Millions of Indian voters who ended 30 years of one-party rule in March began returning to the polls today to choose state assembly members and express their initial assessment of the three-month-old government of Prime Minister Morarji Desai.
The results of the elections, which are being held in 11 states and two territories, will be the first positive indication of whether most Indians support Desai's hastily assembled People's Party. In the national elections that toppled the Congress Party, most voters cast what amounted to negative ballots, declaring their disgust with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's authoritarian state of emergency.
Balloting in the widely dispersed states will take place over five days, and final results are not expected to be known until Thursday. Independent judgments so far indicate that the People's Party can expect to win in six to eight states, but not with anything like the stunning majorities of the national elections.
More than being a simple test of popularity, the state assembly elections will also play a crucial role in the selection of India's next president. The People's Party and the melange of parties with which it is aligned in several states need a two-thirds majority to assure the electoral college selection of their candidate for the presidency. The job is largely ceremonial but can be critically important from time to time.
[News agencies reported that at least 10 people were killed and scores injured in election-day violence in Bihar state. In one incident, police in Patnag, a northeastern city, opened fire on a crowd of political workers, some of them armed, and killed at least seven.]
It was mainly to lock up the impending presidential vote that Desai dissolved Congress Party governments in nine states shortly after he came to power. He had hoped that the euphoria that spread over most of India following Gandhi's defeat would sweep his party's candidates into the assemblies.
Euphoria in a country as bone-poor as India does not last long. Strikes, banned during the 20-month emergency, have erupted in many industrial areas; prices of food and cooking oil have risen; the government has moved more slowly than many voters would like in its prosecution of Gandhi's controversial son Sanjay; and People'e Party ranks have been swollen with opportunistic defectors from the Congress Party, and many of its assembly candidates were chosen only after unseemly equabbles.
At the same time, the Congress Party is still in a shambles.
"We have been handed a severe shock, there can be no question about that," party president Kasu Brahmananda Reddi said in an interview. "But it may have been a shock we needed."
Reddi, the former prime minister's choice to head the shaken party, said the stunning defeat in March had convinced the party that it could no longer rely on a single, all-powerful figure.
"I'm not now ready to say that the party has decided it is better off dissociating itself from Mrs. Gandhi," he said in reply to a question. "But I can say that from now on we're going to have intraparty democracy - collective thinking, action and decisions - rather than total emphasis on one individual, without naming that individual."
Reddi, who held the key portfolio of home minister in Gandhi's Cabinet, clamined that the former prime minister was not herself "associated with the excesses of the emergency" in the public's mind. Rather, he suggested, "some others, near her and around her," were to blame.
Nevertheless, Gandhi has not campaigned on behalf of Congress Party candidates anywhere. Prime Minister Desai, who is not at the Commonwealth conference in London, made an intense round of campaign speeches, putting heavy emphasis on Iamil Nadu, a southern state where his party did very poorly in March.
A ranking state official in Tamil Nadu's capital, Madras, said recently that the People's Party is not expected to do much better this time. "We were left largely untouched by the ugliest parts of the emergency," he said. "Although people have lately begun to hear about compulsory sterilization and razing of slum houses, the lesson has not really sunk in."
Another state in which the party is not given much of a chance is West Bengal. Possibly the strongest party in that state is the Independent Communist Party of India (Marxist). Led by London-trained lawyer Jyoti Bosu, the once-radical Marxists are expected to gain a slim plurality and then, possibly, enter a Communist-dominated coalition with the People's Party.
Overall, public enthusiasm for the state elections, has been limited.Newspapers, set free after nearly two years of harsh censorship, have done their best to expose issues and, sometimes, create them.
This morning, for example, the National Herald, the unofficial voice of the Congress Party, carried a front-page photo of a 1955 DOdge sedan it described as "a posh People's Party automobile" being used in the New Delhi area campaign. Next to it was "the Congress candidate's humble three-wheeler" scooter.
In the March elections, it was the other way around, with People's Party claiming that the Congress Party had the "posh" vehicles. By now, however, few Indians are titilated by such news.
"We've had more than enough politics," a Calcutta police inspector said the other day."It's time to stop all this nonsense and get down to the business of government."
The states where elections are being held this week are: Orissa, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, rajasthan, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat. There are also elections in the territories of Delhi and Pondicherry.