India's general election concludes its final round Hindu party had lead in surveys, but Gandhi has gained steadily

March 01, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

COIMBATORE, India -- India's general election came to a tense end yesterday as voters in this southern textile city joined 150 million others in choosing between Sonia Gandhi's vision of a secular India and a rival vision of a country dominated politically by the culture and preferences of its 700 million Hindus.

When results begin flowing in Tuesday, India will know whether a seven-week election campaign produced a return to government by the Congress Party, whose frayed banner Gandhi carried, or a historic turn to the Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Hindu party entered the campaign with a large lead in opinion polls, but it eroded as the drive mounted by the Italian-born Gandhi caught fire.

Most forecasts are for a close result, probably tipped one way or the other by yesterday's voting -- the third and decisive round in the staggered voting that began across the country two weeks ago.

The system is India's solution to the huge difficulties of running an election with 605 million voters, 5 million election officials and security personnel, 900,000 polling places, nearly 5,000 candidates and 543 parliamentary districts.

The tensions that marked the election reached their peak in Coimbatore, 1,250 miles south of New Delhi. Two weeks ago, 62 people were killed by 17 bomb explosions that ripped through the city shortly before a rally scheduled by Lal Krishna Advani, the Bharatiya Janata Party's president.

At least 150 people have been killed in election violence across the country. But the Coimbatore bombings came to encapsulate what many Indians found most fearful about the campaign, since they were rooted in rivalries and suspicions between the majority Hindu population of India and its 120 million Muslims.

Gandhi and other opponents of the Hindu nationalists have warned that these tensions could revive on a broader scale if the Bharatiya Janata Party wins.

In Coimbatore yesterday, voting that was deferred for a week because of the bombings went off peacefully, with large contingents of paramilitary police officers guarding polling places.

Police have arrested scores of Muslims since the blasts, contending that a Muslim youth group, Al-Umma, set the explosions to try to disrupt Advani's rally or even to kill him.

But Muslim leaders in the city repeated yesterday what they and the Congress Party's national president, Sitaram Kesri, alleged immediately after the bombings. They say the explosions were a provocation organized by Hindu nationalist extremists to stampede Hindus into voting en masse for the Hindu party.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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