Gandhi Resigns as India's Prime Minister

National Front Infighting Delays Formation of New Government

NEW DELHI, India--Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi resigned yesterday, and for only the second time since independence in 1947 his Congress Party did not claim the right to form the next government.

Meanwhile opposition parties have begun trying to assemble a coalition.

Gandhi submitted his resignation to President Ramaswamy Venkataraman, saying he was ready for the role of opposition leader.

"The people have given their verdict," he said in a televised speech last night. "In all humility, we respect the verdict."

"A new government will be formed. We extend to them our good wishes and offer them our constructive cooperation," said the 45-year-old former airline pilot, who won his own Parliament seat overwhelmingly for a third time.


Congress won more Parliament seats in last week's elections than any other party, but fell far short of a majority.

Venkataraman asked Gandhi to remain in office as caretaker prime minister. The resignation cleared the way for the National Front alliance to form the next government for the world's most populous democracy.

The Congress Party has been out of office only once before since independence from Britain, for 29 months after losing the 1977 elections.

National Front leaders predicted yesterday they would choose the next prime minister, but differences arose among the five parties.

A meeting was delayed until today, then tomorrow, while legislators from the alliance tried to persuade its main leader, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, to take the job. Singh has repeatedly said he does not want it.

"There will be trouble in the party if V.P. Singh is not elected prime minister," said Jaipal Reddy of Janata Dal, or People's Party, largest of the five parties in the National Front.

Singh is a former Gandhi minister and ally who has become his most prominent political foe.

The National Front and its allies picked up enough pledges of support from smaller parties yesterday to form a majority in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, where the power lies.

Gandhi's party is gambling that the coalition will be hamstrung by internal squabbling, paving the way for Congress to regain power.

Congress legislators met last night and unanimously re-elected Gandhi as parliamentary leader, putting him in the position of becoming prime minister again if the opposition should fail and President Venkataraman asked Congress to form a government.

Asked whether he was prepared to lead the opposition, Gandhi said with a smile, "Absolutely. We will be a very good watchdog."

Later, the party's parliamentary board decided not to claim the right to form the next government, state TV reported.

Throughout the campaign, Gandhi portrayed the election as a choice between stability under his government and potential chaos under the opposition.

Many feuds have been reported within the National Front since it was formed in August, 1988.

Leaders of the various parties set aside their differences after elections were called in mid-October, but squabbling resumed while the votes were counted.