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Rebels plot Rao's downfall

A revolt is gathering in the ranks of the governing Congress Party against India's Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, leading some political analysts to predict that he could be forced to resign within three months.

Mr Rao has been stunned by losses in several supposedly "safe" Indian states in recent by-elections and openly defied by Congress leaders who publicly blame him for the rout and for allowing corrruption to spread. Now, the beleaguered Prime Minister, aged 74, faces the possibility of more poll defeats. Bihar, Orissa, Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh and Maharashtra are all due to hold elections in March and the Congress party - which for decades has dominated Indian politics - could be thrashed in all five.

Even if the Congress Party by some fluke were to win in Maharashtra, the country's economic powerhouse, it would hardly boost Mr Rao's chances of survival. The credit would go to Sharad Pawar, the state's chief minister, which could mean more trouble forMr Rao, as Mr Pawar is one of many contenders for his job.

The Pioneer newspaper described the muddle around Mr Rao as "an unedifying spectacle of squabbles among petty minds bereft of honesty Does not this country deserve a better leadership?" The Gandhis and Nehrus of the past have been replaced with, as IndiaToday described them, "a bunch of servile sycophants and power-hungry politicians".

What may save Mr Rao is not his skill in eliminating dissent in the party but the realisation inside Congress that pulling down Mr Rao could smash the entire party. The Power Minister, NKP Salve, said: "Unless we win in Maharashtra, we may have trouble in the Centre [at national level] and without the Congress Party at the Centre, I see a very bleak future for the nation."

Responding to the challenge, Mr Rao has vacillated between inertia and heavy-handedness. His main adversary, so far, has been Arjun Singh, the former human resources minister. He was sacked from the cabinet for suggesting that Congress needed an overhaulafter its drubbing in the November state polls. Instead of letting Mr Singh slide into oblivion, Mr Rao sought to have him expelled from the party for sabotage. Mr Rao's harsh reaction prompted several party chiefs, including Uttar Pradesh's ND Tiwari, to join the rebels.

The Prime Minister tried to woo back Mr Tiwari by allowing Congress in Uttar Pradesh, themost populous state, to withdraw its support from the chief minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav. Mr Yadav rules Uttar Pradesh with the backing of the lower castes and the Muslims, whose support Mr Rao desperately needs if he is to win the vote in any states next month.

Mr Rao finally agreed last week to withdraw Congress backing for Mr Yadav, but urged state assembly deputies not to vote against him. Led by Mr Tiwari, who embarked on a three-day hunger strike - as much in protest against Mr Rao's confused behaviour as against Mr Yadav - some Congress deputies are expected to defy Mr Rao's dictates. While Mr Tiwari's supporters shouted "Down with Narasimha Rao", it was the smiling Mr Singh who pushed his way forward with a glass of juice for Mr Tiwari to break his fast. The rebellion is spreading.

If the Congress Party continues on the road to self-destruction, the leading opposition group, the Bharatiya Janata Party, may emerge strengthened after the elections. Although many Indians have recently backed away from this party's strident Hindu nationalism, which has provoked sectarian strife between Hindus and Muslims, the Bharatiya Janata Party is expected to make use of the disarray in Congress to win in Gujarat. Maharashtra may also fall to the right-wing Hindu party.

If that happens, India could face a mid-term general election this autumn and the prospect of a new party governing in Delhi.