(More) Bad News for India's Gandhi

THE sagging political fortunes of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi have suffered a new blow in an election setback in south India. Mr. Gandhi's Congress (I) party ran a poor third in a state poll in Tamil Nadu. According to results released late Monday, the poll was swept by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a Tamil nationalist party.

The Congress defeat rules out the possibility that Mr. Gandhi, elected in a landslide in 1984, will call early national elections before the December deadline, analysts say. The party led in elections also held in two northeastern states Saturday - but this is seen as scant consolation.

If Congress had done well in the politically sensitive homeland of India's 55 million Tamils, the prime minister was expected by many observers to try for reelection in March or April.

The Tamil Nadu outcome was a personal reverse for Gandhi. He had put his prestige on the line with more than a dozen campaign appearances in the state in four months. Following a string of state election losses and corruption charges, the defeat underscores his reputation as a poor vote-getter, analysts say.

``There is a general perception that he is a bad manager and has bungled things,'' says S. Nihal Singh, a New Delhi political commentator. ``As he did in other states, he overemphasized this election in Tamil Nadu. You don't go flat out if you're not assured of a good victory.''

The Tamil Nadu defeat, however, may not necessarily translate directly into election trouble at the national level. As the scion of two former prime ministers, Gandhi enjoys the popular appeal of his family. He is also bolstered by a strong economy and recent foreign-policy successes in relations with China and Pakistan.

But the loss could trigger discontent within Congress ranks and be a fillip for his opponents.

DMK leader Muthuvel Karunanidhi, who now becomes state chief minister, has in the past fanned separatist sentiments among Tamils who oppose domination by India's Hindi-speaking majority. Mr. Karunanidhi has been an outspoken opponent of Indian policy in neighboring Sri Lanka, supporting that country's Tamil ``Tiger'' rebels.

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