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New Leader Seeks to Restore The Political Party of Gandhi

India's oldest political party is at a crossroads after the election last Friday of octogenarian politician Sitaram Kesri as parliamentary leader of the Indian National Congress, replacing former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.

Congress is hoping Mr. Kesri, who was also elected party president in September, will rejuvenate the party, which is smarting from a series of damaging splits and its worst general election defeat ever last May.

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A series of corruption scandals involving Mr. Rao and two-thirds of his former Cabinet, combined with disastrous election results, have plunged the century-old party into the political wilderness.

Formed in 1885 by English civil servant Octavian Hume, Congress was conceived as a channel for Indians to enter into a dialogue with their British rulers. In 1920, nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi transformed the party into a mass movement aimed at outright independence.

Kesri is one of the few remaining politicians who can claim to have fought alongside Gandhi for India's freedom. That link, together with his corruption-free credentials and the determination he displayed in the power struggle to secure the party leadership, have raised hopes that a Kesri-led Congress can regain its lost glory.

If Kesri can succeed in toppling the ruling minority United Front (UF) government of Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, which depends on Congress support for its survival, he could become the next leader of the world's largest democracy.

But Kesri faces an uphill battle in his struggle to bring Congress back to power, according to New Delhi-based political commentator Praful Bidwai. "The [Congress] party has become synonymous with much of what is corrupt, decrepit, and venal in public life," he says.

Mr. Bidwai says Kesri must use the next few months to revive Congress by democratizing the party's structure and rebuilding grass-roots support. "A shortcut to power ... without a popular mandate will merely prolong Congress's crisis, making a cure progressively impossible."

Kesri appears to have heeded this advice. Since being elected party president in September, he has moved to build bridges with the party's traditional voters and woo back dissidents who quit because of their differences with Rao. He has promised that Congress will be more representative of minorities, such as Muslims and the poor and underprivileged, which once formed the backbone of the party's support. And he has sacked Rao loyalists in an effort to cleanse the party's poor image.

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By bringing back the dissidents, Kesri is hoping that Congress will emerge as the largest party in India's hung Parliament. Currently, Congress has only 142 seats in the 545-member lower house - well short of the largest single party, the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has 160 seats.

If he cannot persuade enough ex-Congress politicians to support him, Kesri will try to exploit the fragile nature of the UF - a political potpourri of regional, centrist, and leftist parties formed with the sole purpose of keeping the BJP out of power.

Once he has the numbers, Kesri could demand that the president invite Congress to prove its majority in Parliament, thereby avoiding another general election.

NONE of India's main political parties are ready for an early election. Congress still carries the stigma of corruption, and Kesri lacks the charisma to inspire a cynical electorate.

Mr. Gowda has disappointed both the voters and his coalition partners by failing to live up to his promise of a decentralized and more responsive government. "He has not been able to bind the UF together and span its divisions," says former diplomat and columnist Kuldip Nayar, based in New Delhi. "Mere good intentions will not do."

The BJP still has not recovered from the humiliation of heading the shortest-lived government in Indian history, after resigning after just 13 days in power in May.

Although Congress seems to have gained from last week's events, the only certainty ahead, says Inder Malhotra of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, "is that 1997 is going to be a year of great and troublesome political uncertainty."

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