Srinagar, Kashmir — Kashmir's towering chief minister Farooq Abdullah embraced tiny Jyoti Basu. Here were not only two of India's most powerful opposition figures coming together, but also the unprecedented sight of a Kashmiri Muslim embracing a Bengali communist. And all of it in broad daylight.
There were indeed strange bedfellows coming from all corners of this disparate land for an opposition conclave in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar last week. It was the largest and most eclectic gathering of politicians that India has ever seen.
With the growing possibility that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi may call national elections prior to a January 1985 deadline, the country's fractious opposition is ponderously embarking on tentative unity moves. They appear persuaded that the argument of parliamentary arithmetic is compelling - if egos can be submerged.
States' rights and the dangers of Mrs. Gandhi's centralization of power were the glue that held them together. Questions of tactics and leadership threatened to keep them apart.
But there was no disagreement on the target of the 17 party leaders, five chief ministers, and four former chief ministers who met in Srinagar - it was wresting the premiership from Indira Gandhi, and denying the grande dame of the world's largest democracy an unprecedented fifth term.
On paper, it is just conceivable that the opposition could capture 30 to 40 percent of the vote. The Janata Party's charismatic Chandra Shekhar has already forged an electoral alliance of five opposition groups. If he is able to attract the regional parties, which have been instrumental in trouncing Mrs. Gandhi in six key state elections since 1982, he could well pose a serious challenge to the Indian premier. And, in the bucolic setting of Srinagar, Mr. Shekhar began applying the glue.
It won't be an easy undertaking. Indian politicians have rarely submerged their egos for a common cause, allowing Mrs. Gandhi - due to badly split opposition votes - to amass inflated parliamentary majorities, though she and her own quarrelsome Congress (I) Party have never polled more than 40 to 43 percent of the vote.
Only once, in 1977 when the opposition was united and the nation indignant over her two-year ''emergency,'' did the daughter of the house of Nehru go down to defeat. And, even then, that alliance - which included Mr. Shekhar's Janata party and an eclectic collection of right-of-center groups - crumbled under the force of their own quarrels and conflicting personalities.
Thus, as they sat around a double U-shaped table, which symbolically had no head, India's opposition leaders skirted divisive points. They agreed that the center must allocate more power to the states, that the Akalis in the Punjab and the embittered Assamese must be given greater measures of local autonomy.
They savored Kashmiri food under brightly colored ''shamiana'' tents - moghul dishes were not on the menu. They would have been too blatant a reminder, to the 51 delegates, that host Farooq Abdullah's support is vital if the opposition is to wrest India's 10-12 percent Muslim electorate out of the Congress camp.
Chandra Shekhar abandoned his once fiery, leftist stance for a more austere, homespun image. Northern Indians love simplicity and austerity in their politics.
Would he be the next prime minister of India, as leader of the newly formed United Front? He smiled. It was too far in the future. ''The best man,'' he responded, ''will come out in front.''
N. T. Rama Rao, the flamboyant south Indian film star now chief minister of the state of Andhra Pradesh, received a steady stream of visitors in his lavishly appointed government guest house. South Indians disdain simplicity in their politics.
Though he's decided to lead the life of a ''sanyasi'' and will abandon Hyderabad's official residence to live in a hut, he also remembers that he alone among the conclave's delegates has, in 292 films, titillated the hearts and minds of millions of voters in the poor and dusty villages of southern India.
''The only way we can hope to defeat Mrs. Gandhi,'' the saffron-robed, bejeweled chief minister said, ''is by confronting her in each contest on a one-to-one basis. Otherwise, we doom ourselves. . . . In 36 years of independent history, we've never had an opposition. We've simply been the non-Nehru, non-Gandhi forces, quarreling amongst ourselves.''
Farooq Abdullah was more cautious when asked who could best deliver critical, swing states. ''Let us take things slowly,'' he answered. ''It is better to climb a ladder step by step. Let us first agree on the need for a new federalism , then discuss parliamentary seats. Otherwise, we're left suspended, dangling mid-way.''
The difficulty of climbing that ladder was apparent by the omission of two opposition parties. The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and the centrist Lok Dal, which are now sitting together in Parliament under the banner of the National Democratic Alliance, were insulted that their invitations were issued, retracted, then further delayed, by a welter of confusion on who favored their attendance, and who wanted them to stay away.
And, although she was not present, the image looming over them all was that of the indominable Mrs. Gandhi who, according to one key Congress official, ''was watching them like a hawk.''
''Whether or not there are early elections will depend, to a great extent, on how successful opposition moves towards unity are. If they come together,'' said this same official of Mrs. Gandhi's party, ''she'll certainly wait and go full term. That gives them 18 months to quarrel. And she's banking on precedent.''
Indians love precedent and tradition. For 34 of their 36 independent years they have been ruled by Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter. And one is reminded by the silent lines of mountain shepherds, filing past Srinagar's conference site, atop their mules and donkeys, migrating toward the warmer south, that there is a timeless quality in this vast and contradictory land.