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Parties Vie For Power In India

India's president said he would begin consulting with political parties Wednesday to try to assure the formation of a viable government for India.

The leader of the long-dominant Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, will be among the first to meet President K.R. Narayanan, his spokesman said. Several other political leaders will also meet him throughout the day, including members of the caretaker Bharatiya Janata Party government.

"The President will meet leaders ... over the next couple of days in order to establish a secure, viable" government, a late-night statement from the president's mansion said.

No Congress Party spokesman was available for comment, but the party said earlier Tuesday it would have letters of support from its backers to prove to the president it would be able to govern.

Party officials said the Italian-born Mrs. Gandhi would head the new administration. But key backers voiced reservations about her, and it was not clear whether she would become prime minister or ask a party colleague to take the job.

Mrs. Gandhi, heir to India's foremost political dynasty, is the widow of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and daughter-in-law of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, both of whom were assassinated. Indira's father was India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which led the government ousted Saturday in a vote of confidence, claimed it had enough support to block Congress. In that event, a new election would be almost certain.

Arjun Singh, a senior Congress official, said the new administration would most likely be a minority government led by Mrs. Gandhi because it "would be easier to manage" than an unwieldy coalition of divergent parties.

Even Congress legislators concede such a government was not likely to last the four years until the next scheduled election. Congress, which has governed India for 45 of its 51 years as an independent nation, can at best hope to garner support from 272 legislators, but that razor-edge majority would be difficult to maintain.

"We are still talking with all the leaders to evolve a consensus," Mrs. Gandhi said as she left a meeting with veteran communist leader Jyoti Basu.

Industry and business officials were awaiting parliament's passage early Wednesday of a national budget that pledges to step up the pace of free-market reforms, downsize government and raise taxes. The budget was seen as investor friendly, and there had been fears it could fall victim to politics after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was ousted.

Stock markets tumbled more than 250 points Saturday but revived after all political parties agreed to pass the budget unchanged.

In Washington, State Department spokesman James Rubin said the United States hopes the next Indian government will take concrete steps on a nuclear arms nonproliferation agreement and improvement of relations with neighboring Pakistan

Rubin said Washington had expressed regret at both India's and Pakistan's tests earlier this month of long-range nuclear capable missiles.