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INDIA PRIME MINISTER RESIGNS AS POWER SHIFTS

Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao resigned Friday when it became clear that India's lower castes and other traditionally powerless groups were on the verge of winning a major role in ruling the country.

News of the resignation came as Rao's Congress Party seemed headed for an ignominious third-place finish after running India for most of its 48 years of independence.Voting trends suggest that none of the various parties in the world's largest democracy will win enough votes to form a government on their own.

Computer projections have the Congress Party finishing behind both the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the National Front, an alliance of low-caste and regional parties.

Rao had said Thursday that he would submit his resignation to President Shankar Dayal Sharma, who will then invite one party - presumably the one that wins the most votes - to form a coalition government. Rao, whose Cabinet also resigned, is to remain on as a caretaker only as long as it takes to name a replacement.

Congress Party spokesman Ved Prakash said today that if the National Front "comes up with a viable plan" that includes Rao's economic reforms, "the Congress can consider supporting" the Front in a coalition.

A.B. Vajpayee, leader of the Bharatiya Janata, was to meet Sharma on Saturday to discuss forming the next government. The National Front also planned to meet with the president, state-run television said.

"Because the future of the country is at stake, we should combine all the secular forces of the country," said Rama Krishna Hedge, a National Front leader.

The Congress Party's fall is the result of infighting, a bribery scandal, poorly chosen alliances with regional parties and a prime minister widely regarded as indecisive and uncharismatic.

In the last few years, the party has lost the support of India's 12 percent Muslim minority and lower-caste groups that have been busy organizing their own political parties.

Both Congress and the National Front have said they won't join a government led by the Bharatiya Janata, which advocates building up India's nuclear weapons program, tighter restrictions on foreign investment, and a reduction of special rights for Muslims.