Tight Race for Gandhi's Party Could Redefine Indian Politics

But opposition's own disunity raises question of viable alternative

IN a muddy courtyard alive with the shouts of children, the lowing of cattle, and the gossip of villagers, Chidda Singh offered his election assessment. ``I've seen the working of Rajiv Gandhi,'' the farmer said thoughtfully. ``But now another person wants the job. We should give someone else a chance.'' As millions of Indians go to the polls today, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is battling to keep his job. National opinion polls this week found Mr. Gandhi poised to lose his thundering parliamentary majority. Just five years ago he was the most popular politician in independent India.

But the three-day election, which also includes voting for state legislatures in five states, will be close. Many of India's 498 million voters, the world's largest electorate, will likely decide at the last minute.

Analysts say the close race could trigger post-election tumult and significant political shifts.

A loss by Gandhi would break his family's dynastic grip, handed down from his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his mother, Indira Gandhi. It also could openly splinter his fractured Congress (I) Party, ousted only once in India's 42-year history.

A close outcome either way would set politicians vying for money and favors and scrambling into new alliances that could remake India's political map.

``The tide has turned against the Congress [(I) Party], although how far it goes remains to be seen,'' says B.G. Verghese, an analyst at the New Delhi Center for Policy Research. ``This election is going to generate major realignments in party politics and the momentum for political change.''

Indeed, the desire for change is fueling an anti-Rajiv surge here and in other villages across the ``Hindi heartland'' - northern states where Hindi, the major Indian language, is spoken.

In a new poll, the respected news magazine, India Today, says the Congress (I) Party could face major setbacks in the north and win less than half the seats in the 542-member lower house of Parliament. Although the party is strong elsewhere, the election likely will depend on the ``Hindi belt,'' which accounts for a third of the 529 seats at stake.

In 1984 elections, just over a month after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination, Rajiv Gandhi swept this area in a wave of sympathy and high hopes of impending change.

Gandhi is ahead in the race for his own seat in Amethi against Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of India's founding father Mohandas Gandhi and no relation to Rajiv. But elsewhere Rajiv Gandhi is faltering, as his glitzy, news-media-oriented campaign attracts small, unenthusiastic crowds.

His government is tainted by charges that officials took bribes in a 1986 arms purchase from Bofors AB, a Swedish company.

Meanwhile, V.P. Singh, considered to be Gandhi's main rival, has built a loosely knit coalition around the corruption issue.

Here in Khadoli, 55 miles east of New Delhi, perceptions have grown that, unlike his mother and grandfather, the prime minister is aloof and distant.

``We've heard about these bad Bofors guns,'' says Shri Ram Kumar, a tailor. ``There must be some truth in it.''

``What has Rajiv Gandhi done for us?'' says Kela, an elderly woman in a torn sari. ``The government doesn't give us anywhere to fetch our water or any place to dry our dung cakes,'' used as fuel.

Indeed, among the rural masses mundane issues hold significant sway, political observers say. In India's 550,000 villages, politics is based on a mix of caste, religion, social divisions, and economic disparity. The village chieftain or other opinion leaders, linked to officials or politicians, can swing votes either way.

Chidda Singh is one such opinion leader. He is looked up to here by lower castes, which complain they lack electricity and drinking water available to others.

Traditionally, India's untouchables and lower castes have rallied behind the Congress (I) Party. But in recent years, they have become increasingly militant. They should no longer be considered sure-fire Congress voters, Mr. Singh says.

Ratno, a mother of four, agrees. ``These politicians come only once every four years as beggars to get our votes. Otherwise, they won't even recognize us.''

In predominantly Hindu Khadoli, villagers say the religious tensions that have darkened this election affect them little. About 400 people have died in recent violence between Hindus and Muslims over a disputed north Indian shrine. Some leaders of the Muslim minority, a long-standing Congress vote bank, have thrown support behind the opposition, blaming the government for letting the dispute get out of hand.

``To Muslims, the people in the Congress are turncoats,'' says Liaqat Ali, a local lawyer. ``Why should we vote for Congress after the atrocities committed against us?''

Still, major question marks remain. The looming prospect that no party will win a convincing majority portends a period of horsetrading and bickering before a new government emerges, political observers say.

Emerging divisions within the united opposition ranks also raise doubts about how long an opposition government would last or whether it can be formed at all.

Recently, V.P. Singh has irritated his right-wing Hindu partners, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), by distancing himself and trying to woo Muslim votes.

Five miles from here in Meerut, where the opposition could win dramatically, BJP activists have blocked Singh's appearances and vowed to oppose his efforts to become prime minister.

Ultimately, it will come down to undecided voters in Khadoli and elsewhere who say they reserve the right to change their minds. ``I don't know who I will vote for,'' Dharam Pal Singh, a laborer, said last weekend. ``The election is still three days away.''

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