Battle Lines Set in Indian Vote

Election likely to turn on corruption charges and sharply rising prices

IN this corner, Rajiv Gandhi: former airline pilot, political scion, and aspiring second-term prime minister of India. And in the other corner, his fractious foes lead by V.P. Singh: one-time Cabinet minister, Gandhi loyalist-turned-rebel, and reluctant leader of the opposition.

The battle lines are set in what could be one of India's closest, most-important, and even most-violent elections. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Gandhi announced national parliamentary elections for Nov. 22 and 24, stunning his opponents and giving them barely a month to bury their differences and forge a united front.

The poll will be a referendum on Mr. Gandhi and his rocky five-year rule. He came to power after the October 1984 assassination of his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and less than two months later, won a huge, unprecedented majority in Parliament.

At issue will be corruption charges swirling about Gandhi's government, sharply rising prices, and the long-standing political grip of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty - first launched by Jawaharlal Nehru on post-independence India and associated by many Indians with the country's stability.

``If Rajiv Gandhi doesn't win, the dynasty will collapse, and the whole nature of Indian politics will change,'' predicts A.S. Abraham, a New Delhi political commentator. ``This is crucial because for the first time the prime minister and his record will be on test.''

The surprise election announcement was triggered by last week's rejection in the upper house of the Indian Parliament of two key provisions of the government's reelection plan. Gandhi failed to win a two-thirds majority for two constitutional amendments that would have given more power to local governments and in effect boosted his standing among the rural masses. That setback followed new disclosures in the weapons-procurement scandal that has dogged the prime minister for two years.

Most analysts give the prime minister's ruling Congress (I) Party an edge over the opposition - a loose coalition of socialists, right-wing Hindu fundamentalists, and middle-of-the-road politicians dominated by Mr. Singh.

Voting will fill 508 of the 542 seats in the lower house of the Parliament. Many analysts expect the election to resemble that of 1967, when the Congress (I) squandered a huge majority and only slipped back into power.

The opposition is united in its desire to oust Gandhi and the Congress (I), but torn by bickering and internal disputes. The infighting has reinforced Indian distrust of the opposition, which has ruled for only a tumultuous two year period during the 1970s.

Those rivalries will make it difficult to agree in the next two weeks on a single compromise candidate in many constituencies - a necessity if the opposition is to stand a chance of winning, political observers say. The government also plans to paint the opposition as ``antipeople'' for rejecting the amendments.

Analysts are split on whether Singh and his allies can successfully use the corruption issue to bring down the Gandhi government. The opposition has called for the prime minister to resign, charging that he and other senior government officials took millions of dollars in bribes to clear the $1.4 billion arms purchase from the Swedish firm Bofors AB.

Last week, disclosures in the newspaper The Hindu provided the strongest evidence yet that Indian officials took money and then launched a coverup in collusion with the Swedish firm. The disclosures have eroded the credibility of Gandhi, who last August held a commanding lead over his opponents in a poll done by India Today, a respected magazine.

The prime minister's handling of the corruption charges has stirred unrest within his party. A Congress (I) loss would trigger a power struggle among influential state bosses and likely splinter the party.

Some analysts say the issue of corruption strikes a strong chord among many Indians whose daily lives are affected by official bribery and dishonesty. ``The issue of corruption really reaches down to the village level,'' says Ashis Nandy, a political scientist in New Delhi.

However, others disagree, saying the prime minister is more vulnerable on spiraling prices. These exert a growing burden on the poor but are not reflected in the 9 percent official inflation rate, according government critics and private economists.

``Bofors has done what damage it will do, but it's not a major issue for the masses,'' says S. Nihal Singh, an Indian newspaper columnist. ``The Congress still has a slight edge. But prices will be more of a problem for the government than corruption.''

Gandhi also has to fear an alliance between Singh and his centrist allies and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu fundamentalist organization with widespread appeal in crucial northern Hindi-speaking states.

For his part, Gandhi is courting the political left, including Indian communists. If he squeaks back into power as some analysts predict, his political alliances could curb the momentum of economic liberalization that has opened up the Indian market to foreign investment and technology.

However, increasingly violent Hindu fundamentalism also poses a threat to the election. In recent weeks, northern and western India have been swept by communal riots between Hindus and Muslims, also a key vote bank.

Communal tensions threaten to make this election one of India's most violent, political observers say. The lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 adding 50 million new voters could give a broader role to political youth groups which have a reputation for violence.

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