INDIA'S political compass appears to be spinning these days. A minority government, headed by Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, collapsed last week after only 117 days in power. Mr. Shekhar decided to call it quits rather than rely on the fickle support of Congress Party members in parliament and their leader, Rajiv Gandhi. That decision has set the stage for new national elections, probably in May - a prospect no one relishes.
Shekhar's government and that of V. P. Singh before him have been beset by turmoil. Friction between Hindus and Muslims has burst into flame over the location of ancient shrines. A second highly emotional issue concerns affirmative action programs for low-caste Hindus, who make up some 70 percent of the population. Their cause was championed by Mr. Singh during his 11 months in office, which brought violent protests from middle-class Indians.
These volatile elements could be reignited in May. Hindu-Muslim tensions will be exploited by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which trumpets Hindu nationalist positions.
Singh, meanwhile, will continue to woo the country's poor. He has been speaking in southern India in an effort to broaden the base of his faction of the Janata Dal Party. The country has never had a party with national standing other than the now tottering Congress, and if Singh can help fill that void he may do Indian politics a favor.
Mr. Gandhi, clutching the Congress Party mantle, lost his "Mr. Clean" image during corruption scandals in the late '80s. Opposition forces in parliament are determined to keep him from returning to office.
India's economy is somewhat more stable than its politics, with strong industrial growth rates. The deficit is big, however, and inflation is growing. India's major oil suppliers were Iraq and Kuwait. Remittances from Indians employed in the Gulf were a key source of foreign exchange.
As always, India faces multiple problems. But in this vast democratic patchwork of peoples and traditions, the response is still to turn to the voters for solutions. That's a fundamental strength.