In state elections marred by violence that left 59 dead and hundreds injured, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has consolidated her position by winning control over key state governments.
Preliminary election results for new state legislatures in nine states whose assemblies were dissolved by Gandhi's government in February showed her Congress-I Party winning clear majorities in three states and ahead in four others.
But in the populous southern state of Tamil Nadu, an alliance formed by Congress-I and a regional party went down to defeat at the hands of a rival regional alliance that had held the statehouse before the government was dissolved.
Early returns, still inconclusive, gave an edge to Congress-I in the northern state of Bihar, scene of the bloodiest election battles. Counting began today and will be finished Monday.
Congress-I (for Indira) majorities were projected in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat, and the party was well on its way to victory in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Maharashtra.
Barring a surprise upset in late returns, the results will give Gandhi's party control of a majority of the state governments. The loss of even one state, however, was seen as a blow to the prime minister, who traveled more than 25,000 miles throughout the country to campaign for her party's candidates.
Except in Tamil Nadu, where movie star M. G. Ramachandran led an 11-party alliance back to power, the returns establish Gandhi's hold on critical state administrative and party machinery.
In her campaign speeches, Gandhi contended that the people would not benefit from her programs and policies unless the state governments were in line with her central government.
Under India's federal system, state governments are responsible for such key functions as maintaining scarce commodities, carrying out drought relief programs and cracking down on profiteers and hoarders -- all current problems.
During the parliamentary campaign that swept her back to power in January, Gandhi pledged to bring a halt to rising prices, lawlessness, and commodity shortages. But with most of the state governments in opposition hands, her supporters maintained, she would be thwarted in her efforts to keep her election promises. On Feb. 17, the nine state governments were dissolved. At that time, New Delhi explained that the holdover opposition parties that controlled the legislatures no longer reflected the will of the people and threatened to block Gandhi's new proposals.
But there was little doubt that the move was aimed at extending Gandhi's personal and political dominance. In addition, observers noted, state control would also provide a strong chance to establish Congress-I control in the upper house of Parliament, which is indirectly elected by the state legislatures. Although the upper house has voted with Gandhi since her sweep back into office, she lacks a clear majority there.
Gandhi's opponents contended during the heated state campaigns that she was out to destroy the federal system to pave the way for a dictatorship to be passed on to her son, Sanjay.
Bharatiya Janata Party chief Atal Bihari Vajpayee warned that once Gandhi and her son gained control of the states, no one could stop them from establishing a "family dictatorship." Lok Dal Party President Charan Singh, India's former caretaker prime minister, said that Gandhi's use of Congress-I to dominate the central and the state governments would lead to a "monolithic structure" and destroy democracy. Bhupesh Gupta, a Communist Party of India leader, said Gandhi's aim was to change the constitution to perpetuate her family rule, while Devaraj Urs, chief of the splinter Congress-U Party, called her approach "fascist."
But the national opposition parties, weakened even further since January by internal quarrels and splits, were able to put only minor dents in the Congress-I state majorities.