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Rao clutches at straws of poll oblivion

India's premier is somehow hopeful of keeping power despite a bleak election outlook
It was the last campaign rally in India's marathon general elections for the prime minister, Narasimha Rao, and possibly his last ever. The crowd was sparse; the rows of empty seats in the Jammu stadium glared out at as he lectured like a dusty, old schoolmaster who had long ago lost his pupils' attention.

A bad week, indeed, for Mr Rao. At rallies from Bihar to Jammu more people turned up to see his giant helicopter than him. Four opinion polls predict that in the three rounds of general elections - which end today - Mr Rao's once-mighty Congress Party will fare worse than it ever has since independence. And, to top it off, his personal guru, Chandraswamy, was arrested on charges of fraud, in which the prime minister, too, has been tainted.

Yet Mr Rao seems unflappable. Reporters on the premier's airplane back from Jammu found the usually stone-faced Mr Rao to be combative.He clings to the slender possibility that the Congress Party, even in disarray, may be able to cement together a coalition government with the leftists and some of the regional parties. Mr Rao, who is 74 and has a history of heart ailments, believes that he, again, could become prime minister.

As Mr Rao figures it, the third-placed National Front-Left Front (NF- LF) - a loose and often loopy assortment of communists, socialists, regional strongmen, and parties representing Muslims and those Hindus on the bottom of India's social hierarchy - will never hook up with the BJP. The leftists accuse the BJP of brewing up an incendiary mix of politics and Hindu chauvinism.

Mr Rao is gambling that, eventually, the leftists will turn to Congress - and to him - to stop the BJP from enforcing their Hindu revivalism on India.

The odds are against Mr Rao. The BJP, led by Atal Behari Vajpayee, a gifted orator who is probably the Hindu party's sole liberal, may sweep as many as 200 out of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, according to some forecasts. If so, the BJP may succeed in patching together its own coalition with the extremist Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the Sikh Akali Dal in Punjab and a few scattered MPs in Haryana and Andhra Pradesh.

If the BJP cannot put together a government, it will be Congress's turn. Even then, Mr Rao may find himself dumped. Many leaders within the rag- tag NF-LF have vowed never to hitch up with Congress while Mr Rao is in charge. The NF-LF blames Mr Rao for the destruction of a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu militants. Dogmatists within the NF-LF also accuse Mr Rao of selling out to western multi-nationals in his attempts to liberalise India's rusty socialist economy. Jaipal Reddy, a spokesman from one of the NF-LF's parties, put it bluntly: "If Narasimha Rao is not the leader, we are prepared to do business with the Congress."

Meanwhile, Congress members have lost all sense of decorum. Expecting a rout in the polls, some are baying for Mr Rao's departure as party president. Others are plotting the return of such prominent Congress renegades as Madhavrao Scindia and Arjun Singh in Madhya Pradesh, NT Tiwari in Uttar Pradesh, and P Chidambaram and GK Moopanar in Tamil Nadu. Mr Rao has made too many enemies, sacrificed too many party stalwarts in his quest for a second five-year term.

Within Congress, a replacement for Mr Rao is also being sought. One contender is Sharad Pawar, a muscleman from Maharashtra. Another candidate might be Mr Scindia, the young and erstwhile Maharajah of Gwalior. It was his open revolt against Mr Rao, by running as an independent, that shook the party.

As Vir Sanghvi, a columnist in the weekly Sunday, opined, "To hope, as Mr Rao does, that he survives while the Congress dies, is foolish. He has guided the Congress to these depths. And if it sinks, he will drown with it."