Opposition in India seeks to strengthen thread of unity. But anti-Gandhi group faces dissent and its own scandal

A fractious band of opposition politicians plans today to seal an alliance aimed at toppling India's beleaguered prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The push to form the Samajwadi Janata Dal (Socialist People's Party) by merging four centrist parties began in late July and has since picked up steam. It is spearheaded by Viswanath Pratap Singh, a former Gandhi loyalist and now his arch-rival, who hopes to later persuade three more centrist parties to join.

A string of political scandals, though not tainting Mr. Gandhi personally, has tightened about his government with new revelations of corruption. After severe election setbacks in June, challenges from within his ruling Congress (I) party are compounding his problems.

But, political observers say, Gandhi's foes will have to override internal bickering, which is reportedly going on, to make a serious bid for power in elections due by late 1989.

That could be tougher since an uproar over wiretapping forced the resignation last week of Ramakrishna Hegde, a prominent state chief minister who is a driving force for opposition unity. The timing of this is a ``setback,'' a New Delhi newspaper editor says.

But if it survives, the fragile ``national front,'' as the tentative alliance is referred to, could pose the first serious threat in more than a decade to the Congress. The Congress has held power for most of India's 41 years of independence, through Mr. Gandhi's grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, and mother, Indira Gandhi.

To regain political strength, Gandhi will have to retreat from his aloof, Western orientation and assume the socialist stance that won votes for his grandfather and mother, analysts say.

In the opening salvos of that strategy, Gandhi last week called for the well-off to bear a greater tax burden. He may use his traditional Independence Day speech today to launch his election bid, some predict.

``He must do exactly what Mrs. Gandhi did to retake the political initiative and then propel himself forward on a momentum created by the poor of the country,'' writes M.J. Akbar, a journalist sympathetic to Gandhi.

That, however, might not prove easy. After the scandals, party election defeats, and a display of growing imperiousness on his part, Gandhi may find it hard to reestablish a rapport with the electorate.

Earlier this year, he seemed to have outlasted the uproar that focused on charges of kickbacks to government officials for the purchase of weapons from a Swedish firm.

But the controversy reignited this summer as new revelations brought the scandal closer to Gandhi's office. And he faced an internal revolt when 30 Congress (I) members of Parliament publicly complained about his failure to hold party elections and tackle corruption.

The discontent was triggered by the party's meager showing in June parliamentary and state elections. They included the Congress defeat in Allahabad to Mr. Singh, Gandhi's former finance and defense minister who resigned in protest over corruption and later was ousted from the party.

The Allahabad election catapulted Singh into prominence as a viable alternative to Gandhi and laid the groundwork for the opposition campaign.

However, Singh has had to tread carefully in meshing the alliance among politicians who head powerful regional parties. In addition, the front's aim for a strategy that would encompass the entire political spectrum - from right-wing Hindu parties to the communist parties that currently rule two states - could complicate matters.

Last week's resignation of Chief Minister Hegde was a blow to the alliance. After Singh, Mr. Hegde was mentioned as a likely prime ministerial contender.

Hegde denied involvement in the wiretapping of Karnataka State officials. In the street-fighting style of Indian politics, he accused Gandhi of importing equipment for his own taps.

However, by resigning and taking responsibility for the scandal, Hegde has shown an accountability that contrasts with past behavior of Congress officials. That could work in the coalition's favor.

``By resigning ... instead of trying to brazen it out, Mr. Hegde has shown that he is made of a different metal [than] most politicians, even if that metal is not 24-carat gold,'' said the Times of India newspaper.

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