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India's longtime ruling party faces strong regional challenges. Losses in 2 out of 3 state elections deal blow to Gandhi's standing

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The defeat of India's ruling political party in two out of three state elections deals another setback to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, whose political fortunes have been eroding in recent months. In legislative elections Monday in Kerala and West Bengal states, left-wing opposition parties won wide margins against candidates from Mr. Gandhi's Congress (I) party. In Muslim-dominated Jammu and Kashmir State, his party's alliance won handily.

The Congress (I)'s regional defeats, analysts say, could create more dissent within Gandhi's party. In the last two years, Congress (I) has lost three other state elections.

``This will have an effect on the decline of his credibility as party leader ...,'' an Indian analyst says, and will prompt the opposition ``to get together on issues which erode Gandhi's stature as a national leader. ...''

In recent weeks, Gandhi has been embroiled in a political controversy with India's President, Giani Zail Singh. The controversy brought into question a possible violation of a constitutional provision that requires Gandhi to keep the President informed on all matters of state. When Gandhi claimed that he had indeed done so, Mr. Singh wrote him a note saying the opposite was true. The letter was leaked to the press and triggered a political storm that observers say places Gandhi in extremely bad light.

The biggest defeat in Monday's vote came in Kerala, where the 80-percent voter turnout was unprecedentedly high. A rich, verdant state, Kerala boasts the nation's highest literacy rate - more than 60 percent. In 1957, it was the first state to vote Marxists into power.

In Trivandrum, the state capital, election campaigning was lively and intense. A gamut of political parties and factions fielded a record 1,232 candidates for 138 legislative seats. The communist-led Left Democratic Front beat the ruling coalition, which included the Congress (I). Analysts attribute the left's win to the coalition's encouragement of religious- or ethnic-based communal parties and reported corruption.

West Bengal's ruling Left Front, dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), won a third 5-year term. The Congress (I) held on to some traditional urban strongholds, but was edged out in others.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the victory of the ruling National Conference-Congress (I) coalition was seen as a vote against rising Muslim fundamentalism. Last year, Gandhi and Kashmir leader Farooq Abdullah teamed up to end unstable politics marked by Hindu-Muslim violence. Some analysts say this may have diminished Dr. Abdullah's support. ``Political proximity to New Delhi is seen as political betrayal to Kashmir,'' opposition leader Jaswant Singh says.

Congress (I) members seem discontented at being junior partners in the coalition. The allies will be ``political losers even though they'll be electoral victors,'' Mr. Singh says.

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