A feisty Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi plunged into the election fray this week, imposing tough measures to thwart a nationwide strike called by his political foes. The Wednesday shutdown was called to dramatize the opposition's campaign to force Gandhi's resignation and new elections. Earlier this month, the prime minister was stunned when more than 70 opposition politicians in the lower house of the Indian parliament resigned to protest a weapons scandal that has tainted his government.

To quash Wednesday's strike, the government ordered a massive security buildup and arrested thousands of opposition activists. Tough ads were run on state-run television to discredit the protest. Tens of thousands of government employees, ordered to show up for work or face disciplinary action, slept in their offices Tuesday night.

Some analysts said the official overkill reflects the government's uneasiness about elections, which must be held by January. The tough line could backfire and heap new criticism on the Gandhi regime.

``It's his new Rambo image. He wanted to show who's running the country,'' says Inder Malhotra, a New Delhi commentator. ``For something that would have gone by without much notice, the government made it a fight to the finish.''

The showdown was in the street-fighting tradition of Indian politics. Rival political gangs battled the police and each other. At least six people were killed in strike-related violence. Opposition-dominated cities like Calcutta and Madras ground to a halt.

Bombay, which is under the control of the ruling Congress (I) Party, was near normal. In the capital, New Delhi, many shops and businesses were closed, buses ran empty, and schools were sparsely attended.

Among disgruntled government employees who had spent two days in their offices, the mood was foul. ``There was no food, and I had to sleep on the floor,'' said a government secretary. ``The government shouldn't treat us like this.''

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