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Battle Lines Set in Indian Vote

Election likely to turn on corruption charges and sharply rising prices

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IN this corner, Rajiv Gandhi: former airline pilot, political scion, and aspiring second-term prime minister of India. And in the other corner, his fractious foes lead by V.P. Singh: one-time Cabinet minister, Gandhi loyalist-turned-rebel, and reluctant leader of the opposition.

The battle lines are set in what could be one of India's closest, most-important, and even most-violent elections. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Gandhi announced national parliamentary elections for Nov. 22 and 24, stunning his opponents and giving them barely a month to bury their differences and forge a united front.

The poll will be a referendum on Mr. Gandhi and his rocky five-year rule. He came to power after the October 1984 assassination of his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and less than two months later, won a huge, unprecedented majority in Parliament.

At issue will be corruption charges swirling about Gandhi's government, sharply rising prices, and the long-standing political grip of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty - first launched by Jawaharlal Nehru on post-independence India and associated by many Indians with the country's stability.

``If Rajiv Gandhi doesn't win, the dynasty will collapse, and the whole nature of Indian politics will change,'' predicts A.S. Abraham, a New Delhi political commentator. ``This is crucial because for the first time the prime minister and his record will be on test.''

The surprise election announcement was triggered by last week's rejection in the upper house of the Indian Parliament of two key provisions of the government's reelection plan. Gandhi failed to win a two-thirds majority for two constitutional amendments that would have given more power to local governments and in effect boosted his standing among the rural masses. That setback followed new disclosures in the weapons-procurement scandal that has dogged the prime minister for two years.

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