ROPAR, India — Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi arrived in Ropar in one of a fleet of four Indian air force helicopters, each filled with security guards and black-uniformed paratroop commandos.
Other commandos manned rooftops of nearby houses, their guns trained on a crowd that had already been frisked and screened with metal detectors.
Gandhi, wearing a bulletproof vest, spoke from an elevated, bulletproof glass box.
The youthful leader, son of assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, overruled objections of his security advisers to come here and to 11 other sites in India's Punjab state to campaign for the candidates of his Congress-I Party in Wednesday's state election.
The election is the Gandhi government's main hope for restoring peace to troubled Punjab, India's richest agricultural state and home of more than half of the country's 15 million Sikhs.
Terrorist violence, inspired by militant Sikh separatists, has shaken Punjab for four years and spilled far beyond the state's borders to include such incidents as the assassinations of more than a dozen political leaders, including Indira Gandhi, slain last October by two Sikh members of her personal guard.
Moreover, Sikh violence has provoked retaliatory killings of hundreds of Sikhs in areas outside Punjab, and investigators believe that the mid-June crash of an Air India jetliner into the North Atlantic off Britain with a loss of 329 lives may have been caused by a bomb planted by Sikh terrorists.
Thus, much more is at stake here than the 13 Punjabi seats in the Lok Sabha, India's lower house of Parliament, and the 117 state assembly seats that will be filled on Wednesday.
"This election will decide the fate of secular nationalism against terrorism for the country," said Bir Paul Singh, a Congress-I Party leader and former bodyguard of Indira Gandhi.
In spite of fears that large-scale violence would erupt as the election drew near there has been little trouble in Punjab. But in New Delhi on Sunday, three people were killed by a bomb blast near a railway station. Police said that the bomb was hidden in a transistor radio case.
Sunday's explosion came after police conducted raids in New Delhi on Saturday, detaining more than 100 Sikh terrorist suspects, including government officials and army officers. Sites of the raids included several Sikh temples.
No elections have been held in Punjab since 1980. The state's last elected government was dissolved in October, 1983, because of surging violence, and all administrative and police authority was taken over by the central government in New Delhi.
A subsequent pattern of assassination and revenge, sparked by the Indian army's June, 1984, raid on the Sikhs' Golden Temple in Amritsar, put off hopes of restoring electoral politics until last July, when Gandhi and Sikh leader Harchand Singh Longowal signed an accord aimed at achieving peace.
The Indian government made concessions to Punjab's Sikh population under the agreement, and Longowal, president of the Sikh Akali Dal political party, pledged to take part in the coming election. Longowal was assassinated by Sikh terrorists Aug. 20, but Gandhi remained determined to continue with election plans.
The campaign is mainly a two-party contest between Congress-I and Akali Dal, but it remains a curious contest in several ways.
For example, many people, even within Gandhi's Congress-I, believe it is an election Gandhi cannot afford to win. These people argue that the only way to bring peace to Punjab is to ensure that Akali Dal wins the election and that Sikhs rule the state. Only Sikh leaders, they say, can control Sikh militants.
"I think there is an understanding between the Akali Dal and the Congress (Party)--a secret understanding making things easy for the Akali Dal to win and rule the state," said Hit Abhilashi, general secretary of Punjab's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
Under the Indian system, the party that wins a majority in the state assembly names the chief minister and other top officeholders and therefore controls the state government.
Gandhi's staff aggressively denies that Congress-I is playing to lose. They say a key reason for Gandhi's decision to campaign here was to dispel such rumors.
Low Key Speeches
Yet, Gandhi's speeches in Punjab have contained almost no attacks on the Akali Dal. He has repeatedly praised fallen Akali Dal leader Longowal as a "great man" and seldom mentioned his own mother, whose assassination deeply affected Punjab's large Hindu population. Congress-I candidates in the state have followed Gandhi's lead. For their part, Akali Dal candidates have also been cautious about attacking Congress-I and Gandhi.
Even if Congress-I were trying to lose, it might have a difficult time. Recent polls have shown the Congress Party with a comfortable lead statewide.
Never Won Outright