WORLD

Voting to renew a dynasty

Ross Laver January 7 1985
WORLD

Voting to renew a dynasty

Ross Laver January 7 1985

Voting to renew a dynasty

WORLD

Ross Laver

The campaign was hectic, disorderly, at times even violent. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, a political neophyte catapulted to power by the assassination of his mother, Indira, on Oct. 31, traversed the nation at a gruelling pace, visiting as many as 17 towns and villages in a single 16-hour day. For their part, India’s splintered opposition parties portrayed the vote as a referendum on the rule of Indira Gandhi’s Congress (I) Party—the I stands for Indira —which under her leadership had become an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian political machine. But the outcome of last week’s general election in the world’s most populous democracy—the eighth since India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947—was never in doubt. At week’s end Rajiv Gandhi, grandson of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, appeared to be headed for a commanding victory as voters rallied to him in a powerful show of national unity.

As election officials tallied ballots, it was less clear whether Gandhi’s mandate heralded an era of political stabil-

ity. In an effort to cash in on the sympathy generated by his mother’s death at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards, Gandhi was careful throughout the six-week campaign to avoid detailed discussion of issues. Instead, the 40-year-old former airline pilot appealed to the voters for

support in the face of unspecified domestic and foreign threats. He also promised to “improve the quality of service to the people” by rooting out inefficiency and corruption in government. Yet India’s 380 million voters seemed less concerned with Rajiv Gandhi’s vague political agenda than with ensuring the continuation of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Said Raj ni Kothari, professor of political science at Delhi University: “The people are not expecting miracles. They just hope things will be a little better. ‘Here is a new man with no past,’ they were saying, ‘let us give him a chance.’ ”

At the same time, the Congress Party victory also owed much to the opposition’s disarray. Before Indira Gandhi’s assassination there were signs that India’s notoriously fragmented opposition forces—there are at least a dozen major parties—were beginning to pull together, united in dissatisfaction with the 66year-old prime minister’s autocratic style. Some analysts questioned whether the elections would be held on schedule or, if they were, whether Congress would be able to retain a workable majority in the 544-seat Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament. But Indira

Gandhi’s death robbed her opponents of the one issue with which they expected to galvanize public support. Lacking a common target, the opposition failed to agree on a national slate of candidates, splitting its vote in most constituencies and ensuring a Congress majority.

While the opposition feuded, Rajiv Gandhi moved quickly to put his personal stamp on the ruling party. Once nicknamed “Mr. Clean” because of his reputation for honesty and his apparent disdain for power politics, the soft-spoken prime minister launched his campaign by dismissing 83 of Congress’s 348 sitting parliamentarians, a clear attempt to purge the party of corrupt or unsavory members and bring in new talent.

Among those denied nominations were several followers of his late younger brother, the flamboyant Sanjay, who was killed in an air crash in 1980, and two New Delhi politicians widely suspected of instigating anti-Sikh riots in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. But the reform bid threatened to create a backlash when former Congress secretary general A.R. Antulay, who was convicted in 1982 on extortion charges, urged his supporters to oppose Congress candidates.

The government staggered polling over three days to enable the police and security forces to move from one district to another and contain violence. But by week’s end about 25 people had been killed and 200 injured in scattered outbursts of violence. Among the victims: Uma Shankar Reddy, a politician in the Andhra Pradesh state assembly who was ambushed and shot in apparent revenge for the killing of a rival. Another political activist was beaten to death in southern Kerala state. Still, a spokesman for the India election commission said that the death toll was less than expected. Said M. K. Ganesan: “Considering what has happened in India this year—Hindu-Moslem riots, the murder of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and anti-Sikh riots that followed— I think the election has passed off peacefully.”

The election commission had to grapple with numerous other charges of voting irregularities. Acting on reports that partisan thugs had seized voting booths and stuffed ballot boxes, the commission ordered new votes at about 176 polling stations across the country. Still, the commission dismissed a complaint by Maneka Gandhi, the prime minister’s estranged sister-in-law and his only declared opponent in his impoverished constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh state, that her supporters had been attacked by Congress workers while trying to vote. Declared senior civil servant G.D. Mehrotra: “They [Menaka Gandhi’s supporters] are talking like this because they realize their

candidate stands no chance. If you saw the upsurge here in favor of Rajiv there would be little doubt of his victory.”

The new prime minister has provided few indications of the direction in which he plans to steer India. Although he continues to use the socialist rhetoric favored by his mother, most observers say that he is less dedicated to the ideology of public ownership. Indeed, in his first policy statement after gaining power he promised to cut red tape and to speed up the introduction of new technology. Later, he slashed import duties on computers, an action applauded by business groups as a first major step toward liberalizing the highly controlled Indian economy. Said Gandhi: “We are tired of being called a developing country. It is time to prepare the country for the next century.” Added Orville Freeman, head of a delegation of U.S. investors: “Twenty years ago we believed that the Indian government was anti-business. Now there has been a great change.”

There is less likelihood of a shift in India’s foreign policy. Apart from the fact that he has an Italian wife and studied engineering in England, there is no evidence that Gandhi has ever taken an interest in foreign affairs. Most diplomats contend that India will remain officially nonaligned, tilting more toward Moscow than Washington. Still, he may also pursue friendlier relations with the West and with neighboring Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Throughout the election campaign Gandhi projected himself as the champion of India’s Hindu majority and declared that destabilizing forces threaten to weaken India’s security. Such rhetoric complicates any outreach to Moslem Pakistan and the first item on Gandhi’s domestic agenda: an initiative to resolve the Sikh crisis in the Punjab. That state remains under military rule six months after the army was deployed to crush Sikh insurgents, an action that led to Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Elections were not held in the Punjab or in the equally troubled northeast state of Assam.

Opposition candidates tried repeatedly—but unsuccessfully—to link Rajiv Gandhi to the Sikh insurrection and its consequences. Indeed, as his mother’s closest confidant, he was deeply implicated in the failure to satisfy Sikh demands for greater autonomy. And he shared in the decision to send in the troops. But for the Indian masses, Rajiv Gandhi offered the best of all possible options—a blood line to proven leadership and an unstained political ledger, promising a future of greater prosperity and stability. For the man without a past, the future begins this week.

Eric Silver