New Delhi — When Indira Gandhi was prime minister of India, she often said that hers was the government that made things work. When her son Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was recently asked to characterize his government, he smiled and said: ``Mine is the government that will make things work faster.''
Perhaps, in the view of many observers here, he has moved too fast.
Tuesday's assassination of Sant Harchand Singh Longowal was cruel confirmation of the moderate Sikh leader's advice against moving too fast and too far in India's embattled Punjab state.
But Mr. Gandhi does not seem to be slowing the pace. The government announced yesterday it plans to go ahead with parliamentary elections in Punjab scheduled for next month, despite fears that balloting could kindle more violence.
Gandhi and Mr. Longowal, who led the major faction of the mainstream Sikh Akali Dal party, signed an accord July 24. The agreement aimed at ending three years of disturbances in Punjab led by Sikhs demanding greater autonomy for the state, where most of India's 13 million Sikhs live. Militant Sikhs, wanting complete autonomy, rejected the pact which was gaining acceptance among moderates. Longowal was killed by Sikh extremists 24 hours after he reluctantly agreed to bring his Akali Dal party into the el ectoral race.
``When he [Gandhi] signed the Punjab agreement, he was a statesman,'' one Western official says. ``When he called elections he was a politician. He simply moved too fast.''
But for Gandhi, buoyed by the general euphoria that greeted the Punjab accord, there followed in quick succession his second political coup in less than a month. On Aug. 14 he finalized a settlement to end six years of unrest in the northeastern state of Assam, where protests against the holding of elections had cost 3,000 lives in 1983.
Although several hurdles remain it appears that the two sides have reached a compromise on the contentious issue of ``illegal immigrants'' -- mostly Muslims from impoverished Bangladesh.
Both accords were a victory for the prime minister, who has shown firmness and dedication in placing national interests ahead of petty politics.
Longowal's death, however, is bound to raise political temperatures in the breadbasket of India once more, and could threaten the survival of July's settlement accord.
According to one key adviser, calling premature elections in Punjab was a bad mistake.
He believes Gandhi relied too heavily on the politicians within his ruling Congress (I) party, including Punjab's governor, Arjun Singh, who was keen to capitalize on the goodwill generated by the Punjab settlement for an electoral victory.
``It was the difference between Rajiv betting on his own personal instincts, and relying on the old party hacks. He made a mistake and it can be turned around,'' says the adviser.
He said that any move to postpone the elections could be interpreted as a ``cave-in to terrorism.''
India's seven major opposition parties had appealed for postponement of the elections, scheduled for Sept. 22 after Longowal was assassinated. But, after a marathon meeting yesterday between Gandhi and key colleagues, the Election Commission announced the government would hold balloting on Sept. 25.
They will be Punjab's first elections in more than five years. If elections are not held by Oct. 5, India's Constitution must be amended to extend the central government's rule in Punjab beyond its present two years. [Opposition lawmakers said they would support a constitutional amendment to extend direct federal rule in Punjab, the Associated Press reported Thursday.]
Whether or not elections are finally held, a central question is whether Longowal's death has further isolated the Sikh population from the Sikh militants. Without the support of many in the thousands of villages dotting Punjab, without the hideouts and the food and clothing they provide, militant Sikhs would find it almost impossible to survive underground.
Longowal's death is a blow to the Indian prime minister, who had counted on the moderate leader to rally the Sikhs of the Punjab behind the July 24 accord. According to his aides, Gandhi had hoped that Longowal would be capable of breaching the Sikhs' great divide, and rallying the many factions of the community behind him.
Gandhi had also looked toward the bearded, soft-spoken leader, who disdained security protection, to rally Sikhs behind the September elections -- which Sikh extremists had vowed to resist.
As Longowal fell in a spray of bullets, hopes of tranquility returning to Punjab were shaken. Sant Longowal was the only Sikh leader who had the courage, or the stature, to sign last month's settlement accord, and his death has left a vacuum. Few can imagine who will fill it.
Surjit Singh Barnala, a former agricultural minister and Punjab minister of education who accompanied Longowal to New Delhi for the signing of the accord, was named acting convenor of the moderate faction of the Akali Dal on Thursday, until formal elections are held, following a two-week mourning period for Longowal.
But Mr. Barnala has neither the support among the farmers of Punjab nor the rapport with Sikhdom's five high priests to fill the difficult position of Sant Longowal.
One of Barnala's first acts yesterday was to call on the government to postpone the elections, which Sikhs generally believe cost Longowal's life.
Even before the death of the Akali leader, politicians argued that they had too little time to prepare for and file the names of candidates to contest the largely unwanted poll.