Congress panicky after election defeats in India

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India's governing Congress Party may lose its nerve over pressing ahead with radical economic reforms. after a staggering defeat in state elections, The setbacks in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Sikkim are interpreted as a sign that the India's 450 million poor are angry at being left behind by Narasimha Rao's switch to the free-market after decades of state-directed socialism. Many Indians argue that although Coca-Cola may be available in Delhi and Bombay, Mr Rao has neglected to bring clean drinking water or basic health care to thousands of villages.

The Prime Minister, whose son was thrashed in Mr Rao's home state of Andhra Pradesh, swiftly seized on the voters' message: "Future generations would never forgive me if I allowed in a limitless flow of foreign investment and technology." However, many foreign and Indian economists claim that Mr Rao's changes are already too sluggish. Applying more brakes to foreign money and expertise could stall the reforms.

In an emergency meeting of the Congress executive on Saturday, the Prime Minister admitted that the rout was "not just a defeat but the collapse of the party". It passed a unanimous resolution supporting Mr Rao's leadership, but several leading MPs brokeranks against the Prime Minister, 73, who is said to suffer from heart trouble. One former minister, K K Tewary, called for Mr Rao's iresignation and for Rajiv Gandhi's reclusive Italian-born widow, Sonia, to take his place.

Arjun Singh, the powerful Human Resources and Development Minister who is seen as a prime contender for Mr Rao's job, said:" We should ensure that the hardships of the poor are lessened rather than increased by any action that is taken in the name of liberalisation."

The crucial test for Mr Rao will come in Febuary, with elections in five more states. If Congress fares as poorly, the clamour for Mr Rao's dismissal will be deafening. The Congress Party, which has dominated politics since independence, has seen its traditional support bleed away. Usually, Congress scoops in votes from the Muslim minority, the poor, and lower-caste Hindus, but they have abandoned the party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.The victors were small regional parties (the winner in Andhra Pradesh promised rice at one pence a kilo) and the left-wingers. The right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata party also made a strong showing in Karnataka, where it had been weak.

Muslims are embittered against the government for letting Hindu extremists tear down the Ayodhya mosque two years ago, unleashing religious riots across the country. Poor and lower-caste Hindus also claim they have been kept out of key party posts.