Long-Ruling Party of Gandhi Sinks Before Key Vote in India

Many voters say Congress Party's economic reforms have not reached them

Having lived through most of the 20th century, Vijay Singh has outlived all the great leaders of modern India. "I have seen Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv, they have all come here making promises," the patriarch of Billau village recounts. "Yes, we have electricity and water now, but what has really changed in my life in all these years?"

Billau is at the end of a dusty road, 188 miles southwest of the Indian capital, New Delhi. Electricity comes irregularly. There is no sanitation in this village of 1,200 people, and water must be carried by hand from the local well.

After supporting the ruling Congress Party for nearly 50 years, Mr. Singh says he will vote for the opposition Bahujan Samaj Party in the general election, which concludes today. He does not know the candidate's name, only the party's symbol (the elephant) and the fact that it stands for the backward castes and untouchables. "Why should I give my vote to somebody else when I have my own party?" he asks.

India's ruling Congress Party, which has been in power for 45 out of the past 49 years, looks set to plunge to historical lows in terms of seats and percentage of votes cast, when counting gets under way tomorrow. The failure of recent economic reforms to trickle down to many of India's 600,000 villages, and the strong challenges from caste and regional parties looks set to erode its once-impregnable base.

Although it may still remain the largest party in a hung Parliament, pressure is already building from Congress dissidents for the resignation of party president and prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose leadership style is being blamed for the party's declining fortunes.

"Governments in India can only endure if there is a constant and persistent dialogue with the people, and the medium of that dialogue is party organizations. [It] conveys the message of your policies to the grass roots and conveys back the reaction of the people," says Madhavrao Scindia, a former Cabinet minister who is emerging as one of the strongest challengers to Mr. Rao.

"I think his leadership has been disastrous for the Congress Party because he has totally ignored party organizations."

A maharaja in one of India's leading royal families, Mr. Scindia resigned from the Congress Party after losing his nomination because of his alleged involvement in a corruption scandal rocking India.

As new cracks begin to show in the party, which has lost around a dozen senior ministers through splits and resignations over the past year, Scindia's palace in the central Indian city of Gwalior has become the plotting ground for an imminent coup against the Congress old guard.

"My dispute is not with the Congress Party ... but with the style of functioning of the leadership." Like many of his allies, he says he will rejoin the party only if Rao is removed.

The prime minster is also facing calls for his dismissal from potential coalition partners like the National Front-Left Front alliance, on which Congress will depend heavily to gain a majority in the 543-member lower house of Parliament.

"Mr. Rao's real trouble will come if the Congress score is staggeringly low," says political commentator Nikhil Chakravartty. "If the Congress does not go beyond 150, then its maneuvering capacity in forming a coalition might be weakened, and within the ranks of the party, the sense of defeat might manifest itself in the shape of anger with the prime minister who has been doing most of the national campaigning."

When Rao was made party president after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi midway through the polls in 1991, many believed the septuagenarian Congressman, lacking any electoral base and burdened with a minority government, would not last more than a few months. But he proved to be a pragmatic leader, becoming the first prime minister outside the legendary Nehru-Gandhi family political dynasty to last a full term.

On the economic front he presided over an ambitious program of reforms that saw inflation curbed, foreign-exchange reserves climb from $1 billion in 1991 to around $18 billion today, and the economy grow at a respectable rate of 6 percent.

He also ended years of insurgency in the troubled northern state of Punjab and now hopes to do the same in Kashmir. In spite of these successes, Rao remained aloof from the people. Secure in the knowledge that only Congress had a truly national representation, he preferred the party's back rooms to the public podium as his sounding board.

But as the polls neared, this neglect of the electorate appeared to be working against him. An unpopular alliance in Tamil Nadu state caused a split in the party, and his own record on corruption came under increasing scrutiny. "I have been a Congressman for 55 years, I have seen many ups and downs in the history of the party. If my experience gives any indication, the Congress is returning to power," he told reporters on Sunday.

If Rao still sounds confident in the face of adverse opinion polls and intra-party revolts, it is because he knows that elections results are just one of the factors that will decide the winner in this complex game of politics. His own struggle for power and that of the Congress Party will only begin once the final tally of seats becomes clearer later this week.

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