INDIA is in political limbo. The three-day national election, the most bitter and violent in India's 42-year history, is producing one big loser: Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Although vote counting is still under way, the prime minister's Congress (I) Party will lose its huge parliamentary majority, likely costing Mr. Gandhi his job and party post.
But there is no clear-cut winner either. No party will win a majority, although the Congress could emerge as the largest single party in the 543-member lower house of Parliament.
(At press time, Congress had won 143 of the 336 seats declared and the opposition alliance 74 seats.)
The stalemate, unprecedented in India, will mean weeks of uncertainty and tumult, which could try this rambunctious democracy as never before, analysts say.
``This election is a crucial test for India,'' says Bharat Wariavwalla, a political analyst in New Delhi. ``All major decisions will be at a standstill until this precarious deadlock is resolved.''
Indeed, India's conservative electorate has voted for only the second time to turn out the dynasty that has ruled them since independence in 1947. Except for a two-year opposition rule in the 1970s, India has been dominated by Rajiv Gandhi, his mother Indira, and his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru.
The poll was seen here as a referendum on the prime minister, who came to power after his mother's assassination in 1984 and later won a huge three-quarters majority in the Parliament.
Since then, Gandhi has been in a tailspin, buffeted by corruption charges in a deepening arms scandal, dissent within his disintegrating party, and growing unpopularity for his Western ways, aloof manner, and supposedly imperious rule. That stirred an anti-Rajiv sweep across the northern Hindi-speaking states, a traditional Congress stronghold that voted solidly for the united opposition forces lead by V.P. Singh, a one-time Gandhi loyalist.
Gandhi's foes have challenged the government on the issue of election vote-rigging and violence. More than 100 people have died in the three days of voting.
On the other side, the desire for change also triggered a voter backlash against opposition-led state governments in the south where the Congress scored decisive wins. Those Congress gains have undermined Gandhi's foes and split the country along the lines of 1977 when the only opposition government came to power.
``This was a vote for change,'' says S. Nihal Singh, a New Delhi political commentator. ``Opting for stability in elections has long been part of the Indian psyche. The fact that voters went against past behavior shows their deep dissatisfaction.''
The split will make it difficult for either the Congress or the opposition to form a new government, analysts say. Indeed, the maneuvering that will soon get under way is expected to irritate deep divisions on both sides and possibly split the Congress and the allied opposition parties.
That will put pressure on India's President R. Venkataraman, the ceremonial head of state who nevertheless has the constitutional power to invite a party to form the next government.
But powers are poorly defined and have been debated intensely with the emerging possibility that neither the Congress nor the opposition could prevail in a vote of confidence. At issue is whether the president must invite the party with the most seats or has the discretion to choose the party best able to form a government.
Pivotal will be the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing Hindu fundamentalist party that has surged on a revivalist wave among the Hindu majority.
Religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims exploded in recent months over a north Indian shrine claimed by both groups. Hundreds of people were killed in pre-election rioting, as both government and opposition politicians tried to manipulate the issue to their benefit.
The BJP struck an unspoken pact with Gandhi's main challenger, V.P. Singh, to form a united front and oust the prime minister. However, the pre-election agreement has shown cracks in recent weeks, endangering the creation and survival of an opposition government. Before the final results were out, Mr. Singh denied that he wanted to lead a new government, a statement discounted by many analysts.
However, since he won less support than expected, Singh needs both the Hindu right-wing and the communists - the third- and fourth-largest parties in Parliament - who contend they will not participate in a government in which the other is a partner.
The Congress also will need partners for a coalition. However, Gandhi's continuation as head of the party poses a major roadblock to luring smaller parties who contested the election on a platform of removing the prime minister.
Gandhi's embarrassing defeat will stir new dissent and even a revolt among alienated Congressmen and powerful state leaders, analysts say. Gandhi angered senior Congress leaders by ignoring them and relying on a coterie of cronies and technocrats.
In recent weeks, Congress veterans have privately criticized the prime minister's personally run campaign as inept and disastrous. They have also criticized Gandhi's mishandling of the religious shrine issue, which alienated both Hindus and Muslims alike.
``We now face a crisis of leadership,'' says a senior Congress leader.
Analysts say the confrontation will shift to the backrooms where politicians will wheel and deal, and trade favors and money to forge new alliances.