India's Dark Hour

ONE can only be appalled at the savagery and utter contempt for democracy that prompted the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi this week. People around the world are saddened by the death of the former - and, he hoped, future - prime minister of India as he campaigned in this week's elections. Mr. Gandhi's murder likely will add to a crisis of confidence within the Indian body politic. Yet India's real political crisis was already upon it, and has been at least since Rajiv's resignation from the premiership in 1989. That crisis is the challenge of a vast, kaleidoscopic nation to rule itself effectively and peacefully in the absence of a dominant political party and a family dynasty.

Since Rajiv's resignation amid corruption charges against members of his administration, a succession of patchwork governments have formed and dissolved. The country's economy has declined sharply. Looked at differently, however, the country's political repudiation of Rajiv demonstrated perhaps a maturing of India's political process.

If the Nehru family's dynastic rule was unquestionably good for India in the years after independence in 1947, that rule was less obviously beneficial in more recent times. The Congress Party (which hasn't had an internal leadership election in 20 years) has long since stopped being a programmatic party and has become largely a political machine.

India needs a politics of ideas and programs, not a politics of personalities. Rajiv's widow Sonia Gandhi, after being nominated as new Congress Party head, wisely says she won't run in Rajiv's stead.

India also needs to wean itself from the infatuation with central planning, which has been a drag on economic vitality and modernization.

In a period of failed governments, growing religious, ethnic, and class strife and heightened violence, Indian politics look far from healthy. Yet it may well be a healthy development that the world's largest democracy has entered a period of transition. It is critical that new leaders and new ideas emerge that can help unify India during this transitional period.

The world mourns with India in this tragic hour, and the good will of the world supports India in its helter-skelter but magnificent embrace of democracy.

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