At India's Helm

June 25, 1991

Durable, strong leadership is what India needs, but is not what India is getting. Circumstances and the Congress Party would not allow that.

P. V. Narasimha Rao, who was named prime minister and given four weeks to form a government, is 69, recently had a heart bypass operation, did not seek re-election to Parliament and must do so soon, has been loyal the late Prime Ministers Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, lacks a power base in the nation or Congress Party and offends no one. That he is also a capable veteran of important cabinet posts helps.

After the shock of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination on May 21 by a Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist, the Congress Party won 236 seats in a lower house of 511. To keep power and shut out the Hindu-extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (118 seats), Congress needs coalition support either from the leftist coalition of 55 or the National Front Alliance of former Prime Minister V. P. Singh (73). Neither is willing to form more than an issue-by-issue coalition with Congress, though neither wants the onus of forcing another election after the recent exercise attracted only 53 percent of the electorate.

The National Front Alliance, which consists of Congress defectors and should be a logical partner, is committed to dismantling the debilitating caste system, a cause alien to the Brahmin-led Congress Party. The leftists would retain statist enterprise from which Rajiv Gandhi was trying to unshackle India, a cause that a Congress government should pursue. So India is unlikely to get the sturdy reformist regime that a country staggering under $70 billion in debt needs.

Mr. Gandhi provoked this election in the belief that a frustrated nation was willing to welcome Congress, the normal ruling party, back from a richly deserved two years in the wilderness. Even in the shock of his assassination, the electorate proved extremely tentative about doing so.

In the leadership election after his death, Mr. Rao won on the implied promise of ill health and a short tenure. India is riven by caste dissension and ethnic separatism, as well as economic paralysis, from all of which it must liberate itself. India must produce new leaders soon.

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