NEW DELHI, JUNE 17 -- 17 --
Voters went to the polls today in the northern state of Haryana in an election seen as crucial to the political future of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the rule of his Congress (I) Party, beset with scandals and electoral setbacks.
Haryana, core of the Hindi-speaking heartland of northern India that has sustained the Congress Party in power since India gained independence from British rule in 1947, has an importance out of proportion to its size because of its proximity to New Delhi and to neighboring, Sikh-dominated Punjab.
Gandhi faces burgeoning pressures -- from allegations of widespread corruption, from dissidents within his party, where no elections have been held for a decade, from a constitutional crisis with President Zail Singh and from the failure of his initiatives to control increasing ethnic strife in Punjab.
Although the Congress won the December 1984 national elections by a landslide, it has won only one state assembly election since then, losing in Punjab, Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Mizoram.
In the last Haryana state elections, in 1982, the Congress won 36 seats in the 90-seat state assembly but then engineered a series of defections from opposition parties to form a 61-seat majority.
News agencies reported that an estimated 65 percent of Haryana's 8.5 million eligible voters turned out today. At least 10 persons were injured and eight arrested after fighting broke out over a series of raids on polling places by Congress party workers, the agencies reported. In one incident, protesters burned a Congress candidate's jeep.
A total of 1,287 candidates are running for 87 seats in the state assembly. Voting in three other districts was postponed because of candidates' deaths. Two vacant seats in the national parliament are also at stake in the voting. Results are to be announced on Thursday.
Of the 87 contested seats, 72 are from predominantly rural districts, and it is here that the opposition coalition, led by landowner Devi Lal, is expected to be strongest. But Congress leaders expressed confidence on the eve of the voting.
"Ours is not a political party," declared Sultan Singh, the Congress' state president, in an interview. "Ours is a movement that is the life force of the country."
"The Congress government in the state is not interested in a good deal for the people of this state," said Som Nath, campaign manager for the opposition Indian People's Party candidate in Panipat. "It cannot go against the Delhi government and it has sacrificed Haryana's rights to Punjab," he added, referring to the accord signed in 1985 by Gandhi and the moderate Sikh Akali party in an effort to end Punjab's ethnic strife.
"We are trying to confine ourselves to local issues in these elections," said Manohar Lal, district campaign manager for the Haryana Action Committee, an opposition coalition made up of the Lok Dal (People's Group), the Indian People's Party and communist parties.
"However, people here may not be very literate, but they ask us, 'Who got the money' and, 'How far do our guns fire?'," he said, referring to charges that Sweden's Bofors arms firm paid huge kickbacks to Indian officials to sell artillery weapons to the Indian Army.
Balbir Pal Shah, Congress candidate for Panipat, disagreed: "People are not interested in guns and money. They want good roads and water and electricity, and they know we can give it to them."