Fringes of India loom as trouble spots for Mrs. Gandhi

Indira Gandhi's commanding win in the recent elections has put power back where recently it has been most lacking -- at the nation's center. But it is at the very tips of India where the most dangerous disintegration of the nation's political system is taking place. And it is there that Mrs. Gandhi's skill as Prime Minister will be sorely tested in the coming months.

The areas marked red for danger on Mrs. Gandhi's political map are:

* The far northeast. Ethnic tensions are so fierce and rampant that there are fears that the states or territories of Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, and Tripura -- all sandwiched between Burma and Bangladesh -- eventually may break away from India.

Certainly the mood there now is anti-central government and strongly secessionist. The Indian Army is out in Tripura, Assam, and Meghalaya trying to disarm tribal militants who have been on a rampage of house burnings and mass killings. In the case of Assam, India suspects, but has no evidence, that China is helping to stir up the pot.

* The far east. West Bengal is being jarred by continual violence and labor unrest. The port of Calcutta, once the premier port of the nation, may be put out of action altogether because of labor strife.

More significant for Mrs. Gandhi, West Bengal was the only area on the political map that resisted the Indira tide -- and did so decisively. Here the Communists gobbled up 27 of the state's 30 seats to the Lok Sabha (national lower house of Parliament).

* In the far south. Here in Kerala, Mrs. Gandhi also has been defied -- this time in last week's state elections, which immediately followed the national elections.

Despite intensive campaigning by Mrs. Gandhi, flush from her national landslide win, her local supporters here were overrun by a Communist-dominated seven-party alliance styled the Left Democratic Front. But this alliance required so many political bedfellows that it is likely to run into trouble soon , leading to political instability.

Kerala's unemployment rate also is alarming. Historically, Kerala's economic backwardness, plus the highest literacy rate in India (99 percent), have proved a highly combustible fuel for communism.

Communists now control state legislatures in West Bengal and Tripura in the far east of the country, and Kerala in the deep south.

With the main opposition parties -- the Janata and the Lok Dal -- groping hopelessly for reconciliation in the wake of the election debacle, the Communists may well emerge as the party most likely to offer serious opposition to Mrs. Gandhi.

What is more, while Cabinet ministers and their sycophantic followers in state governments previously opposed to Mrs. Gandhi have been swarming to her side in droves and throwing state government control into confusion, the Communists alone refuse to have any truck with her.

Significantly, the rival Communist Party of India (CPI), which is pro-Moscow, and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), once pro-Maoist, recently ended their bitter and longstanding feud. Just before the last election, they joined in a political alliance.

They had the satisfaction of being the only political grouping outside the victorious Congress-I Party to improve their overall parliamentary position.

The Communists have gone from 29 seats in the 542-seat Lok Sabha to 45 seats. The CPI-M made the greater gain, going from 22 to 35 seats overall, 27 of them in West Bengal. The CPI inched up from 7 to 10 seats.

The major focus of Communist attack will be Mrs. Gandhi's authoritarianism, but the shrill rhetoric of the Communists is expected to be a less immediate threat to Mrs. Gandhi's government than the sharp exchange of arms fire in the northeast.

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