A Death in India

May 22, 1991

The motive for terrorism in Tamil Nadu may stem from ethnic violence in Sri Lanka, a foreign country where Tamils are the minority and where Rajiv Gandhi sent Indian troops. It is not the basis of violence in Kashmir, where many seek independence; in Punjab, where Sikhs seek autonomy; or across the northern Hindi Belt, where parties are at each other's throats and tensions are fierce among Hindu castes and with Moslems.

The bomb at Sriperumpudur in Tamil Nadu killed more than Rajiv Gandhi, aged 46, grandson of the nation's founder, son of its powerful leader, English-educated airline pilot with an Italian wife, the non-political son, accidental man of destiny, former prime minister and potential savior of the nation. This bomb may have killed India.

Not India the eternal, cradle of civilizations, mother of religions, subcontinent of peoples and cultures. That India endures. But this terrible bomb may have shattered what was left of India the 44-year-old modern state, world's largest democracy, secular and pluralist. Many already thought that India was succumbing to poverty and population explosion, to corruption and cynicism, to religious extremism and social hatreds.

In the election so punctuated, Rajiv Gandhi's Congress Party was probably heading back to power. The collection of Hindu nationalists and socialists in the prime ministries of V. P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar had failed to quell India's fires. In the five years between the assassination of his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and his own defeat in 1989, Rajiv Gandhi had been a prime minister with a grasp of what ailed India and a vision of modernity to replace what had failed in the vision of his grandfather, Jawarharlal Nehru. But he had not rid his party of ossified corruption. It had earned a time in the wilderness.

No man is essential to a democracy, and the crisis will test whether India still is one. If so, the election will proceed normally and the Congress members of parliament will elect a leader and President Ramaswamy Venkataraman will ask the leader of the party winning the most seats to form a government and all Indians will accept the outcome. But whether that form is followed or not, India is losing ground to separatisms and hatreds that at the least promise a weakened federalism. Rajiv Gandhi was a man of promise who might have dealt with divisiveness, and for that he died.

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