Time running out for India's Machiavelli

The Indian Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, is more noted for his patrician guile than his ability to electrify crowds. Gnomish, balding, and with facial expressions that run the full range from a scowl to a frown, Mr Rao, 74, is not the man to singlehandedly wrest another victory for his Congress party in the upcoming general elections.

With Indians going to polls on 27 April, 2 May and 7 May, the Congress party - which has ruled India for all but four years since independence in 1947 - is headed for a disastrously poor showing, according to forecasts. If Congress, as expected, fails to win a majority in parliament, blame for the party's poor performance will fall directly on Mr Rao.

Not only is he a lacklustre campaigner, but his own partymen accuse him of being miserly with his power and party tickets. Some of the party's chief figures, such as the ex- cabinet ministers Madhavrao Scindia and P Chidambaram, are in open revolt against him, while others are sabotaging Mr Rao's candidates on the sly. It is not the way to win an election. Atal Behari Vajpayee, leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), recently chortled: "It looks like Congress is crumbling."

Some Congress parliamentary candidates have even warned their party headquarters in New Delhi to direct Mr Rao away from the constituencies where they are campaigning. Usually, Indian political rallies are a carnival razzmatazz of music, lyrical speeches, heaps of rice biriyani, and colourful banners. They attract tens of thousands of supporters. But Mr Rao's outings so far have been dull affairs; in the Congress stronghold of Haryana state, he drew only 4,000 people. During the party's main rally at Old Delhi's Red Fort on 28 March, the crowd began drifting away 10 minutes into his speech. In contrast, the leftist Janata Dal drums up support in Bihar by having dwarves go into the villages with green parrots that have been trained to squawk campaign slogans.

When Mr Rao agreed to an election pact with a ruling regional party in Tamil Nadu, his own partymen in the southern state turned against him. They slapped around a cardboard figure of the unsmiling Mr Rao with their sandals, urinated on the cut-out, doused it in kerosene, and set it ablaze, shouting: "The betrayer has been annihilated!"

Events are spinning out of control for Mr Rao, widely regarded by friends and enemies alike as a wily manipulator, a Machiavelli of the sub-continent. Opinion polls show that Congress's majority in the 545-seat Lok Sabha parliament could be chiselled away by the Hindu nationalists who are expected to post gains in the key states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Rajasthan. The National Front may conquer the Ganges plain states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal as well as Orissa and Kerala. The local regional parties are expected to do well in Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. Curbs on campaign spending have also diminished the Congress party's natural advantage of being an incumbent, able to dole out a new irrigation canal here, a school or hospital there, to win votes.

In his home state of Andhra Pradesh, Mr Rao is so unsure of winning his constituency race that he is also campaigning for a safe Congress seat in nearby Orissa. With mutiny breaking out inside Congress, many Indians laugh away Mr Rao's campaign slogan of "stability".

But the reforms which Mr Rao has embarked on during his five years in office did jump-start India's moribund economy. The country's economic growth is now more than 6 per cent and foreign investment is pouring in. Some polls place him slightly ahead of the BJP's Mr Vajpayee as the man most Indians want to see become the next prime minister.

Mr Rao is more at ease deal-making in his air-conditioned New Delhi mansion than out in the sizzling 98 degree heat and dust of the campaign trail. He may be calculating that even if his party does not win a majority, neither will the BJP nor the National Front. He might just finesse his way into being prime minister of a coalition government. Otherwise, he will be cast out, and reviled as the man who presided over the Congress party's demise.