NEW DELHI, JUNE 18 -- Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi suffered a major political defeat today as his ruling Congress (I) Party was swept from power in Haryana state, a traditional political stronghold.

{With 70 races for the 90-member state legislature decided, the Congress had won only three seats, United Press International reported. The opposition Lok Dal Party had won 46 seats, and a second opposition group, the Bharatiya Janata Party, had captured 13. Other parties accounted for the balance.}

The two leading opposition parties had campaigned against Gandhi largely on local issues, including concessions he made to moderate Sikhs in the neighboring state, Punjab.

The Congress Party has lost five of the six state elections since Gandhi became prime minister, but the defeat today was the first in the Hindi-speaking belt of north India that has kept the party in power almost without interruption since India's independence in 1947. For Gandhi -- who swept to power in national elections following the 1984 assassination of his mother, prime minister Indira Gandhi -- the defeat capped a series of domestic political challenges and raised new questions about his leadership and political future.

A former acting president of the Congress Party, Kamalapati Tripathi, called the defeat "proof of the party's weaknesses," which he said resulted from infighting. Gandhi himself has caused serious divisions in the party with efforts to reduce the power of older leaders.

Opposition politicians, however, said the vote was a direct rejection of Gandhi's leadership, largely resulting from his handling of alleged corruption by big businessmen and officials, and from his inability to defuse the violent Sikh separatist campaign in Punjab.

{"The election has destroyed Rajiv Gandhi's image as a vote-winner," said Lal Advani, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party. "His image as a clean and competent politician was destroyed even before the election," Advani told Reuter.}

Newspaper polls had predicted the Congress' defeat. The Calcutta daily newspaper The Telegraph wrote in an editorial that Gandhi's "opponents, both within his own party and outside, are banking heavily on a negative message from Haryana to give a boost to their campaign to remove him from the prime ministership."

"While the results will not topple Gandhi's government, they will certainly give him food for thought," said Rajendra Sareen, editor of a public opinion survey in New Delhi. "State elections are usually fought on local issues, but this one sends a strong message about government's handling of recent scandals," he said, referring to allegations that officials accepted or covered up massive kickbacks paid by defense contractors.

Congress Party officials portrayed the election as a purely local one, fought on local issues, and played down its national significance.

A key issue that cost Gandhi votes locally, however, is also a national one: the Sikh agitation in Punjab. Gandhi lost support among the Hindu farmers of Haryana when, in 1985, he proposed a compromise settlement of Sikh claims in an effort to buttress Sikh moderates and undercut extremists who are fighting for independence.

Gandhi's plan would have awarded the city of Chandigarh, which serves as the joint capital of the two states, to Punjab, as well as some lands and river waters claimed by Haryana. The two leading parties in today's election repeated during the campaign that Gandhi had injured the interests of Hindi-speaking farmers in the compromise attempt.

Gandhi's plan failed when talks on details of the compromise bogged down and extremist Sikh violence flared.