Bootstrap steps for Gandhi

INDIAN Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has been learning the hard way how difficult it is to become a skilled politician with a broad public following. His Congress (I) Party has been damaged by division, charges of high-level corruption, the loss of several elections at the state level, and failure to quell communal violence. Mr. Gandhi's leadership has been criticized as abrasive and undemocratic; opposition parties are calling for his resignation. Within the last week two Cabinet ministers have resigned. Gandhi has expelled four other Congress colleagues for ``anti-party activities,'' including Viswanath Pratap Singh, a popular former defense and finance minister known nationally as a corruption fighter.

In an effort to restore his image as an honest and decisive leader, the prime minister is expected to make more major changes in his administration soon. The shuffle is intended to reassure voters, but it will be the 10th in his 2 years in office.

Mr. Gandhi has long been more of a technocrat than a politician. The former Indian Airlines pilot took office reluctantly, elected by an overwhelming majority on a wave of sympathy after his mother's assassination and of hope that his family ties, youth, and, fresh ideas would carry this largest of all democracies significantly forward. Many of those appointed to top jobs were classmates from his prestigious Doon School rather than seasoned politicians. The prime minister would do well now to devote more of his efforts to the often tedious but eventually rewarding business of cultivating broad political support for his policies. Most voters would welcome, too, a stronger indication of his determination to root out corruption.

To date Gandhi has been helped by the fragmentation of his political opposition. It is a luxury he may not enjoy much longer. A coalition of opposing parties is likely; it could benefit both the Congress (I) Party and India in general. Such a coalition effectively defeated former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1977 and forced her to run a more focused, effective campaign in 1980, when she was reelected.

Sectarian violence has also been a persistent problem for Mr. Gandhi. The prime minister should put in effect his 1985 peace accord with the Sikh community; that promised Punjab State, where Sikhs are in the majority, more water for irrigation and control of Chandigarh, the Punjab capital now shared with neighboring Haryana. Gandhi should also move promptly to restore to Punjab the same measure of local democratic rule other Indian states enjoy. Since May Punjab has been under direct federal rule.

Gandhi could also help to defuse Sikh tensions by investigating charges of police abuse and by a visit to Punjab, reassuring voters there of his interest in their concerns.

Fortunately, India's democratic, parliamentary form of government has a resiliency and a tenacity that have kept it alive and adaptive to change during the four long decades since India's independence; it can surely rise to the occasion again in meeting the current political crisis.

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