Sticky times for India's Italian Gandhi

EVEN BEFORE anyone has had time to call the Indian election that many fear is just around the corner, a reluctant electorate weary of the intrigue in New Delhi's political salons is beginning to show its disgust.

The Forum of Voters group has been furiously printing "rejection" stickers to allow the electorate to register their displeasure on ballot papers. It is a belt-and-braces operation, for the forum still hopes to persuade the electoral authorities that papers should contain a "none of the above" column.

People are obsessed with politics in India, but few have any appetite for what would be the third poll in three years. In the week that has followed the fall of the 13-month-old Hindu Nationalist government, politicians have done little to enhance their standing.

As soon as the previous government lost a confidence vote in parliament by one vote, speculation immediately turned to whether an Italian-born widow, Sonia Gandhi, would become the country's next prime minister. Before helping to pull down the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, her Congress party bosses claimed they would have a new government up and running in "five minutes".

That timetable experienced a certain amount of slippage, and is still slipping. It was Wednesday before the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's earthly representative got to see the president, but told him she would have guarantees of the support she needed within "two days".

When her time expired she was forced to concede on Friday that she didn't, after all, have them. But then President Kocheril Raman Narayanan, a Congress sympathiser, gave her another couple of days.

If Mrs Gandhi is poor at estimating how much time she needs, she seems equally weak with numbers. Standing outside the red sandstone presidential palace first time round, she blithely said she had the backing of 272 MPs for a minority government. It was revised to 233 at her second appearance.

But if economy with the truth goes with the role of prime minister, as her party handlers claimed, then she was growing into the role. Certainly Mrs Gandhi, 52, has begun to field journalists with an assurance lacking until even a few weeks ago. In English, with a pronounced Italian accent, she carefully answered the questions she wanted to - and avoided the ones she didn't. She smiled in all the right places, sharing the odd joke with fawning journalists, and even obliged Delhi's rabid photographers, who kept up an intimidating barrage of shouted demands.

All this is a revelation for the woman from Orbassano who never wanted to be in politics, and who has never deigned to give a full-length interview.

The game appears to be moving away from Congress, thanks largely to a little man from Uttar Pradesh named Mulayam Singh Yadav. Congress and their other allies tried everything to get him and his 19 Samajwadi party MPs to join their bandwagon. But the former defence minister, who Congress had promised to reappoint, finally said "no".

Mr Yadav, from the cattlemen's caste, knows he would be doomed if fell in with Congress, his key opponents in his stronghold of Uttar Pradesh, where all his MPs have their seats and where voters have already begun to drift toward his rivals. But he seems far from confident in his stand. After conveying his decision to the president he promptly went into hiding, leaving his unfortunate party lieutenants to try to explain a decision that landed them with the blame for an election foisted on the Indian public.

The scenes in the garden of the Samajwadi party headquarters last week were not for the sensitive. It was 42C, and India's political journalists were boiling over with fury as they tried to find out what was going on. But their anger might be nothing to that of the electorate, if voters are obliged to trudge to the ballot box in high summer. Mr Yadav's reward could be a rash of "rejection" stickers.

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