NEW DELHI, India, July 3, Reuter: India’s opposition parties agree the best way for them to topple Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is to unite.

But squabbling has already begun over who should be the new leader should Gandhi lose a general election due by the end of 1989.

The man at the center of the row is Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Gandhi’s Finance and Defence Minister, who led the opposition to an overwhelming victory in a parliamentary byelection last month.

The win in Allahabad, Gandhi’s ancestral hometown in the heart of his Congress (I) Party’s base in Uttar Pradesh state, has led to unity moves among opposition groups along with much agonizing over who should lead them.

Several opposition leaders proclaimed Singh the man best suited to take on Gandhi and this angered other senior opposition members who regard themselves as more suitable to fill the post.

Chandra Sekhar, former President of the Janata Party which ruled for two years from 1977, said winning an election does not qualify one to become leader and described Singh as the “wild card in the pack”.

Devi Lal, a veteran campaigner and leader of the Lok Dal (B), proclaimed support for Singh and lobbied for him among other opposition leaders.

Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna, President of the Lok Dal, disagrees with Lal, who is Haryana state Chief Minister.

Bahuguna refrained from public comment but made his displeasure obvious by staying awav from the Allahabad election. Singh was the nominee of the combined opposition and Allahabad familiar territory for Bahuguna, veteran of many electoral battles.

The byelection was the first united action by fractious opposition leaders since the Janata Party collapsed in 1979.

The subsequent leadership debate and media attention has embarrassed Singh. On Friday, he was at pains to explain he was not interested in the job but only in uniting the opposition.

“It will be a national disaster if become the Prime Minister,” he said in an interview with the Hindustan Times.

He said he had twice quit the government and had no reason’ to return. “Why should a man who had twice sought divorce marry again”.

‘Few believe his protestations. Singh has been in the limelight ever since he quit the Gandhi government last year and accused it of collecting commissions on huge defence deals, a stand which won him moral and political support.

Columnist s. Mulgaokar said in the Indian Express: “All having been said, the fact has to be recognized that it is because of V.P. Singh that corruption has become the most important issue in the country’s politics.

“He has now emerged, in spite of several faltering steps, as the natural leader of the forces opposing the Congress (I) against all doubts,” he added.

India’s previous attempts to merge desperate opposition groups collapsed in 1979 with the fall of the Janata Party government, the first non-Congress Party to rule in New Delhi.

Devi Lal and N.T. Rama Rao, the leader of the Telugu Desam regional party and Chief Minister of Andhara Pradesh state in the South, have called for a meeting of opposition leaders in New Delhi to give final shape to the federal party.

On present reckoning only three parties — the Jan Morcha (People’s Front) of Singh, Janata Party (People’s Party) and Lok Dal (The Masses’ Party) —— are expected to join.

Gandhi took the Allahabad defeat seriously, he revamped’ and expanded his cabinet and sacked the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, a state which has 85 of the country’s 544 members of Parliament.

The State has also supplied’ all but one of India’s six Prime Ministers since independence from Bntain in 1947?

Article extracted from this publication >> July 8, 1988