India and the Limits of Democracy

May 24, 1991|By JONATHAN POWER

London. -- In his great novel, ''Passage to India,'' E.M. Forster wrote of India as ''swelling here, shrinking there, like some low but indestructible force of life.'' It was probably not a fair description, even in the old days of the British raj, but it is one that many observers will subconsciously resort to as they contemplate the murder of former the prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi.

Yes, India will survive and outlive one terrible murder, but not, as the caricature would have it, as an inert mass simply swallowing the memory into the dark hole of its overwhelming numbers and unfathomable poverty.

India, if it ever was, is no longer like that. Its 500 million voters are as sophisticated as the members of any democracy anywhere -- not good on details, but quite able to get the sense and drift of major events when things go badly wrong.

This is why Mr. Gandhi's mother, Indira, got the boot in 1977. Her overwhelming arrogance had led her to make two fundamental mistakes -- the state of emergency that for a while suspended democracy, and her male-sterilization campaign (actually the brain child of her other son, Sanjay, who died acrobating in a small plane).

This, too, is one major reason why Rajiv Gandhi lost the premiership 18 months ago, when he mistakenly thought the voters would not pay attention to allegations that high members of his entourage had profited from kickbacks from Bofors, the Swedish arms manufacturer.

India's tragedy is that, like many other democracies, it has not always got the direction and policies from the top that its democratic impulses deserve. When the politicians don't give an honest and inspiring lead, the electorate may say no; saying yes is more difficult, without an idea what they are supposed to be saying yes to.

George Kennan once observed that America remained unnecessarily hostile toward the Soviet Union for so long because the need to maintain popular appeal in such a large and diverse country pushed would-be office holders to opt for ''lowest common denominator'' politics. Antipathy to communism and all its works was an easy sell.

India has suffered a similar syndrome. Substitute Pakistan for Russia and Islam for communism and you have it. Sadly, Rajiv Gandhi fell into this populist trap. He had the chance, taking over in a great wave of sympathy after the assassination of his mother, to weave a new understanding with Pakistan. But step by step, attempting to placate radical Hindu nationalism, he edged away from the big decisions -- flexibility over the disputed border state of Kashmir and reduced military spending that would have made a rapprochement possible.

Likewise, in the Punjab his inability to stand up to the Hindu LTC backlash stopped him carrying through an already negotiated peace settlement with the disaffected Sikhs. Now both the Punjab and Kashmir boil away, one threatening to tear India's army apart, the other to bring closer the day of another destructive war with Pakistan, one that could all too easily go nuclear.

Mr. Gandhi, who began his days in power seeing the big picture, as his mother never really did, ended up partly like her, a mere political tactician, but less like her in that he seemed to lose his political skirmishes too often.

We still don't know if the bomb that killed him was the work of Tamil terrorists, but it is quite possible. Mr. Gandhi, leader of India's largest political party, recently pushed minority Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar to dismiss the government of the southern state of Tamil Nadu on the grounds that its government was helping the Tamil Tiger guerrillas, who are fighting for a separate state in nearby Sri Lanka. But it looked like a move made principally for the not very honorable aim of enabling his Congress Party to return to power in a state election.

The political class in India appears to work on the assumption that the electorate will be disaffected if it steps toward the high ground. It persists in believing that voters will never agree to radical policies necessary to diffuse Hindu-Muslim and regional tensions, and to restore a crippled economy. But with two Gandhis murdered, the negative politics of maneuver has reached a dead end.

Mr. Gandhi's death probably spells the demise of old Congress party's grip on India; Sonia Gandhi's designation as its head -- which she declined -- suggested utter desperation. India now has a chance to reshape its politics. It needs new leaders who really believe -- and act as if they believe -- they know how to release the immense creative energies of this half-awake giant and make it what it could be, the greatest economic growth story of Asia and a vibrant, constructive democracy.

India, despite the poor witness of this election campaign, is anything but a ''low but indestructible form of life.'' One day, given the right prime minister, it will discover its worth.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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