief minister.

Many of the party's more prominent candidates, including the prime minister himself, have openly appealed to what some observers see as a potentially dangerous wave of Hindu revivalism and often violent assertion of Hindu exclusivity.

This was to have been the election which, according to the pundits, would have seen an anti-Indira Gandhi wave, a vote against manipulative policies, and against the center swallowing the country's nascent states-rights movement.

It is precisely these arguments that are now swinging toward Rajiv, whose lack of experience, youth, and easy smile are seen as a harbinger of a government more open and less imperial, less authoritarian and more inspired.

Yet as the posters come down in New Delhi and three of India's most experienced political party leaders face the prospect of defeat, Rajiv Gandhi may be about to find that winning India's eighth national election was his easiest task. Ruling this nation of 730 million will prove a much more formidable one.

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