New Delhi — Rajiv Gandhi, India's new premier, was unanimously elected president of the ruling Congress Party Monday, as he turned his attention to the country's coming election campaign.
He is expected to announce by the weekend that the national parliamentary poll will be held ahead of schedule, in the last week of December or the first week of January.
Inheriting a legacy whose myriad problems would be awesome for anyone, certainly for a relatively inexperienced, 40-year-old premier, Mr. Gandhi is believed to be keen to quickly consolidate his hold over a fractious Congress Party, to establish his premiership in his own right, and thus be better equipped to deal with the potentially crippling and long-lasting effect of division between majority Hindus and minority Sikhs.
Many Sikhs - including some of the capital's most affluent businessmen - are threatening to leave this stately city and emigrate to the Punjab, where Sikhs are in the majority.
A sympathy vote, coupled with the present disarray of the opposition, is expected to give Gandhi a handsome majority in Parliament's lower house, the Lok Sabha. This in itself in the optimistic view, could provide the untested leader with substantial assistance in dispelling any prolonged period of instability.
Gandhi showed a firm hand last week as he moved swiftly and deftly to bring the country under control, to initiate a purge of the security and intelligence services, and, in a move meant to emphasize that he will continue his mother's policies, to reappoint nearly all of her ministers to an expanded Cabinet.
He also ordered an official inquiry into mounting allegations that members of his Congress (I) Party precipitated incidents of violence and then obstructed police efforts to recover looted goods, following the four days of mayhem that rocked this city after his mother's death. The violence claimed at least 600 lives in the capital, and some 1,200 nationwide.
The consensus is that Gandhi's first priority after the elections clearly must be to come to grips with the increasingly volatile situation in the strategically-set Punjab. It is India's vital breadbasket and has increasingly become a breeding ground for militant Sikhs.
Fears of a Sikh backlash against Hindus in the Punjab continue to be widespread. Thus far, the critical state has remained quiet, though attempts to monitor what is going on have been impeded by press censorship and a ban on foreign entry.
According to the Sikh historian Khushwant Singh, last week's four days of terror was the first uprising of Hindus against Sikhs. And, as the burning embers were only beginning to fade, there were new threats against Mr. Gandhi's life. He is being guarded by para-commandos of the Army's elitist force.
And it is not only Gandhi's security which is a growing cause of concern. Prominent Sikhs within his own party have threatened to dismantle their lucrative businesses in New Delhi if their security is not guaranteed and move them, along with all capital assets, to the Punjab.
Handsome financial compensation to the capital's businessmen and to the 30, 000 homeless slumdwellers, many with no place to go, were among the suggestions made to Gandhi during a meeting with a 39-man delegation of Sikh industrialists.
But what many Sikhs in the capital are urging as a ''bold, reconciliation step'' would be the trial and prosecution of any Congress (I) Party members found to have been involved in the bitter vengeance, provoked by Indira Gandhi's assassination by two Sikhs from her elitist security guard.
Such a move is not to be discounted, sources close to Mr. Gandhi say, if it is indeed confirmed that the district party leaders, municipal councilors, and some members of Parliament whom scores of eyewitnesses have named, are found to be culpable.
''Don't be misguided by Rajiv's soft-spoken, gentle exterior. There is steel inside,'' one of the prime minister's close friends said. Gandhi, he said, was not just a pilot for Indian Airlines, but an instructor. ''His job was to simulate emergencies all the time. They weren't political emergencies, but he gained the strength.''