In the faded elegance of his rambling, 300-year-old palace, its walls peeling and mildewed and its once-gracious Mogul gardens gone to seed, 84-year-old Rananjaya Singh, the maharaja of the former princely state of Amethi, unhesitatingly offered a prediction about the coming Indian national election.
"There's no question, Rajiv Gandhi will succeed. The family chain will be unbroken," said Singh, who has been a close friend and confidant of the House of Nehru since Gandhi's great-grandfather, Motilal Nehru, served as attorney for the maharaja's estate before the tiny kingdom was dismantled in the wake of India's independence.
Given his own place in the nearly 1,000-year-old Rajput family dynasty here, it was not surprising that Singh said he was the first to suggest to the late prime minister Indira Gandhi that her son Rajiv enter politics when his brother and apparent heir to the premiership, Sanjay, was killed in a stunt plane accident in 1980.
Two miles down the road, in the teeming marketplace of this election district in which Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi will seek to retain his parliamentary seat in the Dec. 24 balloting, a casteless woman with broken teeth and a tattered sari squatted in the dust before a pile of lentils she was selling and offered an equally strong -- if less articulate -- endorsement of the continuation of the Nehru dynasty.
"I will vote for Indira. I know she is dead, but my vote will go to her son," she said. Then, with a shrug, she added, "How do I come into the picture? I cannot make anyone win or lose."
From end to end of this sprawling parliamentary constituency in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Indian voters of all walks of life echoed the sentiments of the aging maharaja and the impoverished lentil seller, offering mounting evidence that Rajiv Gandhi will ride on a wave of sympathy for his assassinated mother and, in all likelihood, carry his ruling Congress (I) Party to an impressive election victory in a state with 85 parliamentary seats, more than any other.
Interviews with a broad cross section of rural Indians ranging from high-caste professionals to harijan (untouchable) sharecroppers seemed also to support the hypothesis that many Indians are attracted to the concept of dynastic rule, a concept whose origins stretch back millenniums to the great Indus civilization and, later, to the Mogul empire.
Repeatedly, voters spoke nostalgically about Gandhi's grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and of Nehru's daughter, Indira, who came after him. In some backward villages here, illiterate peasants frequently confused the family lineage, and referred to Indira Gandhi as the daughter of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the "great soul" who led India to independence, but the two were not related.
The Amethi parliamentary district, about 400 miles southeast of New Delhi, is demographically a microcosm of the vote-heavy Hindi heartland that stretches across northern India from Rajasthan to Bihar and accounts for 220 of the 542 elective seats in the governing Lok Sabha -- the People's House of the Parliament.
It was here where Sanjay Gandhi was elected to Parliament in 1980 and where Rajiv succeeded him in a special election in 1981. In the coming election, Rajiv Gandhi will be running against Sanjay's 28-year-old widow, Maneka, who, following a bitter feud with Indira Gandhi, was expelled from the family house in 1982 and formed her own opposition party, the National Sanjay Forum Party.
Even Congress (I) Party strategists in the state capital of Lucknow conceded that before the Oct. 31 assassination of Indira Gandhi, Maneka appeared capable of giving Rajiv trouble in Amethi, a prospect that apparently compelled him to consider running in a second, "safe" district as a backstop.
That precaution seems unnecessary now, not only because of the ground swell of sympathy over Indira Gandhi, but because the assassination took away from Maneka the only issue on which she was running: the late prime minister's alleged imperiousness and political excesses.
Moreover, in the three years that he has represented Amethi district, Rajiv Gandhi has gained a reputation on his own for pressing hard for federally funded public works projects and industrial development that have noticeably improved the quality of life in this economically depressed region.
The development program -- opposition leaders call it blatant pork-barreling -- has resulted in a near-frenzy of stone-laying ceremonies for industrial plants, schools and hospitals; the digging of irrigation canals and tube wells; the electrification of hundreds of remote villages; the paving of hundreds of miles of roads in the district, and the installation of television relay transmitters.
Of the 2 million Amethi residents, a district magistrate in the town of Sultanpur, G.D. Mehrotra, said, "I wouldn't say that they've been promised the moon, but there is a certain air of expectation that things will be done for them."
A worker in the Youth Congress (I) wing boasted, "This district used to be so backward it wasn't even on the map of India. Now it has a place on that map."
Graffiti scrawled on walls here proclaimed long before the assassination that "Rajiv is the lovely prince of India," and huge photographs of him hang almost everywhere.
But until Oct. 31, Gandhi was running in Amethi as a member of Parliament, not as prime minister, and there has been a distinct upswing in his popularity since the assassination.
