INDIA is reeling after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, a scion of the political family that has anchored the country since independence. A massive bomb explosion at a Tuesday election rally in southern India ended Mr. Gandhi's reluctant political odyssey as head of the dynasty of his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and his mother, former premier Indira Gandhi.
Gandhi, at one time a contented airline pilot, was thrust hesitantly into politics after the 1980 death of his younger brother, Sanjay, Mrs. Gandhi's political heir apparent. Four years later, Rajiv succeeded his assassinated mother and ruled for an erratic five years until a stunning election defeat in 1989.
"This family is like your Kennedys. One after another they have fallen," said government employee Rajesh Kumar, waiting in line to honor Gandhi lying in state. "What will happen to our country?"
For many Indians - already tossed by months of heightened religious strife, economic crisis, and government paralysis - Gandhi's death compounds the sense of tumult. It leaves the country adrift at the time of an election that many observers say could chart a new course for the world's largest democracy.
The three-day election, which began Monday and was interspersed by violence and fraud in the north, has been postponed. It is scheduled to be completed June 12 and 15. The government has set up a special commission to investigate the assassination.
According to polls, the Congress (I) Party, the centrist repository of Nehru's vision of a secular and casteless India, was poised to dominate but not sweep the vote and catapult Gandhi back into power. Gandhi, who once commanded a huge parliamentary majority, resigned in 1989 after a humiliating setback at the hands of V.P. Singh, his onetime lieutenant. Mr. Singh, whose government ruled for less than a year, is attempting a comeback with a power base of Muslims and lower-caste and casteless Hindus, tr a
ditional Congress vote banks.
A strong challenger to both is the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose appeal in this predominantly Hindu nation of more than 800 million people defies the traditional separation of state and religion.
"This will have a serious impact," said caretaker Prime Minister Chandra Shekar, who ruled with Gandhi's help for four months before a squabble ended the alliance and forced this poll.
"The passing on of a person like Rajiv Gandhi will have a severe impact, not just on the poll but also on the politics," he told the Monitor yesterday.
Most crucial in the near term will be the ability of the Congress Party - a centralised behemoth torn by factionalism and apparently rudderless without a Nehru or Gandhi - to stay intact, analysts say. If the party can maintain a united front in coming days, it could lure back former members who defected in a dispute over Gandhi's leadership, says analyst S. Nihal Singh.
Two interim compromise candidates are Congress dean Narasimha Rao and veteran politician N. D. Tiwari. Congress could also reap a sympathy vote such as that which earned Gandhi a huge parliamentary majority in the 1984 poll after his mother's murder.
If Congress splinters, the main beneficiary will be the BJP. It has gained support by pushing to replace a controversial Muslim mosque with a Hindu temple and to end protections for Muslims and other minorities. "Every Congressman has ambition," Mr. Nihal Singh says. "Before they were blocked by the dynasty. This is the first time since independence that there's a clear field."
In addition to such uncertainties, Indians are bewildered by Gandhi's murder, for which no group has yet claimed responsibility. Speculation focuses on Sri Lankan Tamil separatists, who were once sheltered in the state of Tamil Nadu, where Gandhi was killed as he walked to a speaker's platform at a rally 30 miles south of Madras. At least 20 others died.
Gandhi turned against the separatists (who demand a homeland in northeast Sri Lanka) when the main group, the Tamil Tigers, refused to disarm under a 1987 peace accord between New Delhi and Colombo. The Tigers locked more than 50,000 Indian troops in guerrilla war before the Army was withdrawn in 1989.
Attention also has focused on Sikh militants who blame Gandhi for not stopping the brutal anti-Sikh rioting that followed his mother's murder. She was killed by two Sikh bodyguards to avenge the 1984 Army assault on the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest shrine, to flush out militants demanding independence.
Indian officials appealed for calm as the main cities were fearful and tense. "I won't drive my taxi this week. I won't take the risk," said Sikh driver Harjinder Singh, who recalled when mobs dragged Sikhs out of their cars and killed them in the 1984 riots.
Rajiv Gandhi's five years in power were a saga of high expectations and failed promises. On the international stage, he enjoyed a reputation as a third-world statesman. But at home, despite his pedigree, Gandhi often was out of place and uneasy in the hurly-burly of Indian politics.
After becoming prime minister in 1984, Gandhi, a computer buff, electrified Indians with talk of liberalizing the socialist economy, streamlining the bureaucracy, and lifting India "into the 21st century," his catch phrase.
He signed peace accords with moderate Sikhs in Punjab and separatists in northeastern As-sam, raising hopes that India would finally put behind it years of ethnic and religious infighting.
However, that optimism dissolved as separatist violence spiraled. Gandhi's aloof style disenchanted many old-time Congress leaders and set him apart from the masses in this largely rural country. Introverted India was also skeptical of his Italian wife, Sonia, whom he met while studying at Cambridge University.
Gandhi's economic reforms were stalled by an intransigent bureaucracy and his political inexperience. The opening of India's regulated and protected market to foreign investment stirred resentment among powerful businessmen long comfortable with profitable monopolies.
His political fortunes sagged further with a scandal over the purchase of Swedish artillery and corruption charges, which helped boost ally-turned-rival, V. P. Singh into office.
Last fall, Singh raised a political storm with his plan to reserve prestigious government jobs for lower caste Indians. His ally, Chandra Shekar, split and joined forces with Congress to gain the prime ministership. Four months later, Chandra Shekar fell.