Indian Party Tested by Succession

Assassination of Gandhi, factional infighting leaves once-dominant Congress at a loss

THE Congress (I) Party, architect of Indian independence and for years the centerpiece of power, is struggling for unity and survival after the death of its leader, Rajiv Gandhi. Gandhi's Italian-born widow, Sonia, yesterday turned down the party's controversial offer to make her the new Congress president. In a brief statement, she said she could not accept a position because of the tragedy that had befallen her family.

Analysts say the Congress offer reflects the party's leadership vacuum and masks a behind-the-scenes power tussle to command the party, which has long been associated with the dynasty established by Rajiv's grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru.

For the first time in 44 years of independence, Congress must face the fact that there is no member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to take over, political observers say. At press time, Congress leaders had called a meeting to discuss the succession crisis.

``The Congress is full of dissension,'' says Bashiruddin Ahmed, an analyst at the Center for Policy Research. ``This nomination is seen as the easy way out.''

Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister vying to return to power, was killed in a bomb blast at a Tuesday campaign rally. The remainder of the three-day election, which began Monday, has been postponed until June 12 and 15. Officials are investigating the possibility that Gandhi's assassin was a woman strapped with powerful explosives who detonated the device as she bowed to touch the feet of the Indian leader, a sign of respect.

Speculation has focused on the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan Tamil militant group, which fought the Indian Army after Gandhi ordered it into Sri Lanka under a 1987 peace accord. Officials have also not ruled out the possibility of involvement by Sikh militants, who blame Gandhi for 1984 riots in which scores of Sikh's died.

Funeral today

In New Delhi, Mrs. Gandhi, her daughter Priyanka, and other relatives kept a stunned two-day vigil near Gandhi's coffin, which lay in state in his grandfather's house, where he spent most of his childhood. He will be cremated today. Outside the house, riot police and the military struggled to control thousands of restive mourners gathered to pay respects to the fallen politician.

The interim government of Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, a onetime Gandhi ally, has launched a massive security operation to forestall violence. The death toll of 10 people sharply contrasts with the 2,000 killed in anti-Sikh rioting after the 1984 death of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Gandhi's mother.

Sonia Gandhi's refusal of the Congress post reflects an often uneasy relationship with her adopted country. In a brief statement, she said she was deeply touched by the Congress appointment, but ``my husband's death does not make it possible to accept the presidentship of the Congress Party.''

She is reported to have opposed Rajiv Gandhi's entry into politics after the death of his more political brother Sanjay in a 1980 airplane crash.

Her Italian background has always been a point of contention in India, but in recent years, Mrs. Gandhi has learned Hindi, India's language, and frequently campaigned independently for her husband.

Sympathy for the Gandhi family could still be a potent draw for Congress, says Mr. Ahmed. Congress is in a close race with Hindu fundamentalists and a leftist coalition headed by former Prime Minister V.P. Singh.

But some analysts see the move as a blunder. Already the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress' main rival, has criticized the move. The BJP, which opinion polls said was running a strong second to Congress before Gandhi's death, stands to gain the most from Congress infighting.

A miscalculation?

``This could be a tactical miscalculation,'' says an Asian diplomat in Delhi, ``The Congress just might lose votes.''

Leading contenders for the leadership are Narasimha Rao, a party elder statesman, N.D. Tiwari, a veteran politician from the crucial northern state of Uttar Pradesh, and Pranad Mukherjee, the Congress spokesman.

Concurrently, Indian President Ramaswamy Venkataraman met with major political leaders to propose a national government including representatives of all parties. The proposal is aimed at easing violence-racked India through the crisis, which has raised fears of widespread unrest.

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