PRIME Minister Rajiv Gandhi has made a fine beginning toward governing India in his nine months at the fractious nation's helm. The son of assassinated longtime leader Indira Gandhi has impressed India-watchers with pragmatism, a conciliatory approach, a desire to solve problems through discussion and with fewer preconceptions than his mother, and an apparent willingness to devolve some of Delhi's tightly centralized governmental power to the states. In the process the prime minister has:
Taken major steps toward solving his nation's problems with its Sikh population, especially in the Punjab.
Played a crucial role in shoving both sides in volatile Sri Lanka toward accommodation.
And begun the process of trying to lure additional American investment, now at low levels.
In addition Gandhi has visited both the Soviet Union, the world power to which India is closest, and the United States, to improve relations with the latter.
The Sikh issue was the most pressing problem Rajiv Gandhi faced: The Sikhs' disaffection and near-open rebellion threatened to pull apart his delicately balanced nation. His moves just announced have the effect of granting more power to the regional government in the northern state of the Punjab, where a majority of residents are Sikhs. Sikh strength in the Punjab is to be enhanced by rearranging state boundaries to include nearby heavily Sikh areas.
If the agreement is fully accepted by most Sikhs, it will go a long way toward righting the political mistake Indira Gandhi made in June of last year, when she ordered troops to invade the Golden Temple at Amritsar, a Sikh stronghold, with many resultant fatalities.
In the case of Sri Lanka, Gandhi made it clear to the rebellious militant Tamils on the island, off India's southeastern coast, that he no longer would permit them safe passage to and sanctuary in nearby India. At the same time he pushed the Sri Lankan government of President Jaywaredene to grant the Tamils some measure of increased autonomy -- much as Gandhi now has done with the Sikhs -- but without full independence. Efforts to produce a peaceful accommodation are under way.
Reports circulate that the Delhi government is talking with IBM about returning to India; if that company agreed, others might follow. India now is the world's 10th largest industrial nation, and its economy is doing quite well. But Gandhi believes that for the long run his country must lure substantial investment from the United States and other developed nations.
Despite these successes, enormous challenges still lie ahead of the prime minister. The settlement with the Sikhs has referred several of the most vexing issues to commissions for study. Their findings will be extremely important. The Sri Lankan situation is on hold: Crucial peace talks are in recess until Aug. 12.
Finally, the same problem of diversity and unrest represented by the Sikh uprising must be dealt with in other cases. Most urgent are the riots in Gujarat, north of Bombay. There the issue is local: A backlash exists against the educational priorities accorded to the untouchables, India's lowest social group.
In dealing with minorities and local grievances, Gandhi must walk a tightrope. Proper local demands may have to be met to calm the situation. Yet the risk exists that acceding to the demands of one group, like the Sikhs, will embolden others of India's many ethnic and religious groups to make demands of their own for special treatment, thus ultimately endangering the cohesion of the nation.
One effective way to deal with this problem may well be to provide local governments with increased authority to deal with local problems, reversing the trend under Indira Gandhi of centralizing government power in Delhi. This step Rajiv Gandhi appears to be taking. The national government then would be freer of local issues and able to concentrate on issues of national concern -- of which one of the most compelling is whether Pakistan really is close to making a nuclear weapon and whether, if it is, In dia should respond by making one of its own.
Clearly the future holds challenges for Gandhi. Changes need to be made, and he is in process of attending to them. Yet he must be careful not to move too quickly or drastically, so as not to lose too much support from influential groups in India that prefer the status quo. In any case his start has been impressive.