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India's Gandhi loses out in crucial popularity test. Prime minister's party receives setback in key state election

Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has failed a key test of popularity. Results from elections in northern Haryana State indicate a landslide victory for the opposition party. The victory for the Lok Dal (People's Party)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance, analysts say, is the most serious setback yet for Mr. Gandhi.

Haryana is the core of the so-called ``Hindi heartland'' across northern India, the predominantly Hindu states which have kept Gandhi's Congress (I) Party in power for most of the last 40 years.

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``We've already lost the south. A victory would save Gandhi's [political] life,'' a senior Congress (I) parliamentarian said before results were known. ``But a loss would mean a vote against him that will be reflected in the entire Hindi belt.''

Observers have mixed views on whether Congress (I)'s defeat will necessarily mean Gandhi's political downfall. Gandhi's credibility has been gravely damaged by a series of political miscues and corruption scandals in his government. Some analysts believe this defeat could split the party or prompt dissidents to ease Gandhi out.

Others say the loss could greatly weaken Gandhi as a party leader, but not lead to his ouster.

``I don't think this will be the end of Gandhi,'' a diplomat says. ``But it'll be a major setback that will make him more vulnerable to pressures from the [conservative] party members or dissidents.''

Since Gandhi assumed power in 1984, his party has lost all but one state election. The Haryana election, however, is the first test of Congress (I)'s support in its traditional stonghold. It also is its first defeat in the Hindi belt since 1977.

Haryana was carved out of the trouble-prone Punjab State in 1967 by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Haryana still shares the capital, Chandigarh, with Punjab. The city's proposed transfer to Punjab, under Gandhi's 1985 peace accord with moderate Sikh leaders, was indefinitely postponed due to pressure from Congress (I) stalwarts.

Congress (I)'s loss in Haryana is attributed in part to the mass appeal of the local rural-based opposition party leader Devi Lal, who campaigned extensively. Mr. Lal, who was Haryana chief minister from 1977-79, is popular among farmers' groups. Internal divisions within Congress (I) also contributed to the loss, analysts say.

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In addition, there appear to be undercurrents of dissatisfaction with Gandhi's failures in dealing with the problems in Punjab that directly affect Haryana's interests, the most controversial issue being the sharing of river waters.

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