Mrs. Gandhi consolidates her hold on power

The assumption of tough powers by Indira Gandhi's government has touched off a new round of debate over where India is headed under the powerful prime minister's leadership.

The new labor ordinance, which does not actually ban strikes but empowers the government to do so, comes only 10 months after the government took on sweeping preventive detention powers.

The key concern is whether Mrs. Gandhi is laying the groundwork for a repeat of her authoritarian "emergency" rule of 1975-77. Strikes then were banned, civil liberties suspended, the press muzzled, and political opponents jailed.

Gandhi aides say "no" and depict the antistrike measure as a vital component of a government drive to revitalize the ailing Indian economy by checking inflation and raising production and productivity.

But Gandhi opponents, critics, and even some supporters remain distrustful of the prime minister's intentions. Based on her 1975-77 track record, the word "emergency" has become to India's political vocabulary what "Watergate" is to America's.

Predictably, therefore, trade unionists and political opponents who denounced the ordinance painted the latest measures variously as an undeclared emergency, back- door emergency, and near emergency. The language was similar to the denunciations heard last September when the Gandhi government assumed broad powers to jail persons without trial on suspicion of threatening public order or security or interfering with the supply of essential goods and services.

Mrs. Gandhi has described the original emergency as "a shock treatment in a very special situation." She has frequently denied any intention of imposing a new one. "It would be counterproductive," she has said.

But there is little doubt in the minds of political analysts that Mrs. Gandhi is slowly and steadily accumulating a potent stockpile of powers.

Many agree that the potential for abuse is there. But hey also agree that no new emergency is at hand -- for the simple reason that the opposition is too divided and feeble to challenge Mrs. Gandhi's authority as it did in 1975.

The government has also been reluctant to use its crack- down authority on politically important constituencies such as the private trading community. Blackmarketing, profiteering, and hoarding are acknowledged major problems for the economy, and the preventive detention act and other laws give the government broad powers. Mrs. Gandhi's government does not relish a confrontation with labor, for example, and hopes that its new strike- breaking powers will make would-be wildcat strikes think twice. "What they're hoping is that this will have a cowing effect and they won't really have to face the issue," says a political spectator.

To some, the pattern suggests that Mrs. Gandhi is busy consolidating power out of habit and personal style, with no fixed plan in mind.

Adds a diplomatic observer, "She has no ideology.She has no set plan. She was very badly burned by the emergency experience, and now she's very cautious about any policies that may mobilize any significant segment of public opinion against her."

Indeed, one of the most frequent criticisms of Mrs. Gandhi's government is that it is apparently adrift, with no firm economic, social, or political goals to steer by. "Her promise was a government that works," says an area analyst. "That's precisely what she hasn't delivered. She can win an election but she can't get the country going. The problem is this lethargy, this inertia, this inability to get anything done."

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