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The Congress Party, in a leadership quandary after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, prepared on Monday to return to power after capturing a strong lead in parliamentary elections.

But partial election returns indicated the party, which led a vast and impoverished nation to freedom and democracy a half-century ago, will fall short of a majority and will have to form a coalition government.Lame-duck Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, his party badly beaten, offered his resignation Monday as a prelude to the formation of a new government.

The election campaign was the most violent in India's history, claiming at about 300 lives.

In Punjab state, voting was delayed until June 22 so that security forces could protect voters from Sikh insurgents. But on Saturday, Sikh militants opposed to the election killed 126 people in attacks on two trains, police said.

A combination of voter frustration with other parties' short-lived governments and sympathy over Gandhi's slaying propelled the Congress Party into a wide lead over its rivals.

Gandhi himself was re-elected posthumously to the parliament. His May 21 assassination by a suicide bomber came after his rural constituency of Amethi in northern India had already voted. A by-election will be held to fill the seat.

Nearly a month after Gandhi's death, party leaders were still wrangling over a successor even as they prepared to take the reins of government.

"Sure, we are going to form the government," said Congress Party General Secretary Balram Jakhar. He said the party was ready to seek a coalition with almost any party except its strongest challenger, the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Bharatiya Janata was improving on its performance in previous elections and looked set to become the main opposition group. But it was routed by Congress in one state it had swept in the 1989 elections.

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Army fights election violence

Army units swept across Punjab state Monday to try to halt further election-related violence by Sikh militants, who massacred scores of people in weekend attacks on two trains.

Police said 126 people, mainly Hindus, were slain in the Saturday attacks, the militants' deadliest strikes in their 9-year-old insurgency. Officials said the attacks pushed the death toll of the Sikhs' secessionist campaign above 2,000 this year.

Militant Sikhs, who seek independence for the northern Punjab state, have vowed to stop elections scheduled for Saturday.

The militants have killed at least 21 candidates for Punjab's state and national elections. The rest of India completed balloting Saturday, but Punjab elections were delayed until security forces could be brought to the northern state to supervise voting.

The army was given sweeping powers to search and arrest in the days before the voting.

The deputy commissioner of this mainly Hindu industrial town, Surjit Singh Channi, said Sunday rescue officials counted 80 bodies from the train attacks, but the local police chief said at least 126 people were killed.

Local reporters also said the death toll was much higher than 80.

910617 Input file was 0072 Output file was /asst/csi/0618/pass2/0094