Amid Turmoil, India Readies for May Elections

Nation seen headed for another round of protracted political battles

INDIA is fumbling into a national election that promises more political storms ahead. At press time, President Ramaswamy Venkataraman was poised to dissolve the 545-seat Parliament, setting the stage for a new poll expected in late May, Indian political observers say.

The move would cap days of uncertainty and intrigue following last week's collapse of the minority government of Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar.

Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister and leader of the largest group in the Parliament, formally requested a fresh election between May 15 and May 25, a Congress (I) Party official announced.

Mr. Gandhi, India's best-known politician whose support had been crucial to Chandra Shekhar's rule, had flirted with forming his own government from the ashes of his predecessor, Indian and Western analysts say.

The coming vote, squeezed in before the onslaught of India's brutal summer heat in May, will be a toughly fought race that is likely to be inconclusive and once again leave India to protracted political battles.

``Coalition politics is here to stay,'' predicts Bharat Wariavwalla, a political commentator reached by telephone in New Delhi. ``The problem is no one, especially the Congress, is able to face that reality.''

After years of strong one-party rule, India is still adjusting to the volatility and complexity of ruling coalitions, political analysts say.

Gandhi, ran India for five years before his stunning defeat in 1989 elections, is heir to the political dynasty which has dominated post-independence India. Gandhi, whose grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru and mother Indira Gandhi ruled before him, was swept into power by a sympathy vote after his mother's assassination in 1984.

Arrayed against the Congress (I) Party will be the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a surging Hindu fundamentalist party that has won support in a dispute over a northern Indian religious shrine. The shrine, which is claimed by Hindus and Muslims, has been a flash point in widespread political and religious rioting in the last year.

The Congress also faces former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, a one-time party loyalist-turned opponent, who drove Gandhi from office in 1989 after a public outcry about alleged corruption in government defense contracts.

Mr. Singh fell from power last fall when Chandra Shekhar, encouraged by Gandhi, caused a split in Singh's Janata Dal Party. Singh is trying to build a political comeback on a coalition of Muslims and lower-caste Hindus and untouchables. The former prime minister has been barnstorming the country in recent months to gather support.

Gandhi's Congress (I) Party, however, doesn't appear to want these elections, Indian political observers say. For several days after Chandra Shekhar's resignation, Gandhi deliberated on whether to form a new shaky governing alliance amid widespread opposition from his foes and one-time allies or to accede to a national election, which many in his party fear.

``The Congress is on the horns of a dilemma,'' says George Verghese, a political analyst at the Center for Policy Research. ``They are not ready for an election, but they are also worried about Chandra Shekhar getting a new lease.''

India was plunged into its latest crisis when Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, a crusty politician whose minority government ruled with only a handful of parliamentary seats and crucial Congress support, resigned in a confrontation with Gandhi.

Gandhi teamed up with the veteran socialist five months ago to bring down Singh, their arch-rival. The coalition also was intended to give Gandhi time to rebuild his party, buffeted in a 1989 election defeat to Singh.

However, in recent weeks, Gandhi had become dismayed by the savvy political survival of Chandra Shekhar, a master of Indian political intrigue. Chandra Shekhar launched welcomed overtures to separatists in Punjab and Kashmir states earlier this year, in a move to solve the continuing insurgencies in the two states.

The former prime minister also split with Gandhi by condemning Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and allowing United States aircraft to refuel in India. The leader later withdrew his welcome to the aircraft under pressure from Gandhi's Congress (I) Party.

Despite embarrassing Chandra Shekhar in what many Western and Indian political observers saw as a prelude to an outright break, Gandhi nevertheless was stunned when Chandra Shekhar resigned.

The decision came after the Congress (I) walked out of a key budgetmaking session, following allegations that the former prime minister was being spied upon.

With elections in the wind, Gandhi's most recent actions have further tarnished his already-troubled image, political analysts say.

His leadership of the Congress (I) Partyhas been marred by infighting and by ``political immaturity and lack of decisiveness,'' says a New Delhi newspaper editor.

The Congress (I) Party is reticent to face an election at a time of deepening economic problems and political uncertainty, observers say. The Indian economy, largely dependent on oil imports, has been battered by higher prices and the Gulf war. The country also has been swept in recent months by widespread violence between the Hindu majority and minority Muslims.

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