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Gandhi Launches Campaign to Win Back Prime Minister’s Job

March 16, 1991

BHOPAL, India (AP) _ Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, escorted by thousands of supporters, drove through this stronghold of a rival party Saturday to begin his election campaign for the job he lost 15 months ago.

He was greeted with a massive reception arranged by his Congress Party, the richest and biggest in India.

Hundreds of cars, trucks and jeeps followed Gandhi’s open convertible as he drove from the airport to the center of Bhopal to address a rally.

″Twinkle, twinkle, little star, Rajiv Gandhi’s India’s star 3/8″ supporters shouted through loudspeakers atop some of the trucks.

The caravan took 45 minutes to cover the first four miles of the route, which was lined by flag-waving supporters.

It was Gandhi’s first public meeting since early national elections were announced Wednesday. The mid-term polls were precipitated when Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar resigned March 6, accusing Gandhi of pulling the rug out from under a minority government he had pledged to support.

Elections for a new 544-member Parliament will be held in late May. Exact dates have not yet been announced.

″In a few months you will have to vote for a party that will give a stable government that will last five years,″ Gandhi told the crowd. ″Only Congress can give that.″

The emphasis on stability is likely to be Gandhi’s election campaign theme. The Congress Party has governed India for all but five of the 43 years since independence.

Gandhi served a full five-year term as prime minister, starting in 1984 when he succeeded his late mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, but the Congress Party failed to muster a parliamentary majority in the November 1989 elections.

Unable or unwilling to attempt a coalition government, he became the opposition leader during Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s 11-month tenure and then supported Chandra Shekhar who formed another minority government last November.

Gandhi was the first candidate to kick off his 1991 election campaign. In the next 15 days he is scheduled to tour eight other states that cover about one-third of the country.

His chief opponents are expected to be Singh’s Janata Dal party, Chandra Shekhar’s breakaway Janata Dal-Socialist party and the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party that governs Madhya Pradesh state, whose capital is Bhopal.

Gandhi lashed out repeatedly at the staying power of his opponents and last two predecessors as prime minister.

″The government that fled from the battlefield, what will it do in Punjab and Kashmir in future?″ he said, referring to armed secession movements in the two northern states.

Sikh militants have been fighting since 1983 for a separate state in agriculturally rich Punjab. Muslim secessionists are demanding independence for Kashmir in a movement that dates back to India’s independence from Britain but escalated as Singh took office in 1989. Thousands of people have been killed fighting in the two states.

Gandhi did not mention the Bhopal gas tragedy six years ago that killed nearly 4,000 people, the world’s deadliest industrial disaster.

The Dec. 3, 1984 disaster, caused by a leak from a pesticide plant run by the Indian subsidiary of the U.S.-based Union Carbide Corp., was the second crisis Gandhi faced after taking over as prime minister on Oct. 31, 1984.

The first was the wave of anti-Sikh killings that swept the country after his mother was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards on Oct. 30, 1984.

The crowds that came out to hear Gandhi were estimated at between 25,000 and 40,000 by local reporters and officials in Bhopal, a city of about a million people 360 miles south of New Delhi.

Reporters and other local political observers considered the turnout significant, considering that the Congress Party lost considerable ground here in the last elections.

The Congress Party won only eight of the 40 parliamentary seats from the state in 1989. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which espouses Hindu revivalism, holds 210 of the 320 seats in the state legislature, where Congress has only 54.

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