India Faces Its Future

May 25, 1991

India is on hold. The refusal of the widow Sonia Gandhi to accept titular leadership of the Congress Party forces it to choose new leadership. Postponement of the rest of the election until mid-June gives the party time. But that creaky political machine may not be up to the job.

The Congress Party is a century old and founded the modern Indian state, now 844 million diverse people, as a tolerant and pluralist democracy. And yet the party has been at the top little more than a Nehru-Gandhi family dynasty. That weakness propelled Rajiv Gandhi into a political life he did not want, and into a prime ministry for which he was not prepared after his mother Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984.

Now his own assassination compels the party to be a great talent pool. His own children are students, aged 20 and 21, too young to serve now even if they should later on. The party leadership's choice of his grieving Italian widow, Sonia, to be a figurehead to win the sympathy vote and then perhaps fade away, was an act of desperation. She knew better than to allow herself to be used that in that fashion.

Congress as it stands is inadequate. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty aside, it is a bunch of jealous, corrupt or provincial politicians, some of them impressive, who keep each other from getting too big. But there is no alternative. The Janata Dal and Janata Dal-Socialist parties that provided the past two minority prime ministries are collections of renegades who left Congress for reasons of ambition or personality. The Bharatiya Janata Party, the main ideological rival, is a narrowly focused beacon of Hindu zeal. Its success would alienate India's 110 million Muslims, its Sikhs and other minorities, and probably provoke moves to dismember India into new and weak countries.

In a healthy and large democracy, no individual or family is indispensable. India and its Congress Party must face this challenge that was too long avoided. It is as though the unknown assassins wanted India to come of age. And yet evidence implies a motive far smaller, flowing from Tamil nationalist grievance.

That is just one of the centrifugal forces threatening to tear India apart with which the next government must deal. The president, Ramaswamy Venkataraman, is an old Congress time-server who is called to new heights of statesmanship and has been consulting on the unlikely possibility of an all-party government.

Fortunately, India is not without resources. Its political ranks include brilliant and able people. Its powerful army has always respected civilian authority. Its heritage includes the majestic vision of Jawaharlal Nehru for a modern and pluralistic state encompassing all its richness of civilization, as well as the reality falling short. India must summon up all of its strengths now.

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