India's election, cut short by assassination of Gandhi, resumes tomorrow

June 11, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW DELHI. — NEW DELHI -- India's longest, hottest, wettest and most troubled election resumes tomorrow with two continuing certainties: The final outcome remains highly unpredictable and whoever ends up leading the nation will immediately face a deepening economic crisis.

Before voting was suspended as a result of the May 21 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the national election was hailed as a watershed event for India, an election in which substantive issues of caste, religion and social justice were being fiercely debated.

The intensity of the campaign led to unprecedented turmoil and violence May 20, the only one of three days of voting to be held as originally scheduled.

But since Mr. Gandhi's murder, the emotional fire lighting India's political landscape has seemed to dissipate with each passing day.

Violence may well erupt again during the final two days of voting, tomorrow and Saturday, but the surface calm that generally has settled over the nation has struck both Indian and Western observers as a distinct shift.

A sympathy wave for Mr. Gandhi's Congress Party does not appear to have materialized to any major degree. Even the mounting support for Congress' main electoral rival, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, seems to be stirring less controversy.

"Nothing is being discussed at the moment," said Inder Malhotra, a leading political columnist. "It really has become an election without issues."

Added a New Delhi-based Western diplomat: "The diminished involvement of the electorate is striking, even over just the past week."

The reasons offered for this are varied, beginning with the length of the campaign, as well as the last month of more than 100-degree heat in much of the nation and the onset this week of monsoon rains.

Moreover, many of the most hotly contested races for parliamentary seats are in north India, where much of the voting was completed May 20. The next two days of voting will take place mostly in south India, still a Congress Party stronghold.

And last, Congress, still the leading party though on the decline, for the first time lacks a clear candidate for prime minister -- thereby making the entire campaign less focused.

After Mr. Gandhi's death and the refusal of his Italian-born widow to take over Congress' helm, the party finally settled on the most innocuous choice for its interim head, P. V. Narasimha Rao, a 70-year-old in poor health and not even running for Parliament.

AAs before the assassination, Congress still is expected to end up with the largest number of seats in India's Parliament, but not enough to dictate the next prime minister without a coalition with left-wing or Communist parties. Many analysts believe that such coalitions are more possible now that Mr. Gandhi, the object of personal animosity from some rivals, is no longer a factor.

The long list of those who could emerge as prime minister from these possible coalitions includes Mr. Rao;several other longtime Congress Party inner-circle operatives; a regional party leader, Sharad Pawar, the well-financed head of the state that encompasses Bombay; and even the caretaker Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar and his immediate predecessor, V. P. Singh, both from outside the Congress Party.

It's likely to take several days after the final votes are tallied early TTC next week for the political horse-trading to be sorted out, both within the Congress Party and withits possible coalition allies.

This process may be compounded by the hard, unpopular economic choices awaiting India's next prime minister -- choices that may prompt some potential leaders not to seek the job now, preferring instead to sit on the sidelines until India's next election.

India has been facing a record budget deficit, drastically shrinking foreign reserves and rapidly increasing foreign debt. Its caretaker government has been operating sincethe spring without a formal budget.

To make ends meet, the government took the controversial step in late May of selling for the first time about $200 million worth of gold on the international market. By the end of the summer, the new government will have to seek a loan of perhaps $2.5 billion from the International Monetary Fund. But, to get that aid, government spending may have to be cut, taxes may have to be raised, and a range of liberal reforms of India's highly regulated, socialist economy may have to be undertaken.

Almost all the nation's major political parties agree that it is time to move toward decontrolling India's economy, a major shift from just a few years ago.

But needed steps such as privatizing state industries, cutting internal subsidies and ending some protective tariffs -- with likely attendant job layoffs and wage freezes -- are bound to produce a strong backlash that could immediately test the strength of a coalition government.

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