FOR five years, Islamic militants have been leading a battle for the secession of Jammu and Kashmir, India's only majority Muslim state. All efforts to crush the revolt have failed, some 20,000 people have died, and tensions with neighboring Muslim Pakistan have risen to near-war pitch.
In what may be the riskiest gamble of his political career, Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao now hopes to resolve his country's worst crisis by holding the first Kashmir state assembly polls since 1987.
Next month's elections face enormous hurdles. All the parties representing Kashmir's 6 million Muslims vow to boycott the polls, contending that their community no longer wishes to be part of overwhelmingly Hindu India. Their claim is supported by a recent public-opinion survey that found 72 percent of Kashmiris favor independence.
Islamic militants are threatening to assassinate candidates and election officials. Anticipating bloodshed, Mr. Rao's government quietly approved a new regulation, which permits polling to proceed in each of Kashmir's 87 constituencies even if a candidate is killed.
Meanwhile, the trade union representing state government workers says its members will not help with the elections, compelling New Delhi to draft public employees from outside Kashmir.
For Rao, the stakes in Kashmir are enormous. Persuading a majority of Muslim voters to abandon their uprising and remain part of overwhelmingly Hindu India would greatly boost his party's prospects for victory in national elections due by June.
A potential loss of face
But Rao and his Congress Party could lose their battle to retain power if the Kashmir election plan collapses or the absence of a legitimate turnout renders the polls a farce. They would also suffer a huge loss of face with the international community, which has harshly criticized abuses committed against civilians by the thousands of paramilitary troops New Delhi has deployed in Kashmir.
Pakistan, which fought two of its three wars with India over control of Kashmir, warns that the polls will ''only aggravate tensions in the region.''
''It would be a lot simpler for this government to arrange that the ballot boxes are placed in a football stadium and stuff them themselves,'' Riaz Koker, Pakistan's ambassador here, asserts in an interview. Scorning the polls, he says: ''They will be totally fraudulent.''
Because India and Pakistan are believed to possess nuclear weapons, many Western officials regard their feud over Kashmir as the world's most potentially deadly dispute. Both admit that because of the frictions, their troops fight near-daily gun battles across the cease-fire line - established after their first war in 1947.
Pakistan, which controls one-third of the Kashmir, advocates self-determination for residents on India's side. But it denies India's charges that it is fomenting the uprising as part of a ''proxy war.''
Hoping to repeat the strategy he used to end Sikh separatism in Punjab state, Rao is banking that many Kashmiri Muslims, weary of mayhem and penury, will embrace elections as a chance to restore their political sovereignty. In addition to considerable autonomy, he is promising them an infusion of financial aid as an inducement to vote.
''What is important at this stage is for the people of the state to take a determined stand against terrorism, which has ruined the state and to help restore complete peace and bring about their own representative government,'' Rao said in unveiling his plan last Saturday on television.
The Indian Election Commission, which has the final say whether the poll will take place, made a whirlwind tour of Kashmir yesterday, to assess conditions on the ground.
Rao's opponents are already trying to score political points in anticipation of his failure. ''No one is against it [the elections.] We all want the democratic process restarted,'' says Arjun Singh, a leader of a rebel Congress Party faction. ''But the ground situation at the moment is not very conducive to having a free and fair election.''
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition group, is more strident in its rhetoric. It accuses Rao of betraying the country by offering special autonomy to Kashmir's Muslims to induce their participation in the elections. And it charges that he has failed to deal firmly with Pakistan.
''We have a very curious government. It says that we are fighting a proxy war in Kashmir. You don't fight a proxy war, or any other war for that matter, with kid gloves,'' contends BJP leader Lal Krishan Advani.
In an interview, he says his party will raise Kashmir as a national election issue to show ''this government's failure to safeguard the security of the country and the security of the common citizen.''
Rao positions himself for next elections
But Rao apparently believes that by resolving the Kashmir crisis he will be able to portray himself and his party in next year's campaign as India's best hopes for political stability and economic prosperity. The Indian premier had wanted to hold the Kashmir elections earlier this year. But he was forced to postpone the plan after 40 people died in May in a battle between security forces and Islamic militants
The timing of the polls appears to have practical aspects. One is to avoid an embarrassing parliamentary debate over extending central government rule of Kashmir, which expires Jan. 17. New Delhi took direct control of Kashmir in 1990, after the uprising exploded amid popular anger over fraud, corruption, and a lack of economic development.
Rao is also apparently calculating that heavy winter snows will hamper Kashmiri militants bent on disrupting the polls and prevent them from bringing in reinforcements from bases in Pakistan.