The Issues in India

THIS week's elections in India are proof, yet again, that democracy can endure in a country crisscrossed by ethnic, religious, economic, and linguistic differences. The persistence of India's democracy, however, doesn't mean it isn't almost constantly in turmoil. This year, a dominant theme has been allegations of corruption in the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Press accounts have hinted at a link between the prime minister and influence peddling by the Swedish arms manufacturer, Bofors. Gandhi vigorously denies the connection.

His party, Congress (I), has fought back, flinging what dirt it can at the opposition - such as a questionable allegation that its leader, V.P. Singh, has been in cahoots with the CIA.

The corruption controversy is joined by a couple of other issues critical to the way democracy operates in India.

First, the question of an independent media. The state-operated television service had been criticized as little more than a propaganda arm of the government. The major opposition party, Janata Dal, calls for greater broadcasting autonomy, along the lines of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Sensing the public's sentiment, Congress (I) added a media-reform plank to its own platform.

A second issue concerns control of local government in India. Constitutionally, local electoral and administrative structures are left to India's states. Gandhi backed an amendment to bring some of that responsibility under New Delhi's control. The legislation was sold as an effort to make government more responsive to the poor, but critics saw it as a power grab.

In addition to these issues, India's religious frictions have flared again. Radical Hindus vow to dismantle a centuries-old mosque built, they say, on a Hindu holy site. The country's top Islamic leader has urged his followers to vote against Congress (I).

A lot seems to be working against Gandhi. But the prime minister still has his potent tie to India's preeminent political family, as well as the ability to point to a fragmented opposition and ask, ``Can these people govern?''

The chances are good India's voters will be looking for change whichever side comes out on top in parliament.

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