Waiting for Gandhi

November 10, 1990

India's problems have not been solved by the challenge to the doughty socialist, Chandra Shekhar, to form a minority government. Nor have they been ameliorated, or even postponed. Mr. Shekhar, who has never held government office, will realize a lifelong ambition to be prime minister.

That's nice. He controls one-tenth of the members of the lowehouse of parliament and will be kept in power and restrained by the Congress Party and its leader, Rajiv Gandhi. Mr. Gandhi, humiliated and dispatched from power in the election last November, will be the power behind the scene as long as he controls two-fifths of the members of parliament, and he will decide when an election is called and on what issue.

Meanwhile, the secular and Hindu leftist, Mr. Shekhar, must deal with virulent Hindu nationalism. It is picking fights with India's minority of 100 million Moslems, with the largely Islamic separatists in Kashmir, with the Sikh separatists in Punjab and with a stricken economy made worse by the oil shock. To deal with half these problems, Mr. Shekhar's old socialism is wrong, and to deal with the other half, his new opportunism is wrong.

The fallen Prime Minister V. P. Singh was right to try to restrain Hindu extremist aggression against Moslem shrines and to open the civil service to lower and middling Hindu castes, whether or not he adopted the best measures to further that aim. In letting him fall on these matters, Mr. Shekhar and, behind him, Mr. Gandhi, were not being true to their own heritage of secularism. That may return to haunt them.

Mr. Singh was also right on the economic crisis. He sought to free India of strangulation by regulation, and to open the economy to foreign investment in order to gain India's rightful share of the Asian economic miracle. Mr. Shekhar's old identification with protectionism and traditional production may endear him to some of India's industrialists, but offers no hope to the masses. With luck, Mr. Gandhi's wisdom will give Mr. Shekhar an excuse not to follow his own worst instincts.

Mr. Singh served 11 months in power. Few would give Mr. Shekhar so long. Other than his own resentment at the political deal that made Mr. Singh instead of himself the coalition prime minister last December, there is little reason to favor him now. The main political fact is that Mr. Gandhi and the Congress Party need longer to get their act in order. They should allow a greater interval before imposing another election on India's 500 million voters. Until then, disarray and decentralization are likely to prevail.

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