RAJIV Gandhi has taken a second key step forward to ease India's factional and ethnic tensions and strengthen its sense of national identity. In the process India's prime minister, in office less than a year, has again demonstrated his willingness to rethink seemingly intractable problems, open dialogue, and, after hard bargaining, reach agreements that give promise of providing solutions. It is a fresh approach that leaders in other troubled areas of the world would do well to emulate.
In the latest instance Mr. Gandhi has dealt with longstanding religious and ethnic tensions in the mostly Hindu state of Assam. He voided a disputed election, announced that he would protect the identity and heritage of the Assamese, and said he would deport the several hundred thousand immigrants, mainly Muslim, who have arrived, mostly from Bangladesh, since 1971. Still remaining is the considerable challenge of carrying out these plans, especially the deportation.
Last month Mr. Gandhi and Sikh leaders agreed on steps toward solving India's most pressing domestic problem: reaching accommodation with the Sikhs. As with the Assam situation, he listened to grievances and agreed to a compromise that made realistic concessions.
With these two difficult negotiations behind him, Gandhi can turn to other matters. One issue that could particularly use his good offices now is the peace talks between ruling Sinhalese and dissenting Tamils in Sri Lanka, the island nation off India's southeast coast. Begun after Gandhi shoved the Sri Lankan government toward the peace table, the talks now threaten to deadlock. Last week each side made demands the other was almost sure to reject, and in fact did.
The timing of any Gandhi initiative is important: A prod now might produce motion on both sides. Ideally the minority Tamils should be given greater autonomy, especially in northern Sri Lanka, where they predominate. But the Tamils should remain as part of the Sri Lankan nation: No independent Tamil nation should be carved out of the island. Settlement of the dispute would greatly benefit the Sri Lankan people, troubled by terrorism and excesses on both sides.
In addition, success in Sri Lanka would aid Mr. Gandhi. It would continue the strengthening of the Indian nation, defusing regional, religious, and ethnic tensions. It would again demonstrate to India's dissenting minorities that their prime minister is willing to be accommodating -- but not to permit a breakaway from the overall nation. And it would enhance Mr. Gandhi's image as a leader not only willing to tackle difficult problems, but capable of solving them.