India's President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy today invited the leader of a wing of the Congress Party, the official opposition in Parliament, to form a government following the collapse Sunday of Morarji Desai's coalition administration.

But the president, caught in a confusing political situation with the ruling Janata coalition badly split over who should lead the government, appeared merely to be following British tradition without much hope the attempt would succeed.

The Congress Party, which has ruled India for almost three decades since independence, has splintered and the wing that forms the official opposition is only the third largest bloc in Parliament.

Nonetheless, Reddy gave Congress leader Yeshwantrao Chavan until Sunday to try to muster a majority in Parliament, and Chavan appealed to all members of the divided Congress Party to unite behind him.

Reddy picked Chavan after the Janata majority failed to agree on who should form the new government.

The battle within the Janata is between Desai, 83, who has refused to give up the party leadership and who has demanded the right for another chance at running the country, and his two deputy prime ministers - Charan Singh, 77, who secretly masterminded the rebellion against the Desai government, and Jagjivan Ram, 71, the leader of India's untouchables who thus far has stayed loyal to Desai.

But pressure is building on Desai to step down. India's elder statesman, the ailing Vayaprakash Narayan, today advised Desai to quit and said he supports Ram as the only person with enough support "to salvage the Janata Party and to save democracy at this moment."

Narayan stepped in on the side of Desai in 1977 when the same three men - Desai, Ram and Singh - were battling over who should become prime minister.

The Janata is a loose coalition of political parties that banded together in 1976 to defeat Indira Gandhi, who had been running the country under an authoritarian emergency rule.