SONEPAT, India, June 12, Reuter: Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, wearing a bulletproof vest and guarded by commandos, campaigned today in Haryana state where his Congress (I) Party faces stiff opposition in elections next week.

Gandhi flew by helicopter to six election rallies but did not meet voters in the Hindu majority state bordering Punjab because of the heavy security.

The June 17 poll is the first popularity test for Gandhi in India’s Hindi speaking heartland, a traditional Congress bastion, since controversies over corruption and arms deal payoffs erupted in April.

Congress has not won a state election on its own since Gandhi succeeded his assassinated mother Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister in October, 1984.

In State elections in March it lost to Marxists in Kerala and West Bengal states and took the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir only in alliance with a popular Moslem party.

In his speeches Gandhi steered clear of a row over alleged kickbacks on 1.3 billion dollar deal with Swedish arms maker Bofors which has tarnished his “Mr. Clean” image.

He stuck to local economic issues dearer to his audience of mainly farmers who were kept at least 50 meters (yards) away.

He barely touched on Punjab where the Sikhs are campaigning for an independent state has forced many Hindu families to flee to Haryana.

Gandhi dismissed Punjab’s moderate Sikh government last month and imposed direct rule from DeThi saying law and order, ~ had broken down in the State.

Critics charged that the move was an election ploy to win Hindu votes in Haryana.

In Sonepat town, some 5,000 people attended Gandhi’s meeting, a small crowd by Indian standards, and the reception was cool with infrequent, orchestrated and halfhearted cheering.

There were virtually no Sikhs at the meeting but security was unusually tight.

Police watched from buildings surrounding the rally and people were frisked before being allowed through metal detector doors.

Commandos dressed in grey safari suits and armed with automatic weapons surrounded the dias as soon as Gandhi and his guards arrived in three air force helicopters. Ambulances and fire engines stood nearby.

Congress faces a strong’ challenge in Haryana, a state of 13 million people, from an alliance of the Hindu revivalist Bhartiya Janata Party and a faction of the rural based Lok Dal (People’s Party) led by former Chief Minister Devi Lal.

Lal, 73, a bitter critic of Gandhi and his policies in Punjab, has launched a tireless campaign and promised to write off agricultural loans taken by Haryana farmers.

Gandhi’s colleagues, shaken by the effect the promise has had on farmers, were at pains today to explain that Lal could not legally write-off the loans.

Article extracted from this publication >>  June 19, 1987