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ONE of her fellow Congress Party members has likened Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction. Last week that description must have seemed terrifyingly apt to the party's right-wing leaders, known collectively as the Syndicate. In a power struggle; that may yet tear the party asunder 'and pose a grave threat to India's fragile democracy, Mrs. Gandhi directly challenged the Syndicate and won a dramatic victory.

Convinced that classical socialism is the answer to India's manifold economic problems, Indira over the past two years has grown increasingly impatient with the old guard's conservative approach. Last month the quarrel flared into the open. Determined to trim Indira's sails, the Syndicate selected Sanjiva Reddy, 56, speaker of the lower house of Parliament and a longtime foe of the Prime Minister's, as the Congress Party's official nominee for the presidency.* Mrs. Gandhi responded by ramming through the nationalization of 14 major Indian banks. At the same time, she forced the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Morarji Desai, a Syndicate stalwart.

Unready for Reddy. Despite her opposition, Reddy's election seemed assured. She had, after all, publicly though petulantly accepted his nomination, and the Congress Party held a 53% majority in the electoral college, whose 861-695 votes are distributed on a popular basis and are cast by 4,137 M.P.s and members of the 17 state legislatures. Then strange things began happening. The Prime Minister's forceful action against the banks won her a measure of popular acclaim, and she carefully cast herself as the people's champion. Hundreds of cabbies, ricksha drivers and scavengers, most bearing flowers, began to stage rallies at her New Delhi bungalow, in what seemed to be spontaneous demonstrations of Mrs. Gandhi's popularity. The meetings had actually been arranged by her backers to unnerve the opposition, but the point was made nonetheless.

Only five days before the presidential election, she made her move. Apparently convinced that the Syndicate was plotting to dump her after the election and form a right-wing coalition, she repudiated Reddy's candidacy. Her personal choice, she indirectly advised her supporters, was Varahagiri Venkata Giri, 75, who had been acting President since Husain's death. It was an unprecedented breach of party discipline, and there was angry talk among Syndicate members that she ought to be suspended from the party.

The Syndicate had even greater cause for anger last week, when the presidential votes were counted. In a stunning upset, Giri won a narrow victory over Reddy. Left-wing Communist electors backed Giri almost unanimously. About 40% of Congress Party parliamentarians defied the Syndicate to vote for him. Giri polled 420,077 votes to Reddy's 405,427.

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