Elections to be held in Sikh stronghold amid voter apathy. Punjab poll aims to end direct rule from central government in New Delhi

Several armed guards patrol the gardens of Raghunandan Lal Bhatia's house. Sandbags gird part of the entrance. Inside the living room, another soldier stands watch. Mr. Bhatia is a candidate belonging to the ruling Congress (I) party and is running for election to the local legislative assembly.

Today's state and parliamentary elections in the Punjab will end direct rule from the central government in New Delhi.

Campaigning ended Monday. It was the first in India's Punjab state for more than five years, and took place under unprecendented security measures. More than 900 candidates running for local and parliamentary seats have been provided with round-the-clock armed guards.

Today's elections come a little over a month after Harchand Singh Longowal, moderate leader of the Sikh Akali Dal party was assassinated, allegedly by Sikh extremists. In July, Mr. Longowal had signed an accord with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi aimed at ending the turmoil in the Punjab, which is India's richest state and home to about half of India's 13-million strong Sikh religious minority. The acting Akali Dal leader is Surjit Singh Barnala.

The Sikhs themselves remain divided about the merits of the election. A boycott has been called by the separatist United Akali Dal faction led by Joginder Singh, father of extremist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who was killed last year by soldiers in the Golden Temple.

``We think elections are just a game. It will not change anything,'' says Gurdeep Singh, a follower of Bhindranwale.

In Tarn Taran, a town of 85,000, some laborers were either apathetic or confused.

An elderly Sikh metalworker who fled from New Delhi after last year's communal riots said through an interpreter that he ``doesn't believe elections will help solve poverty'' and will not vote. A Hindu milkman, S. Kovinder Singh, says he does not care one way or the other if Akali Dal or Congress (I) wins.

Some Akali Dal members, in fact, cite widespread cynicism as a bigger obstacle to success of the election than the boycott.

``People are dissatisfied with the democratic process, so they're not so enthusiastic,'' laments Bibi Rajinder Kaur, President of Istri Akali Dali, the party's women's wing.

Fears of terrorist killings to prevent elections and to undermine efforts to bring normalcy to the violence-ridden state constitute yet another problem. Police arrested some 300 Sikh extremist suspects Tuesday. In the past few days, bombs killed six people in the state and in New Delhi.

``We cannot rule out the possibility of terrorist attacks [during the polling], although we are fully prepared to meet it,'' said S. Likhi, senior superintendent of police in Amritsar district.

After the murder of several Hindu leaders a few weeks ago, authorities decided against taking any chances. Security forces are on full alert throughout Punjab.

There is speculation that Mr. Gandhi's Congress (I) party would like to throw away the fight so that the moderate Akali Dal could form the state government and isolate Sikh extremists.

To try to squelch these rumors, Gandhi made several appearances in the state.

But many supporters appeared to have been put off by the thick cordon sanitaire that surrounded Gandhi, who spoke from inside a bullet-proof glass cage as commandos and armed soldiers stood guard.

``My own hunch is that in a straight fight, the Akalis will get the vote,'' says Khushwant Singh, a Sikh writer and member of Parliament.

In Amritsar, city of the Golden Temple, police forces are visible in almost every street corner.

Adjacent to the temple complex, the Akali Dal headquarters is almost deserted. It has been temporarily shifted to Chandigarh, the joint capital of Punjab and neighboring Haryana state, to avoid confrontation with the extremist Sikh youth group, the All India Sikh Student Federation. The group supports an election boycott.

Many people are skeptical that elections alone can bridge the widening gulf between the Sikh community and the central government which would stem the Punjab's political turmoil.

For Gandhi's government, the immediate test may be in its ability to maintain peaceful elections. But the real test may be what happens afterward.

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