Rao the survivor settles for an April general election

TIM MCGIRK

New Delhi

India will hold general elections in April, according to the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, who is likely to lead his ruling Congress party into what promises to be a fierce and closely-fought campaign.

Even within Congress, few had expected Mr Rao - a compromise candidate chosen hastily by a grief-stricken party after the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi - to complete his five-year term, let alone run for a second one. Often lampooned as dour, indecisive and aloof, Mr Rao,72, nevertheless is likely to emerge as the party's next leader.

The prospect of having Mr Rao champion the Congress's bid for re-election fills many of his party hopefuls with gloom. Pitted against the Congress party in the elections will be the formidable forces of the Hindu nationalists, the maverick regional parties, the leftists and those groups representing the lower castes in India's social hierarchy.

If elections were held tomorrow, opinion polls show, Congress might easily lose. Mr Rao's economic reforms have failed to trickle down fast enough to the masses, and some experts warn that many of these reforms may be derailed by Mr Rao's attempts to win votes by pushing through new government subsidies and populist measures. No dates in April have yet been fixed for the elections, a bureaucratic exercise of such staggering proportions in this country of 900 million people that it is usually spaced over several days.

The Congress party, which has dominated Indian politics since independence in 1947, may have no choice but to stick with the lacklustre Mr Rao and hope that their opponents self-destruct. A slight chance exists that this may indeed happen. The main party which tried to rally the lower-caste Hindus, the Bahujan Samaj Party, flopped when given the chance to govern Uttar Pradesh state, India's most populous, with more than 120 million people. With the failure of the lower-caste party, Congress is trying to coax back India's poor and downtrodden as well as the country's Muslims, alarmed by the rise of Hindu militancy.

Until several months ago, the main opposition group, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seemed ready to steamroller Mr Rao. But the BJP, which prided itself on its discipline and honesty, has lately had its image tarnished by messy feuds in Gujarat and other states. The BJP's system of having three party chiefs instead of one has also led to unseemly wrangles, but these may be sorted out now that one of the trio, Atal Behari Vajpayee, has been selected as the BJP's candidate for prime minister.

Within the Congress party, Mr Rao has fixed it so that no contenders challenge him. Those who tried to defy him, such as Arjun Singh, the former minister for human resources, have been expelled. But Mr Rao may have gained his political survival at a high price: aloof, he has neglected the party small-timers in villages and towns. Without their support, Mr Rao cannot hope to win.

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