Indira endears herself to India - despite chaos

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, still riding high in personal popularity despite widespread dissatisfaction with the workings of her government, has announced a new 20-point agenda for economic and social uplift of the world's second most populous country.

Mrs. Gandhi has also reshuffled her Cabinet for the sixth time since she returned to office in January 1980, turning over the Defense Ministry she has personally headed to her highly regarded finance minister.

R. Venkataraman, who presided over India's successful application for the largest International Monetary Fund loan in history last year, will now take over negotiations for major arms purchases India is pursuing. These include Mirage 2000 warplanes from France and new advanced weaponry from the Soviet Union, India's major defense supplier, to counter American arms purchased by India's archenemy Pakistan.

The new national agenda emphasizes greater industrial and farm productivity, liberalized investment procedures, and efforts to extend such amenities as primary schooling, electricity, clean drinking water, and basic health care facilities to India's poorest.

It also calls for a ''people's movement'' of voluntary family planning to help check India's exploding population, which has nearly doubled to 684 million since independence in 1947.

Mrs. Gandhi described the new agenda as a recasting and redefinition of a 20 -point program she originally proclaimed in 1975.

That program was part of the authoritarian ''emergency'' rule imposed by Mrs. Gandhi and continued until her downfall at the polls in 1977. She has retained the program as a government objective since returning to power in 1980, and local political analysts said its restatement did not imply another spell of emergency rule in the offing.

The Gandhi government has been criticized for its seeming lack of direction, with many Cabinet members noted more for loyalty to the prime minister than competence.

Together, the Cabinet reshuffle and new 20-point program point to an attempt to sharpen the government's focus and bring better management to bear on India's pressing social and economic problems.

The latest quarterly opinion poll published by the authoritative news magazine India Today showed that nearly two-thirds of those polled believe things are going badly for the country, with deteriorating law and order a particular concern.

Civil unrest continues in India's isolated northeastern states, and a small but troublesome separatist movement has unsettled the prosperous Punjab State.

Two recent massacres of ''untouchables'' in villages near the Taj Mahal, India's most famous tourist site, have embarrassed the Gandhi government, as have frequent reports of police brutality and torture in states controlled by the ruling Congress-I Party.

Corruption is seen to be reaching new highs, and some of India's most distinguished political commentators are publicly voicing fears that the political system is collapsing.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Gandhi's personal popularity remains high and her control of her party and Parliament unquestioned. In the India Today survey, for example , the same respondents who pronounced themselves dissatisfied with conditions in the country gave Mrs. Gandhi a nearly 60 percent approval rating.

Indians offer numerous explanations for the paradox. To many, she is a trusted mother figure, the only national leader who can rise above India's many caste, religious, and linguistic divides.

To others, she appears the only alternative to chaos. The voters who turned her down in 1977 after 11 years in office got, in her absence, a bumbling coalition government that soon degenerated in intramural squabbling.

Promising ''a government that works,'' Mrs. Gandhi was restored to office with a massive mandate in January 1980.

When faced with criticism, Mrs. Gandhi now frequently cites the ''shambles'' left by the preceding government and says she has been working just to regain lost ground.

The economy has shown increased vigor. Although consumers continue to grumble about high prices and shortages, her government can point to a slowdown in inflation and increases in such vital inputs as power generation, petroleum and coal production, steel, cement, and railway freight movement. It has declared 1982 as ''productivity year'' and called on all Indians to work harder.

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