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Despite rough sailing, India's Gandhi likely to stay at helm

By Brahma ChellaneySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 1987



New Delhi

In recent months, Indians around the country have dealt Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi a string of embarrassing and politically damaging electoral defeats. Largely in response to the prime minister's failure to live up to expectations as a vote-getter, dissidence within Mr. Gandhi's Congress (I) Party has increased. In addition, the ``Mr. Clean'' image cultivated by Gandhi has been pummeled by a series of corruption allegations leveled against him and other members of his government. And there is a slew of economic and policy problems that his Cabinet has yet to sort out.

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Despite all this, the Indian leader is not in imminent danger of being ousted or replaced.

``The tragedy of the country is that, although Gandhi has failed to deliver the goods, there is no one to take over from him,'' says columnist Kuldip Nayar.

In fact, there appears to be no national leadership alternative to the scion of the family that has ruled India for 36 of the past 40 years. And, the Congress (I), its shrinking mandate notwithstanding, remains India's only party with a nationwide base and organization.

The anti-Gandhi forces are splintered into about two dozen groups, many of them bitterly opposed to one another. The bickering among opposition party leaders over selecting a common candidate for the July 17 presidential election has shown the difficulties of forming a coalition led by a mutually acceptable national figure.

The opposition's failure last week jointly to back the candidacy of incumbent President Giani Zail Singh - who has been involved in a bitter constitutional and personal feud with Gandhi - let the prime minister off the hook, analysts say.

However, there is little doubt that after riding a two-year crest of popularity, Gandhi is today facing the worst crisis of confidence in his leadership. The ex-airline pilot came to office in 1984, and later won the biggest victory in Indian election history. His popularity soared as he sought to rapidly modernize India with Western technology, adopted a conciliatory foreign policy, and signed peace accords to solve ethnic problems.

But Gandhi's standing declined as his 1985 peace accord with the Sikhs gradually unraveled and violence in Punjab grew. The public's impression of a dynamic, clear-headed prime minister changed to that of a wavering and indecisive leader. More recently, scandals relating to millions of dollars in kickbacks on military deals with Swedish and West German firms have tarnished his image.

``There is no doubt that the prime minister is facing his biggest test,'' says columnist S. Nihal Singh. ``On the other hand, all is not lost yet for Gandhi.''

Gandhi enjoys a three-fourths majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament and the next parliamentary elections are due only in late 1989. That, analysts say, gives Gandhi time to regain some ground.

The Congress (I) was virtually routed in all but one of nearly 10 state elections held since 1984. (Its win in Kashmir was in alliance with a dominant regional party.)

But the victorious parties in all the 11 states have basically had a regional base. The votes, analysts say, reflected the growing regional consciousness and assertion of state identity and rights. Some observers also see the triumphs of regionally based parties as more of a ``negative vote'' against Gandhi rather than positive backing for their programs.

For instance, in the June 17 election in Haryana State, the opposition campaign focused on ousting Gandhi's party; little was said about what the opposition would do if it came to power.

Meanwhile, there appears to be growing discontent within the Congress (I) over Gandhi's policies and style of functioning. But there is no leader with grass-roots support who can seriously challenge his leadership of the party.

Gandhi's ouster of Vishwanath Pratap Singh, his defense minister, after the latter ordered a probe into corruption allegations, has made Singh popular inside and outside Congress (I). Some see him as a potential alternative to Gandhi.

Last, but perhaps not least, Gandhi has a major asset on his side: name recognition - for both him, and his party, which led India's struggle for independence. To the masses, Gandhi bears the political heritage of Mahatma (Mohandas Karamchand) Gandhi, the apostle of nonviolence, and his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first premier.