LITTLE noticed amid the flurry of developments in Eastern Europe, India's leviathan electorate has marched this week to the voting booth to render its verdict on Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's five-year-old government. At a time in world history of tremendous flux, it is not surprising that events in India, including elections, have not received much attention. After all, while Eastern Europe and Soviet Union appear to be moving forward, and China backward, India seems to be standing still. Nothing of momentous import has happened in India since Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh extremists in 1984. Following Mrs. Gandhi's assassination, her son Rajiv inherited the mantle of leadership and handily won the ensuing election.
Rajiv Gandhi's tenure as prime minister has been spectacular for all it has failed to achieve. His ascendency to the prime ministership of what remains, very largely, a backward and poor country was accompanied by an optimism not seen since the ejection of the British in 1947.
Rajiv Gandhi promised a new generation of political leadership. He promised an end to corruption and a liberalizing of India's sluggish economy. He painted a picture of prosperity driven by tax cuts and high technology. He promised India would begin to catch up with South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore - countries like India in the early 1950s. Winning almost two-thirds of the seats in parliament, Mr. Gandhi and members of his Congress Party were given all the power they asked for. The people even gave Gandhi the title of ``Mr. Clean.''
When India's legislative session commenced this fall on October 11, 1989, Prime Minister Gandhi was greeted by other parliamentarians with derisive shouts of ``Mr. Dirty.'' Gandhi's image has been badly tarnished by the Bofors scandal, involving the alleged payment of $26 million by a Swedish arms manufacturer, Bofors, to individuals connected with Gandhi. Information about the illegal payments has been scarce; most of it has been gleaned by the Indian press from statements of government officials, including the former army chief of staff.
Opposition parties are challenging Gandhi under the leadership of V.P. Singh, a former minister in Gandhi's cabinet who is the new Mr. Clean. The election centers on images: the corrupt Gandhi versus the clean Mr. Singh. Singh's proposal to set up a national election fund to help finance the election campaigns of political parties to lessen political corruption is the only reform proposal that has emerged in the campaign.
Corruption is hardly new in India. Government ministers have for years provided incumbents an huge supply of cash. And yet even as Indians - the poor, middle classes, and wealthy - bemoan corruption, India appears unwilling to embark upon the kind of restructuring necessary to stop it.
There is no provision for an independent counsel to investigate crimes. There is no Freedom of Information Act. The government owns, operates, and manipulates all radio and TV stations. Banking, insurance, power production, and oil and gas are industries that remain wholly in government hands. Industrial production of virtually all goods is still limited by licensing schemes and quota restrictions that give politicians and bureaucrats a carte blanche to extort. Rajiv Gandhi's move to liberalize India's economy sputtered to a halt in 1986. Politics and corruption as usual took over.
India's democratic institutions have not functioned well. The executive is too powerful. The legislature can't contain the executive. The judiciary is archaic. The executive is thus plays prosecutor, judge - and criminal. Periodic elections and freedom of the press by themselves are inadequate to ensure good government. The lack of political and legal reform has thwarted economic reform. Indians deserve and are in dire need of a glasnost and perestroika of their own.