India's poverty, overpopulation test Mrs. Gandhi

"If Mrs. Gandhi were a good dictator, that would be OK.But she's not a good anything. . . . What this country needs is about 50 years of real dictatorship." -- Mr. A. Banarjee, recent college graduate, Calcutta

The fall and rise of Indira Gandhi seem to have made both dictatorship and democracy impossible for impoverished India. Her election has ushered in an era of village power that critically limits option in New Delhi.

In one sense, democracy has triumphed. The world's largest free population -- 80 percent of it in mud-hut villages like Madhogar -- has booted out Mrs. Gandhi, then retrieved her from political exile.

Yet in another sense, democracy at the center may be becoming increasingly meaningless. Mrs. Gandhi has won her 26-year battle for unrivaled national power. Now she finds herself ruling not so much a country as a lumbering bureaucracy of British imperial vintage.

On the one problem from which all others flow -- overpopulation -- the message from India's 520 million villagers seems clear: hands off.

A vindicated Mrs. Gandhi can get away with stretching the rules in New Delhi. She can -- and in February did -- do away with nine unfriendly state assemblies, following the unfortunate lead of her own opponents in 1977. She can -- and probably will -- slap hoarders and black marketeers into "preventive detention" and can crack down on flaring caste violence in the countryside.

She can also make good on the second prong of the campaign strategy that brought her back to the chalk- white prime minister's bungalow in January: reviving efforts for economic development. Before her ouster, Mrs. Gandhi had made India the main battle front in the developing world's green revolution, introducing new seed varieties and farming techniques. Farm production spurted.

But she cannot make rain, with whose helping hand India has chalked up a grain surplus in recent years only to have renewed problems this spring. And to an even greater extent than before her ouster-and-revival, Mrs. Gandhi cannot keep India from making babies, a process that seriously strains the country's economic progress.

She will find it more and more difficult to tell Madhogar, and tens of thousands of other farm villages, what to do.

The apparent resurgence of village power is partly her own doing, partly her political opponents', partly just India's.

In the years following independence from Britain in 1947, the power grid that London left behind worked relatively well, mainly because it worked so little. With only brief interludes of uncertainty, single figures dominated India -- first Mrs. Gandhi's father, Jawaharial Nehru, for 17 years, and then Mrs. Gandhi.

Both urbane and British educated, they shared government with politicians, intellectuals, and civil servants also educated either by or in Britain.

They seemed to encompass all political India, and they almost did. Villagers voted, but remained part of the truly national consensus built by an earlier, unrelated Gandhi -- the Mahatma -- against British rule. When farmers and potters and "untouchable" washerwomen or street- sweepers voted against the Congress Party (as many did in 1967, for instance), it seemed less a search for an alternative than a directionless protest against a failing monsoon.

But then came Mrs. Gandhi's "emergency rule," her fall in 1977, and her re-emergence in 1980. Opposition figures had decided they wanted a piece of the governmental pie. They helped stir up student unrest and state displeasure against Mrs. Gandhi.

She struck back, imprisoning opponents, muzzling the press. That, to most villagers, didn't really matter. But some officials, who had long since concluded that democracy and development might not mix, seized on the emergency as a mandate for zealous action.

Mrs. Gandhi's younger son. Sanjay, took the lead in advocating birgh control. His name was quickly linked -- unfairly, his supporters maintain -- with instances of forced male sterilization.

"Sanjay's men were breaking down doors of houses and forcing people not to have children," fumes a young farmer in Madhogar, this village of about 2,000 couched among low hills in the arid north Indian state of Rajasthan.

Did it happen here? "No." But that didn't matter. "We heard."

So did others, according to Indian and Western visitors to several villages elsewhere in India. Madhogar had, for years, voted Congress. "But I voted against her in 1977," says the farmer. Others, grouped around the dusty village tea stand, nod agreement.

They helped vote Mrs. Gandhi back in, villagers say, because India's new regime spent more time bickering than in keeping prices down and supplies of staples like kerosene up.

She won't entertain ideas of forced family planning now, the villagers say. And if she does, well, they can always vote her out.

That option, for the time being, remains theoretical. Mrs. Gandhi seems unlikely to rush into confrontation with the traditions of villagers who helped boost her back to power. The Hindu religion, the cement of village society, has encouraged large families.

Suggested alternatives -- particularly, sweeping penalties for large families -- would seem sure to tempt village ire, or even violence in a nation where tradition remains strong and has often been defended with blood.

But ironically, the very intellectuals and avowed democrats who opposed Mrs. Gandhi a few years ago now speak nostalgically of "Sanjay's good ideas." The government's "new sensitivity to family planning," writes one Delhi magazine commentator this month, "is an indication of how an urgent national program can suffer for partisan reasons."

Among youths like Mr. Banarjee from Calcutta -- a college graduate who, in this bursting nation of more than 650 million, makes do as a hotel waiter -- support for all- out dictatorship is acquiring a degree of radical chic.

Indeed, "option" birth control -- despite the bonuses and the free transistor radios -- has not visibly dented India's population problem. Current birth rates will push population near the 1 billion mark by the year 2000.

The alternative seems to be to let nature sort out the problem. Poverty and disease used to curb the size of village families. Disease, in large part, has subsided. Poverty has not, and as families grow, poverty does, too.

But India, and Indira, may be "trapped," ventures a prominent political scientist in New Delhi. Caste divisions, politics, and poverty have joined hands to spark recent violence in the north Indian farm state of Bihar -- a warning that a "laissez faire" approach to overpopulation might not work either.

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