Mrs. Gandhi loses her powerful heir apparent

The death of Sanjay Gandhi in a plane crash Monday plunges the Indian political scene into chaos and may sidetrack Indira Gandhi from carrying out her much-vaunted "government that works."

The political confidant and heir apparent to the Prime Minister was killed when a sports aircraft he was piloting crashed over Delhi. The accident shaters his mother's dynastic dreams and will likely force the government to concentrate on revitalizing a shocked party.

Young Gandhi was widely credited with mapping the political strategy that led to his mother's stunning comeback in January leess than three years after her humiliating defeat at the polls in 1977.

He behaved and was treated as his mother's second in command -- both in the government and the Congress-I (for Indira) Party. Most Indians expected him to be their next prime minister, continuing the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has governed India for most of its 33year history as an independent nation.

"When Mrs. Gandhi leaves office, that's the end of the Nehru family legacy," said a political observer. "This means the end of a dream for her." Mrs. Gandhi's father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India's first prime minister.

Government offices remained open on Mrs. Gandhi's instructions, but most shopkeepers kept their shutters down in a gesture of sympathy.

As authorities planned a funeral ceremony, Indians had yet another occasion to marvel at Mrs. Gandhi's extraordinary control and fortitude. Dry-eyed, she soothed crowds at the hospital and received an unending stream of sympathizers at her heavily guarded bungalow.

Yet many Indians worried how the "iron lady" would react in the long run to the devastating loss of the son she had been grooming to succeed her.

"The impact on her has got to be tremendous, both personally and politically and where do you draw the line?" asked one observer. "Sanjay and his family lived with her. She had an intense family and political relationship with him. This could take the steam out of her. Or, she might emerge from this tougher than ever."

Admirers saw Sanjay as a dynamic young man with a can-do mentality who could cut through layers of red tape and passivity to get worthwhile jobs done.

Yet the forcible sterilization programs and wholesale slum clearance projects he has pushed in the past proved controversial. The measures net violent, emotional resistance and were believed responsible for his mother's downfall in the 1977 elections.

"The big problem is that the party had become a personal vehicle for the Gandhis," said one political analyst. "There is no secondary level of leadership. Mrs. Gandhi was using Sanjay as her instrument to energize both the party and the government. Now she's got to find new people -- and that will take some time."

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