INDIA is at a turning point in its long history. At last the Nehru dynasty, which ruled India for 37 of the 42 years since its independence, is out. But if recent history is any guide, the new prime minister, Mr. V.P. Singh, has only about two and a half years to accomplish his goals. Since the early '70s, things have started to go sour for each successive government halfway through its five-year electoral term. Each came to power with great enthusiasm and popular support, only to find both wearing off. What lessons should Mr. Singh draw from this pattern?
Stay clean. Indian voters have had it with corruption. The spectacular early popularity of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was due to the fact that he was perceived as clean and honest. He lost popular support as soon as he was seen covering for corrupt Congress Party colleagues.
Mr. Singh's ascension to the prime ministership, and his party's gains in the state elections since, can also be explained in terms of his incorruptibility. If he loses this public confidence, he will be in trouble sooner than his predecessor, since, unlike Rajiv Gandhi, he does not have an absolute majority in the Parliament.
Reduce government. The biggest problem in India today is government, particularly the collusion between politicians and bureaucrats who control and regulate much of what is going on in India. The government is everywhere, directly or indirectly - in education, in science and technology, in the arts and letters, in the press, broadcasting and movies, and above all, in the economy.
India has a sprawling public sector that provides jobs to about 70 percent of its employed work force. The nationalization of industries began in earnest in the '50s, and has held back the private sector, which could have worked wonders. Areas that have remained relatively untouched by the government - small trade and commerce, industry which is still in the private sector, the underground economy - are booming.
There is a lesson here for the ``license-permit raj'': Get out and keep out of areas where government doesn't belong. Denationalize banks, insurance companies, and other industries. Privatize as much as possible. Accelerate the pace of liberalization and deregulation. Indians are among the most imaginative, innovative, and entrepreneurial people in the world. Look how well they do when they go abroad.
Avoid federal intervention. The persistent tendency on the part of the central government to intervene in the affairs of the states cannot work. India is too big and much too diverse. People in New Delhi do not know what the problems are at the local level or how to solve them. Concentration of power and decisionmaking in New Delhi also discourages local initiatives. Rulers in New Delhi should learn to keep out.
This does not mean that the government has no activist role to play in India. There are two areas, in particular, where the government could help: urbanization and population, both at dangerously high levels.
Urbanization. Even though India is basically a rural country tied to agriculture, it also numbers among the industrial powers of the world. Along with industrialization came urbanization. People moved where the jobs were, and as a result, cities soon started swelling. At the turn of the century, only one Indian in 10 lived in the cities. Today, about 30 percent of the population - equivalent to the population of the United States - lives in the cities.
Two-thirds of this urban population is desperately poor. They see a vast amount of concentrated wealth around them. The great and far too common economic disparity adds fuel to their fires of discontents. In every city one finds rows of luxurious skyscrapers on one side of the street and squalid slums on the other. In large cities where overpopulation is chronic and the poor are militant, volcanos are building.
Despite overcrowding, the people will continue moving to the cities as long as jobs are not available in the countryside. Government must change its persistent urban-industrial bias and sharply focus on rural development. Only the creation of new jobs can save villages, where the majority of Indians still live.
Population. India's population today is about 800 million, and in 2000, if the present trends continue, it will be about 1 billion. This is an awesome burden on any country. India cannot afford more people. An increasing population steals away the country's precious economic gains. After four decades of independence, India has yet to adequately clothe, shelter, or feed its people.
The new government should vigorously pursue family planning and other population-control measures short of forced sterilization. The family-planning initiative suffered a major setback when harsh coercive measures orchestrated by the late Sanjay Gandhi backfired. It is time that India get back on track toward controlling its burgeoning population.
A historic opportunity. The problems facing Mr. Singh are enormous, and time is short. All he can do is to change the direction of the country. Whether India will emerge as a great world power in the 21st century depends largely upon the direction it takes today under Singh's leadership. This is a historic opportunity and he should not miss it.