New Delhi — Indira Gandhi, the Indian prime minister, has begun to show strain. Little wonder, say her critics. She has sent the Army into the Sikhs' Golden Temple. She has allegedly presided over the toppling of three popularly elected opposition state governments in as many months. And, as if this were not enough , she has received reports that her son and heir apparent could conceivably be defeated by her estranged daughter-in-law in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
Yet she remains undaunted, as demonstrated for three consecutive days, when her handpicked speaker of the Andhra Pradesh state legislature adjourned the house after it apparently became clear that her candidate for chief minister was unable to win a confidence vote.
After Thrusday's adjournment, the speaker, Baga Reddy, resigned his post and, moments later, amid the general chaos of the assembly, suffered a heart attack.
As pandemonium swept the Andhra Pradesh legislature, as well as the old Mogul state capital of Hyderabad this week, Army reinforcements were again on the streets. Since Sunday, at least 19 people have died in some of Hyderabad's most destructive Hindu-Muslim rioting in the last 30 years.
According to members of the opposition parties, the rioting bears the clear imprint of the ruling Congress (I) Party's hand. Mrs. Gandhi could seize upon the deteriorating law-and-order situation, opposition members argue, as the perfect excuse to impose "President's rule," or direct New Delhi rule, if N. Bhaskara Rao, Gandhi's candidate, is unable to muster more defections, and indeed does lose the vote of confidence.
Considering that this is the world's most populous democracy, it would appear a rather undemocratic move. But then so have many of the apparent orchestrations from New Delhi since N. T. Rama Rao, the popular chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, was dismissed by Gandhi's governor on Aug. 16, claiming that Mr. Rama Rao had lost his parliamentary majority.
Bribery on an unprecedented scale is alleged to have prompted defections from Rama Rao's ruling party, the Telegu Desam. But he claimed on Tuesday, quite convincingly, that he still enjoyed the confidence of at least 163 members of the 295-man house.
According to Rama Rao, Gandhi's Congress (I) Party had offered $5,000 to $25, 000 to each of his supporters in the legislative assembly to defect. According to others within his Telegu Desam party, "Operation Topple" had a $5 million war chest.
Gandhi denies the allegations, but few Indians are inclined to believe that the prime minister was not involved. She has, after all, in 15 1/2 years in power, very frequently dismissed popularly elected state governments and on 42 occasions declared President's rule.
Thus, the wily Rama Rao, a flamboyant former film idol renowned for his roles as Hindu gods, was taking no chances. He dispatched his loyal deputies to the opposition-ruled state of Karnataka, where they lolled away the hours for 22 days in a secluded former British hill station, away from temptation or threat.
Only on Monday did the supporters return to Andhra Pradesh under Rama Rao's own security guard, escorted by lawyers, members of the Indian Civil Liberties Union, and a bewildering bevy of representatives of the press.
It could have had a circus atmosphere, if so much were not at stake. The Andhra Pradesh uproar has become what is perhaps one of India's most important domestic political confrontations since Gandhi returned to power in 1980. And it has united, however tenuously, for the first time in recent years, a fractious Indian opposition, from the Communists to the Hindu revivalists.
It has provoked a public outcry, potentially disastrous for Gandhi only five months before parliamentary polls are presumed to be due. And it has catapulted Rama Rao, whose own political fortunes were flagging before he was overthrown, into the national political arena. He just could challenge Gandhi for national power ifm the parliamentary polls are held by January when -- according to conventional wisdom -- they are due.
This week, however, Gandhi's advisers were speaking of a previously unused constitutional clause, which would allow the world's elongest-serving democratically elected prime minister to postpone the pools until June.
Technically, according to aides of Gandhi, six months can elapse between two sessions of the Indian parliament. In the present atmosphere, the prime minister's "kitchen cabinet" fears that Gandhi just conceivably might lose if elections were called tomorrow.
She and her Congress (I) Party have never polled more than 40 to 43 percent of the popular vote. But a badly splintered opposition, often fielding 18 candidates to the Congress (I) Party's one, has given the resilient prime minister a handsome majority in the House.
The opposition parties have now, at least technically, agreed not to split the anti-Congress vote, though the imponderables of an electoral alliance and joint electoral strategy have yet to be worked out.
As the monsoon in India comes to an unusually thunderous end, "the season" for entertaining has begun. Conversation centers on the Indian premier.
"What ism she doing?" echoes through book-lined studies, and off verandas with marble floors.
The tenor, in most cases, is one of unconcealed alarm.
"1984 may go down in Indian history as the year of disintegration," says Nani Palkhivala, a former ambassador to Washington, and one of India's preeminent authorities on constitutional law. "After having successfully alienated all of our neighboring countries, we will now have turned our gift for alienation towards our own states and ourselves."
Losing is not part of Indira Gandhi's style. And Andhra Pradesh is not likely to prove the exception -- regardless of the implications for India at large.