Mrs. Gandhi wafts toward victory in India

An Indira Gandhi breeze is blowing through the crowded cities and dusty villages of the world's most populous democracy. That breeze is expected to be just enough to blow Mrs. Gandhi into yet another term as prime minister of 650 million Indians who account for one-fifth of all humanity.

Here in New Delhi, India's handsome capital city of over 5 million people, where the rich smells of incense and curry spice the crisp night air, political pundits voice an instinctive feeling that Mrs. Gandhi will soon be back in power. If so, her rehabilitation will represent one of the most astonishing political turnabouts in modern times -- something akin to Richard Nixon becoming president again of the United States.

Politically disgraced because of the excesses of her previous rule and thrown out of office in 1977 -- and since then enmeshed in a clutch of court disputes -- Mrs. Gandhi has brilliantly maneuvered her way back into the forefront of Indian public life. She has achieved this with a very limited political base.

Her deftness as a tactician prompted a former US ambassador to India to call her the most skillful politician since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

No other political leader in the democratic world has a party, the Congress-I -- I for Indira -- named after him or her. It illustrates Mrs. Gandhi's utter dominance of her own political machine.

And no other contemporary world leader has bounced back from the political wilderness with such astonishing rapidity as Indira Gandhi. Says one Western diplomat:

"She is a genuine phoenix. As of last June she was written off. She was fighting the courts and trying to keep afloat. Now, if I were a Congress-I supporter, I would be feeling very encouraged. Everyone you speak to expects Mrs. Gandhi to win."

The pro-Gandhi mood is evident here in New Delhi, where impatient pedicabs dash through the congested traffic like swarms of angry hornets and Indian families seize on every available strip of green to play cricket. Indians went to the polls in stages on Jan. 3 and [Word Illegible]. The winner will be known early this week.

Outside one polling booth a smartly suited Sikh in a midnight-blue turban, transporting his mother cowled in a red sari and sitting sidesaddle on the back of his scooter, says: "The people want stability." It was an allusion to a growing impression that for all the excesses of her 20-months emergency, which ended in 1977, Mrs. Gandhi brought discipline and order to the economic and political scene. A service-station attendant outside a tea shop says, "The poor man wants Indira to come again. Inflation is very hard." A pint-sized, barefoot newspaper boy in rags tugs at a visitor's sleeve and then holds on. "Newspaper, my friend, newspaper," he pleads with intense charcoal eyes, then adds, "You vote Mrs. Gandhi? Yes? You vote Mrs. Gandhi?"

The election seems to revolve around this single issue: Indira Gandhi. In fact, however, the outcome hinges on a host of regional parties and three major candidates. They are: Mrs. Gandhi; Jagjivan Ram; and caretaker Prime Minister Charan Singh, whose Lok Dal party is not given much chance.

Unquestionably, though, Mrs. Gandhi's principal opponent in these midterm elections called to arrest India's political drift under a caretaker government, is veteran politician, pudgy-cheeked Jagjivan Ram. They make a dramatic study in personal contrasts.

Mrs. Gandhi is the political loner whose toughness (at times ruthlessness) and impeccable upper-class Brahmin pedigree have earned her the sobriquet of "India's iron lady," and "the empress of India."

Mr. Ram, on the other hand, is a consensus politician. Flexible and pragmatic, he is also genial and agreeable. Even the duck walk of this rotund man evokes affection rather than ridicule. Temperamentally he has those qualities more likely to win political partners should either he or Mrs. Gandhi fall short of an absolute majority and be forced to form a coalition government.

A member of every Indian Cabinet, with the exception of the present one, since 1947, Mr. Ram is respected as an able, efficient administrator, although in the wheeler-dealer mold. Despite his lavish personal diamond collection and millionaire status, he is in caste terms on the other end of the social scale from the Brahmin Mrs. Gandhi -- an "untouchable" or harijan.

That should be an undeniable electoral asset in a country where 80 million untouchables could play a decisive role in these elections. In the past they supported Mrs. Gandhi. It remains to be seen whether they will switch to Mr. Ram as a possible prime minister from their own ranks. Some of them may be deterred from doing so by Mr. Ram's coalition arrangement with the hard-line Hindu Jan Sangh Party.

Mr. Ram also suffers from his association with the original Janata Party. This conglomerate of five disparate political groupings was cemented together in 1977 to oust Mrs. Gandhi. But the cement came unstuck soon after they achieved their sole common objective -- with Prime Minister Singh's faction breaking away to form the Lok Dal. The unedifying spectacle of the Janata leaders bickering among themselves, and the lemming-like rush of the more opportunistic to new political parties or leaders to save their own political skins, have brought a profound cynicism to the Indian electorate.

Asked if apathy was to blame for the low voter turnout in New Delhi, Satinder Maira, an investment adviser, sniffed: "It's not apathy. It's disgust. The government leaders have not been able to get along. They've not delivered the goods, and prices have gone up like nobody's business, and then they blame each other."

Mrs. Gandhi has skillfully exploited the nonperformance of the government so as to distract attention from the emergency and her controversial son, Sanjay.

In the last 1 1/2 years of her decade as prime minister, just before her defeat in March 1977, Mrs. Gandhi jailed thousands of political opponents and arbitrarily amended the Constitution. Her son Sanjay inherited vast powers although he did not hold public office.

But given India's present climate of drift, political instability, strikes, and high prices, the electorate seems ready to forget the emergency and grasp the hand of firm government. Shrewdly, Mrs. Gandhi has discerned that mood. Not surprising, then, she chose a hand as her party's symbol.

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