India's Prime Minister: Skilled in Art of Survival

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

LIFE at the top isn't easy for Indian Prime Minister V.P. Singh. India hovers near war with Pakistan over Kashmir; another separatist crisis in Punjab bedevils Mr. Singh's six-month-old government; rising prices stir deepening discontent; the civil war in nearby Sri Lanka threatens to spill into India; and the prime minister struggles to control dissidents in his party and the fragile coalition that keeps him in power.

``It doesn't make for a rosy picture of stability and survival,'' says a Western diplomat.

However, survive Singh does, and is likely to continue to do, Western and Indian political analysts predict. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has been sidelined since Singh, a one-time lieutenant-turned-opponent, defeated him in elections last fall.

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The Indian press is full of reports about anti-Singh conspiracies by rivals within his party, especially Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal and Chandra Shakar.

Still, Singh has outmaneuvered his foes, who so far appear unable or unwilling to topple the prime minister. ``V.P. Singh may not be strong,'' says Bharat Wariavwalla, a New Delhi political analyst. ``But his opponents are weak.''

Even as Singh continues to muddle through, his government has been tied in knots by an array of daunting problems. Most intractable is the Muslim insurgency in disputed Kashmir which has triggered taunting war rhetoric between India and Pakistan.

Under pressure from the United States, Singh is today beginning talks with Pakistan in an effort to defuse the Kashmir crisis.

Kashmir was split after the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947 and the two countries fought the first of three wars. Secular but predominantly Hindu India claims that Pakistan is aiding Muslim separatism, which exploded in the Kashmir Valley earlier this year. Pakistan says Kashmiris should vote on whether to remain in India.

Singh's government has pursued a repressive crackdown in Kashmir, spurred on by the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP, along with a faction of the Communist Party, provide vital parliamentary support to Singh's minority government.

But Singh upset the BJP in May when the he removed Jagmohan, the controversial governor of Kashmir whose bare-knuckled policies were criticized internationally and at home. Analysts say the success of peace talks and Singh's flexibility will be influenced by the BJP.

``The BJP's warnings about withdrawing support could have a big impact on foreign policy, especially Kashmir,'' says an Asian diplomat.

Singh also has floundered in stemming the Sikh militancy in Punjab. When he came to power, the prime minister promised state elections in Sikh-dominated Punjab, but has since backed down.

At the same time, violence by Sikh separatists demanding their own homeland has spiraled amid widespread police abuses and infighting among Sikh extremists and politicians.

Some analysts question how long Singh can juggle the Punjab and Kashmir crises with his political base tenuous and in disarray.

``In Punjab and Kashmir, the situation seems hopeless,'' says Mr. Wariavwalla. ``How long can you keep postponing elections in Punjab? And is repression or war the only answer in Kashmir?''

Despite the tensions with Pakistan, Singh has managed some improvement in relations with India's neighbors. In the aftermath of Nepal's pro-democracy movement this year, India ended a year-long trade dispute with the Himalayan kingdom. After intervening to quash a 1988 coup attempt, Indian troops were withdrawn from the Maldives earlier this year.

In March, the Indian Army also ended more than two years of fighting in Sri Lanka. Troops were sent to the island in 1987 to police a failed peace accord between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil militants.

However, a new war between the Tamil Tigers extremists and the government threatens new instability in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, just across a narrow strait from Sri Lanka.

This month, India, which at one time supported the Tamil extremist groups against Colombo, arrested hundreds of Tamil militants after 14 Tamil leaders were massacred in the Indian city of Madras. The Tigers were widely blamed for the massacre.

So far Singh has taken a neutral stance on the fighting, although he is expected to come under increasing pressure to intervene if thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils flee to India.

In an attempt to allay Indian fears, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Bernard Tillederatne visited India early this month.

``New Delhi is afraid Sri Lanka's confrontation will spread to the Indian mainland,'' says a Western analyst. ``The Tigers could try to cause trouble in Tamil Nadu and embroil India. V.P. Singh doesn't need another headache.''

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