FOR Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, running the world's largest democracy has become harder. In response to internal pressures, he has taken action that may have boosted his domestic popularity but that, unfortunately, has strained relations with India's neighbors and the rest of the world. Like his mother, Indira Gandhi, he now complains of foreign forces bent on destabilizing India. He should carefully weigh the effect of what looks to many outsiders like unnecessary saber rattling.
Mr. Gandhi's most controversial recent action, spurred by pressure from India's 50 million Tamils and exaggerated Tamil press reports, was the airdrop of relief supplies to embattled Tamils on Sri Lanka's northern Jaffna Peninsula. The Sinhalese majority government, which has been trying to reestablish its control over that Tamil stronghold, had first turned back Indian fishing boats carrying aid. India's subsequent airdrop has been roundly condemned as a violation of Sri Lankan sovereignty. The action cannot be defended, but it does prove that India, the largest power in the region, can do much as it pleases in its part of the world.
India has also been conducting nonstop military maneuvers along its border with Pakistan and amassing troops and weapons near Tibet in a renewed boundary dispute with China. Gandhi has long been apprehensive - with good reason - about stepped-up United States military aid to Pakistan. India suspects that the early-warning surveillance planes the US now plans to send would more likely be used against India than as defense against Soviet-Afghan attacks. Gandhi insists Pakistan's admitted nuclear weapons capability was made possible by US aid.
After a long attempt to assuage the demands of India's Sikh extremists, Gandhi recently dismissed the moderate elected Sikh government in Punjab, where Sikhs are a majority, and put the state under direct central government rule. He says growing violence forced the action. But many Indians suspect politics. India's ruling Congress Party has lost a string of local elections recently. A critical one in predominantly Hindu Haryana, long a Congress Party stronghold, is scheduled for Wednesday; many voters there consider Gandhi soft on Sikh extremism.
No question but that the pressures facing the youthful Indian prime minister have been intense. India's southern state of Tamil Nadu has been a staunch government ally, but the once-strong move for Tamil autonomy there could easily be revived. The Sikhs pose a similar threat. Gandhi's government, accused of corruption in a recent Swedish arms deal, has also operated with a certain high-handedness; the prime minister has squabbled with his own appointees and shuffled his Cabinet nine times.
Gandhi would do well to recall the importance he once placed on improving relations with his neighbors and the West. Out of its interest in a regional balance of power, the US should reconsider its decision to send early-warning aircraft to Pakistan. Last, negotiations to find a political solution to Sri Lanka's problems must be revived. India has a vital role to play - as power broker and mediator. Gandhi knows that Tamil independence is no answer in either country.