IN the darkness of a mid-August night 44 years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru described India's new-won independence as a ``tryst with destiny.'' The first prime minister's words ring truer than ever in the wake of his grandson's assassination. Another tryst with destiny - unanticipated and unwelcome - faces 880 million Indians today. Clearly, the shape of this destiny cannot be entrusted to our country's political leaders alone.
The long-dominant Congress (I) party discredited itself by hastily naming Rajiv Gandhi's widow, Sonia, as its new leader. The grieving Mrs. Gandhi exhibited grace and wisdom in declining. The same cannot be said of the politicians who made an offer which impugns their judgment as well as willingness and ability to publicly assume the mantle of leadership. The timing and manner of the Congress's decision is symptomatic of a wider political and moral bankruptcy among India's political leaders.
The Janata Dal, led by prime-minister-for-a-year Vishwanath Pratap Singh, has displayed its share of political ineptitude and expediency. His simplistic, if well-intentioned, plan to ``reserve'' government jobs for millions of marginalized ``low castes'' and minorities is partly to blame for widening the rifts among Indians.
A third key party is the pro-Hindu Bharatiyta Janata Party (BJP). The potential for mass appeal cannot be denied, given a population that is more than 80 percent Hindu. But the BJP's strength is based on weakness - on economic frustration and social divisions - rather than on concrete plans for progress.
In the wake of any crisis, many Indians are quick to point out that ``India's is a long history, a strong culture; it will survive and overcome whatever fate chooses to cast at it.'' But, given the trend in recent years, not all our countrymen and women might agree: In hamlets around the country, some villagers wonder if military rule might not be better; others just want a water pump or to learn how to read and write. They have little time to think about ``India'' and its glorious past or its self-appo inted world role - a favorite pastime of the politicians.
In fact, more than a century after Queen Victoria declared herself empress, India remains almost more an idea than an actuality. The end of a dynasty that symbolized the elusive sense of nationhood and unity leaves us facing a void: Will we fill it with hallow imitations of the past? Or will we view this as an opportunity to evolve more relevant icons and realities?
For any Indian leader to attain national acceptance or even a recognition that cuts across regional, religious, ethnic, and linguistic lines is a tall order. But it is possible with renewed commitment, less cynicism, and more empathy among the country's numerous politicians and the growing elite and middle-classes.
To start, more than lip-service must be paid to social issues and constitutional pledges of freedom and equality. Literacy, a practical education system, job opportunities, and the availability of family planning are all intertwined.
Each party must consider how to deal with security issues and regional secessionist movements. Loosening central control and adopting a practical federalism that gives states a real say in their governance would help. Whether holding on to a state forcibly is worth the price of in human life or political capital is a question that must be faced squarely.
In addition, the civil service's sense of pride and professionalism is in sore need of restoration. On the economic side, there is ample scope for growth away from a lumbering, state-dominated system - to a more efficient, market-oriented one. Similarly protection and restoration of the natural environment is another key priority. But for any of these issues to be effectively tackled, government and business leaders must root out the old culture of nepotism, personality cults, hierarchy, and corruption.
This list may seem daunting - but it is not beyond the human or political capacities of Indians. The country has a lot going for it: a vast pool of labor and natural resources; a large number of technically proficient men and women; an entrepreneurial spark that glimmers even in the poorest regions; an active, if partisan, press; and, a tested confidence in the democratic pillars of free expression and elections.
Indians have already experienced the power of the ballot box: In 1977, voters unceremoniously shooed out Mrs. Gandhi after her notorious emergency rule. In 1989, disaffected with her son's performance, they withdrew their ``sympathy support'' and boosted a virtual unknown into office. When the election resumes in June, they will be ready to have their say again.
Indians are ready for and deserve a system that rewards merit, independence of thought, and accountability - true democracy, in other words. Can the same be said of our political leaders?