Rajiv Gandhi -- harbinger of hope? Turbulence during the Indian leader's first seven months in office has not derailed his push for change. He is determined to resolve communal strife, revamp the economy, and balance ties with the US and USSR.
He is a product of modern India -- a man unencumbered by the memory of the independence struggle, unfettered by the post-independence jargon that has often inhibited India's progress and growth. For many of India's 735 million people, Rajiv Gandhi is a harbinger of hope.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
But the problems faced by the youthful prime minister, who arrives in Washington June 11, are immense, and one false step could not only undermine this eclectic nation's unity, but also could cost Mr. Gandhi his life.
Although India's resilient democracy has absorbed the shock of the assassination of his mother, Indira Gandhi, the problem of Sikh separatism that caused it is further than ever from being resolved.
This week, throughout the state of Punjab, which has a majority Sikh population, thousands observed ``genocide week,'' in homage to the 1,200 who died a year ago when the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple, holiest of Sikh shrines, to rout out armed extremists.
It was the decision to storm the temple that led to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi's mother last Oct. 31. Mrs. Gandhi was killed by two Sikh members of her elite security guard. The ensuing violence and bitterness between the Sikh community and others has presented Mr. Gandhi with the most serious crisis of his short and turbulent public career.
The former airline pilot, who never wanted a role in public life, assumed the dynastic mantle of ruling India within hours of Indira Gandhi's death. In December, Rajiv Gandhi amassed the largest electoral victory in Indian history.
It was not, however, a vote for the continuity of what had become known as the ``Indira Raj,'' but a vote for the renewal of India and hopes for a fresh start.
But the honeymoon may not last long. ``We have to deliver,'' says Rajiv Gandhi. ``There's no alternative.''
``If sincerity could solve India's problems, I'd have no worries for our future,'' said M. J. Akbar, a Calcutta editor and author of ``India: the Siege Within.''
``But Rajiv also needs judgment, finesse, and luck and a policy for the Punjab. It's still too soon to say.''
Pulled by all of the conflicting forces of a nation of six major religions, 16 languages, and scores of dialects, Gandhi stands astride a potential powder keg and has, in many respects, inherited from his mother a most unenviable legacy.
When he arrives in Washington -- only his second trip abroad since becoming prime minister -- Punjab and the Sikhs will not be far away.
Gandhi comes fresh from a successful official visit last month to Moscow, where two new Indo-Soviet trade and economic agreements were signed. During his talks with President Reagan, he will keep the sensibilities of the Kremlin very much in mind.
As both Washington and Moscow attempt to outdo each other in wooing India's Cambridge-educated premier, his foreign policy advisers caution against any undue optimism from the United States that Gandhi will distance himself from Moscow. India's relations with the Soviet Union have been a cornerstone of New Delhi's foreign policy for nearly 38 years.
The US has been greatly encouraged by Gandhi's pro-Western economic policies, in particular his loosening of industrial quotas and licensing controls, and his first budget, which closely parallels Ronald Reagan's ``supply side'' initiatives.
Belying the pundits who, in the early days, moaned that India's problems were so numerous and so entrenched that they were insoluble, Rajiv Gandhi has plunged ahead.
Fatalism is part of the problem, the no-nonsense prime minister says. He has moved with gusto to open the economy, loosen many of India's strangulating industrial controls, shake up the bureaucracy, and bolster the self-respect of India's parliamentary establishment.
His visit, and those of US Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige and a host of congressmen and senators to India, have caused growing unease in Moscow. Thus, when Gandhi visited the Soviet capital last month, the Kremlin leadership did its utmost to persuade him not to stray too far. Gandhi is reliably said to have given assurances that he has no such intentions.
Though US-Indian relations are bound to improve in the economic and technological fields, there are compelling reasons why relations are also bound to remain uneasy, even frosty, in the larger geopolitical context.
The main reasons are: India's self-perceptions as a dominant, regional power in south Asia today; and the continuing sharp rivalry between India and its longtime nemesis, neighboring Pakistan.
Gandhi's own conviction, which he is bound to bring up with Reagan, is that the US continues to turn a blind eye to Pakistan's suspected nuclear weapons program and is considerably raising the stakes in an arms race on the subcontinent by supplying arms to Pakistan.