India's challenge after Mrs. Gandhi

The world joins the people of India in sorrow over the assassination of India's prime minister, Indira Gandhi. It is regrettable that this falls within a pattern of violence that has beset leadership in many parts of the world, and in the modern Indian subcontinent in particular.

As the president of India said, Mrs. Gandhi was ''gentle, soft-spoken, brilliant ... the epitome of culture.'' She was the forceful, intelligent, and highly controversial leader of the world's largest democracy for 15 of the last 18 years. She had emerged as a spokesman for third-world nations on such issues as arms control and East-West tensions. Despite often difficult relations with other Western countries about, among other things, India's links with the Soviet Union, Mrs. Gandhi showed flexibility and courage in presenting her views - as in a July 1982 meeting with President Reagan in Washington.

By the immediate naming of Mrs. Gandhi's son Rajiv as prime minister, the Indian nation has once again begun the process of orderly transfer of power. The transfer is one evidence of continuity in modern India, supported by such democratic institutions as a vigorous free press, which are needed to confront that country's continuing religious, regional, ethnic, and cultural divisions.

Although opinion divides over the net effect of Mrs. Gandhi's own rule, it can be said that India has made much progress since its 1947 independence in keeping together a disparate country. She has her partisans, who credit her overall handling of the unity issue. Critics fault her government's military move early this summer, seizure of the Sikhs' Golden Temple, in which hundreds of Sikhs were slain. Some called her rule iron-handed.

In recent years Mrs. Gandhi's hold on both the nation and her Congress Party is thought to have been slipping, although she was heavily favored to retain her position in elections expected early next year. At the same time she had to grapple with the long-running communal violence, which most recently has included major Hindu-Muslim rioting and often-violent protests by militant Sikhs against the Hindu majority, as well as a persistently strong movement against immigrants in the Assam.

A major duty of her successor will be to resume the difficult challenge of encouraging the Indian peoples to view themselves as Indian nationals and not primarily as members of linguistic or cultural minorities. The ruling Congress Party must participate in this balancing of nationhood and ethnic identity.

Young democracies - and at 37 India is a young democracy - often go through difficult early decades in forging nationhood. One way India has sought to ensure continuity has been through nepotism. The family of Jawaharlal Nehru - his daughter Mrs. Gandhi, and now her son Rajiv - has played a unique role in modern India. Mrs. Gandhi had originally been grooming her younger son, Sanjay, as her successor; he was, however, killed in an air crash in 1980.

Part of the Indian leadership is said to believe that it is time for youth to be brought into the higher levels of government; this would work in Rajiv's favor. Yet others will likely argue, as next year's expected time for election draws closer, that the difficulty of leading such a disparate nation demands greater experience than Rajiv, who until recently was a commercial airline pilot , has had.

Before the assassination, there were signs that India's smaller parties might form a coalition and mount a serious challenge to the Gandhi family leadership. Rajiv's political inexperience makes it difficult to gauge his own policy inclinations. The views of his advisers could be crucial. Yet there is the prospect that he could lead India in a more pro-Western direction.

Mrs. Gandhi's assassination compounds India's leadership challenge. People of goodwill everywhere will wish Rajiv Gandhi and the Indian nation well in this trying period.

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