Gandhi's victory: a mandate for change?

India is catching its breath following the most colossal electoral landslide in its history. With only seven seats yet to be counted Sunday, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's ruling Congress (I) Party had captured 394 of Parliament's 508 contested seats. For the first time Congress (I) amassed more than 50 percent of the votes and secured nearly 80 percent of the parliamentary seats. Mr. Gandhi will form a new government today. (He will also dissolve the outgoing Parliament today, three weeks early, Associated Press reports.)

Gandhi swept India's quarrelsome opposition parties right off the political map. Congress (I)'s three major political rivals have been reduced to an embarrassing combined total of 15 seats. Gandhi's nearest opposition rival, Charan Singh, was one of only three national opposition leaders not defeated.

Such was the repudiation of the traditional opposition parties that a recently formed party will lead the parliamentary opposition. Organized only in 1982, the Telugu Desam party of Andhra Pradesh State's chief minister, N. T. Rama Rao, won 28 seats.

It would be simplistic to say that India's youngest prime minister and his inner circle of technocrats, former executives, and some of his mother's aides will be able immediately to overcome ingrained national habits and forge substantial change.

Does such a sweeping mandate portend a government empowered to make such change? Or does it mean that Gandhi, who so disdains the more unsavory side of Indian politics, will now be even more beholden to those same unsavory political bosses who helped bring the landslide?

One would hope he would be strong enough to clean the Augean stables. He did, in fact, deny 103 of Congress (I)'s more disreputable parliamentarians the right to run in last week's race.

Yet on a national level, the problems bequeathed him by his mother - former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, assassinated Oct. 31 - are enormous. Gandhi's nature would indicate a cautious approach.

On the intractable problem of the Punjab State, where a secessionist wave by the nation's 15 million Sikhs continues to grow, it is unlikely that an initiative is near.

March elections for 11 state assemblies, including four in the critical northern Hindi-speaking belt, mean that Gandhi is unlikely to risk making the necessary concessions before the elections and thus ruffling Hindi sensibilities.

Nor is there any indication that, despite his fascination with computers and high technology, the son of Indira Gandhi is going to throw open the doors of India's sluggish public-sector economy to multinational firms any time soon.

But in time he is expected to expand the private sector's role, provide incentives to energy and communications industries, and step up the nation's nuclear power program.

It was Gandhi and his managerial aides who were largely responsible for doubling India's oil production over the last four years. Foreign policy, he said on Saturday, will continue to be based on nonalignment.

Yet his most awesome domestic challenge rests with reforming the country's troubled economy. According to a recent World Bank study, India's ''black,'' or underground, economy accounts for 50 percent of the gross national product - and the ruling Congress (I) Party has always been a grand repository of some of this untaxed wealth.

The magnitude of Gandhi's victory has led to some dark foreboding among intellectuals from Jawaharlal Nehru University here.

''The end of democracy,'' one muttered as the results continued pouring in.

''The rewards of a Hindi backlash'' and ''dark Monday as emperor Rajiv is crowned'' were some of the less kind epithets, as it became clear that there would be virtually no opposition in Parliament's lower house.

Such gloomy predictions aside, the election does raise the question of whether in this, India's eighth parliamentary poll, Gandhi's mandate was an exertion of Hindi power or, in the kinder view, a reaffirmation of the elusive concept of genuine ''Indianness.''

Until it becomes clear how the country's minority communities - some 150 million people, primarily Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs - voted in the election , the question will remain.

Based on initial projections, though, it does appear that Gandhi threw asunder all previous voting trends based on custom, religion, tradition, and caste. He made a clean sweep of the country, except in Andhra Pradesh, the Marxist-controlled states of West Bengal and Tripura, and Muslim Kashmir.

Anticipating just such concern about the direction of Indian democracy, the ebullient prime minister said in a press conference that his first priorities would be: strengthening the unity of India, tackling the problems of the Punjab, and ensuring a ''fair deal'' for the country's underprivileged and its minorities.

The former airline pilot and reluctant politician seemed a bit stunned by the magnitude of his mandate. He said only that the people had voted for ''national unity.''

Others say, however, that Rajiv Gandhi is all things to all people, in an often turbulent land which in 1984 was wracked by more turmoil than in any other of its independent years.

His boyish good looks appeal to women, his unsullied reputation to those who have come to despise the corruption, money, and muscle that have become synonymous with Indian politics.

As a Nehru (his grandfather was Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister), he is looked at as one apart, a natural inheritor of the dynastic house that has ruled this nation for all but five of its independent years.

Yet at the same time, he is the nation's angry young man, a technocrat, visibly impatient with India's awesome bureaucracy and its inordinate delays, the often sluggish performance of the public sector, in a vastly overpopulated land with one of the world's highest birthrates, where fully 300 million people go to bed hungry.

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