One of his close friends, Sanjaya Singh, 30, who is the Uttar Pradesh minister of forestry and son of the maharaja of Amethi -- said candidly that the family succession of the leadership of India and the sympathy factor will weigh heavily in the election's outcome.
"In India, there is a tradition of one candle being lighted by another candle, the light being passed from one to another of the same blood," Singh said. "Indians are very emotional. It is true that we have lost a great leader, but with Rajiv, the same greatness will continue."
When asked whether the Congress Party would exploit Indira Gandhi's memory by flooding the district with posters bearing both her and her son's images, Singh replied, "That is not necessary. Rajiv is sufficient."
But Rajinder Singh, a leader of an opposition alliance headed by former prime minister Charan Singh, said in an interview in Lucknow that Rajiv Gandhi would be forced to run on merit and issues.
"Rajiv has announced an early poll because he wants to cash in on the death of his mother, but here in India we know that votes are cast on the basis of policies and programs, not on sympathy," the opposition leader said. "Rajiv is nothing. What are his policies? What are his programs?"
Singh scoffed at a prediction by Sanjaya Singh that Uttar Pradesh will give 70 of its 85 parliamentary seats to Congress (I), and said that in a one-on-one race, Maneka Gandhi would win in Amethi and the opposition parties would sweep 77 of the state's seats.
But in Amethi district, things looked different.
Maneka Gandhi's campaign chairman, Arjun Singh, conceded that his candidate's principal issue had been removed by the assassination, and said, somewhat unenthusiastically, "Now the sentiment is for Rajiv, but I hope that will change."
Asked what issues Maneka would now campaign on, he replied, "I don't know. We haven't heard from New Delhi yet." Almost without exception, ordinary Indians interviewed randomly in Amethi indicated that Indira Gandhi's death would be a major factor in the election.
In a dingy tea stall in Bahadurpur Crossing, a dusty market village, Shankar Chauhan, a low-caste farmer, said: "Every sane person will think it is right for Rajiv to come in. He is Indira's son, isn't he?"
In a wheat field, Sadgur Sharan, an untouchable sharecropper, complained bitterly that he had no irrigation water for his two-acre field, but he said he voted for Indira Gandhi's party in 1980 and would vote for Rajiv on Dec. 24 because he could see the results of development programs in adjacent villages, and had hopes that more water would be diverted to his village, too.
Moslems interviewed -- the state's population is about 15 percent Moslem -- shared the Hindus' enthusiasm for continuing the family dynasty.
Mohammed Mushir, a farmer in Nigohu village, said, referring to Indira and Rajiv Gahdni, "She ran the country for 16 years. We hope he will run the country as well. If he fails, we will suffer."
A recurring theme among rural Indians of varying castes and economic levels was that of a trickle-down effect that might evolve from Gandhi's acension to the highest office in the land: that the new prime minister, infused with power, will spend even more money to improve the quality of life in Amethi.
In one tea-stall gathering just outside Amethi town, a dozen Indian farmers -- high-caste Rajputs, Moslems, lower-caste Hindus and untouchables -- expressed similar grievances about everyday life in this hardscrabble farm belt. They talked of a lack of water, rising costs of farming, a sluggish bureaucracy and corruption among local officials.
But when pressed on the question of whether Rajiv Gandhi, their constituent representative, was responsible for their hardships, the peasants absolved the prime minister of any blame.
"There is a tree and there are branches off of that tree. Rajiv is the trunk of the tree, and the local leaders are the branches. The branches are not taking our problems to the trunk," said Mohammed Abass, a Moslem tenant farmer.
In the main circle of Amethi town, jammed with bullock carts, bicycle rickshaws and wandering water buffaloes, is a new shrine to Indira Gandhi. It is a small, triangular traffic island, covered by a multicolored shamiyana tent and containing a huge, framed portrait of the assassinated prime minister.
Incense burned around the garlanded portrait, and a Hindu pundit chanted prayers over a tinny loudspeaker. A banner hung over the street, declaring in Hindi, "Indira, mother of India. We celebrate the 13th day of mourning," when, according to Hindu tradition, the soul is released to heaven.
Everywhere, there were Congress Party posters bearing the likeness of Rajiv Gandhi.
In the midst of the bedlam of traffic squatted a thin, impoverished farmer who had walked several miles to town to sell a small pile of ferocious-looking red chili peppers. His clothes were rags and he wore no shoes, and there was little evidence that he would sell any of his peppers by the time darkness fell.
"Indira Gandhi has done a lot for me," said the farmer. "Rajiv is her son. I will vote for Rajiv."