NEW DELHI, MARCH 6, REUTER — India’s splintered opposition parties, fearing Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi might call a snap election, have Started) unity moves and plan to test their popularity with a national strike on March 15.

Two small regional parties have already announced they will merge into the larger Janata party which ruled for two years from 1977.

Political sources said on Sunday that talks with other opposition groups were going on and a formal merger or an informal alliance could surface within a few days.

Janata party President Chandata Shekhar told reporters the opposition would try its best to defeat Gandhi if he called Midterm national elections later this year.

They are not due until December next year but speculation is rife that he might call early polls to seek a fresh five year mandate.

Much of the speculation followed the budget on February 29 which gave big concessions to India’s millions of villagers.

More than 70 percent of the country’s 800 million people live in villages and the new budget raised spending on agriculture and water resources by 40 percent to nine billion rupees (690 million dollars) after last year’s drought, the worst in century.

India’s two communist parties have joined other political groups in calling a national general strike on March 15 as part of a campaign to challenge the authority of Gandhi, whose reputation as “Mr. Clean” has already been tarnished by reports of payoffs in arms purchases.

The main aim of the strike is to test the national response to the summons.

“With the continuous deterioration in the economic, political and social life of the country, the time has come to give a more organized shape to the demands of the people and their protests,” an opposition statement on Saturday said.

The Lok Dal (people’s party) led by Ajit Singh, a peasant leader and son of former Prime Minister Charan Singh, has already agreed to dissolve his group and merge with the larger Janata Party.

Rashtriya Sanjay Manch, a group led by Gandhi’s estranged sister in law Maneka Gandhi, has also agreed to dissolve the regional party, which has pockets of influence in Northern Indian, and join Janata.

Political sources said unity talks were being held with a Lok Dal faction led by former minister Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna

Bahuguna’s party last year dealt a stunning blow to Gandhi when it defeated the ruling congress (I) in Haryana State, its traditional power base in Hindi speaking north India.

Some of the former Congress party members led by Vishwanath Partap Singh have formed a group called Jan Morcha (People’s Front) and are also expected to join Janata.

Singh, who resigned as defense minister a year ago, is in the forefront of campaign against corruption in high places.

The communist parties will not merge with Janata but its leaders favor a loose alliance and electoral seat adjustment.

In Punjab, where Sikhs want to set up a separate state, efforts are on to patch up differences between various factions of the Sikh Akali Dal which ruled Punjab until dismissed from office in May last year.

Since May, the state has been run from Delhi and unless parliament votes to extend direct President’s rule, it would automatically come to an end on May 10 and elections will become due.

Although Gandhi enjoys an overwhelming majority in the 543seat lower house of Parliament, some of his close advisers favor early elections. They argue that the fight would be much tougher in December 1989 if the economic situation does not improve substantially.

Article extracted from this publication >> March 11, 1988