NEW DELHI, NOV. 5 -- India's governing Janata Party split today, loosening Prime Minister V. P. Singh's tenuous grip on power after months of class and religious riots that have left hundreds of people dead, and igniting a scramble among would-be successors.
Politicians from five factions, ranging from Communists on the left to Hindu activists on the right, shuttled around the capital this evening, negotiating for a majority in the divided Parliament, which is scheduled to hold a vote of confidence Wednesday that Singh is widely expected to lose.
Whatever patchwork coalition may emerge from their negotiations, few Indian commentators expect any dramatic shift in the country's domestic or foreign policies, unless an election is called and voters deliver a new and clearer political mandate.
The split in Singh's party has thrust forward a new contender to lead India's government: Chandra Shekhar, a self-described socialist who has never held political office but has coveted the prime minister's chair. Shekhar has been maneuvering publicly for months to oust Singh, his chief Janata rival, whom Shekhar accuses of fostering religious and social turmoil.
Shekhar met with reporters today under a tree and announced that he and 68 Janata members of Parliament, just under half of the party's total strength, had "expelled" Singh as their leader because he had failed to deliver on electoral promises and had exacerbated caste and religious tensions.
Singh's faction, which claimed to have 83 members, rejected Shekhar's announcement. "You can't have a meeting on some lawn somewhere and expel someone from the party," said Railways Minister George Fernandes, a Singh loyalist.
Later in the day, a spokesman for Singh's faction said Shekhar and 24 of his dissident allies had been kicked out of the Janata for violating party rules.
After announcing his revolt against Singh, Shekhar scheduled a meeting Tuesday with former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. At the meeting, Shekhar is expected to seek the support of Gandhi's Congress Party in his bid for office. Congress has the most seats in Parliament, but not enough to form a government on its own.
There have been strong indications from Congress officials that Gandhi will indeed support Shekhar. But the former prime minister, who was repudiated in a national vote 11 months ago, has the option to seek office himself or back new elections immediately.
Even if the politicians cobble together a coalition, India's head of state, President R. Venkataraman, has the constitutional power to order a fresh poll if he thinks the proposed government is too unstable. Indian press reports portray Venkataraman as a man of divided mind: He does not want to endorse another wobbly minority government, the reports say, but he is afraid new elections will exacerbate the religious and caste violence that has claimed hundreds of lives during the last few months.
Hindu-Moslem tensions that helped precipitate the political crisis continued today. Indian news agencies said 15 people died in three states, raising the two-week toll to more than 300 in clashes over efforts by militant Hindus to tear down a 16th-century mosque and erect on the site a temple to the Hindu god Rama.
Since August, more than 100 people died in violence related to Singh's proposal to guarantee jobs for low-caste Hindus.
This week's political uncertainty is the result of a split mandate delivered by Indian voters late last year. The voters repudiated Gandhi after five years in office but failed to deliver a majority to his chief opponent Singh, a centrist who advertised himself in a spirited campaign as India's only clean and principled politician. After the election, Singh took power by negotiating support from Hindu activists and leftists, while Gandhi agreed to sit in opposition.
Since then, polls show that Singh's popularity has eroded because of growing inflation and worsening secessionist movements in the states of Kashmir, Punjab and Assam. In recent months, Singh has tried to revive his fortunes by promoting the controversial affirmative-action plan for lower castes and by confronting India's Hindu militants. But his moves have led to caste riots and religious conflict that have destroyed his fragile coalition.
More broadly, the fractiousness in New Delhi reflects two recent political developments in India: the decline of the Congress Party as the country's dominant centrist political institution, and the rapid rise of the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
After winning only a handful of seats in the 1984 election, the Bharatiya Janata Party has become the third-largest party in Parliament. Its strength has undermined a decades-old national political consensus in favor of a strongly secular government, polarizing voters and office-holders around religious issues.
At the same time, decay within the Congress Party -- apparent in growing defections from its ranks and widespread corruption allegations leveled against prominent party leaders -- has opened a void at the center of India's politics.
With India's Hindu rightists and old-line Communists shunted mainly to supporting roles, the struggle for power on New Delhi's center stage this week is being waged among centrist career politicians who have few evident ideological differences but a long, complex history of personal rivalry and opportunism.
Shekhar, the latest in a series of provincial career politicians to lay claim to the traditions of centrist Indian politics, is an upper-caste landlord's son who has devoted his career to socialist ideals but reportedly has ties to some of India's largest business houses.