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NEWS ANALYSIS : Sympathy Vote May Bring Gandhi's Party the Majority He Wasn't Expected to Win : Martyrdom: 'The people will not pardon this at the polls,' a candidate says.

May 23, 1991|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW DELHI — The flag-draped coffin containing the body of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was placed on display Wednesday at the same site occupied six years earlier by the coffin of his assassinated mother, and the legend that now will radically alter India's scarred political landscape began to grow.

"He knew very well that he was vulnerable, and he was prepared to sacrifice," said Maganbhai Barot, an elderly friend of Gandhi's mother, Indira, and one of the Gandhi party's candidates in the election campaign that took the 46-year-old leader's life Tuesday night.

"In our country, nothing appeals to or shakes the people more than sacrifice," Barot said. "Martyrdom is something that captures the mind, and I believe, in this case, it is all the more tragic because he died so very young.

"Make no mistake. The whole nation will mourn his death. The people will not pardon this at the polls."

Emphasizing that message was the selection Wednesday of Gandhi's widow, Sonia, to succeed him as president of the Congress-I Party, a surprise move that analysts say will ensure a wave of election sympathy for the party.

And as Gandhi's body lay in the home that is now a memorial to the father of the Indian nation--his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru--the latest victim of an assassin's attack on India's longest-serving political dynasty already had been transformed by death into a hero.

In fact, according to analysts, businessmen, common folk and even some of Gandhi's political enemies, it was clear Wednesday that the youngest of the ruling Gandhis, like his mother before him, will manage to achieve in death what few believed he could in life--win a clear majority in the crucial parliamentary elections that triggered his assassination.

"The whole political picture of the country has changed overnight," said Kushwant Singh, a Sikh author and frequent critic of the Congress-I. "The Congress almost certainly will win by a very large majority now.

"In the next round, there will be a big swing on account of the sympathy vote, and it will be at the expense of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was the biggest single challenger to Rajiv Gandhi's return to power."

Gandhi's death, by an assassin's bomb at a rural election rally, forced the postponement of India's staggered, three-day polling, which began Monday and was to conclude this Sunday.

The continuation of the voting, already India's bloodiest ever with at least 200 dead, is now scheduled for mid-June. But already the pundits are rewriting their versions of India's political future, a future that most had predicted could have brought to power the nation's first Hindu revivalist government.

Before the bombing, many of those political analysts had given an edge to the Hindu-revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which waged an effective grass-roots campaign for the votes of India's 750 million Hindus in an effort to politically unite the deeply fractured nation along religious lines for the first time in history.

"The BJP is now finished this time," said a New Delhi businessman who had come to the shrine called Teen Murti Bhawan to pay his last respects to Gandhi.

According to the businessman, most urban, educated, middle-class Hindus had planned to vote for BJP candidates this week, largely because Congress-I, which governed under Gandhi's leadership for five years, and the two splinter governments that briefly replaced the Congress-I after its defeat in November, 1989, had all failed to pull India back from economic and social chaos.

"But it's all changed now," the businessman added. "It's all a sympathy wave now. Rajiv is a martyr, and martyrs are very good campaigners in India."

Gandhi's 106-year-old party will suffer from the loss, however. Despite the widespread prediction that the Congress-I will romp to victory--just as Rajiv Gandhi did in December, 1984, two months after his mother's assassination--there is no obvious replacement for Gandhi. And most analysts fear that the loss of a man who had campaigned principally as a symbol of stability, unity and progress will only serve to herald an era of even greater chaos and economic decline.

"As in any dynasty, there always comes a point in time when succession is a problem," said one European diplomat in New Delhi. "And the Congress is now at that point. They've simply run out of Nehrus for the moment."

But not Nehru in-laws.

In a surprise decision late Wednesday that most Indian analysts viewed as a shrewd move to ensure both a sympathy wave at the polls next month and the perpetuation of the Gandhi name, the Congress-I leadership unanimously chose Rajiv's Italian-born widow to head the party.

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