Dynasty or democracy in India?
A strong leitmotif in Indira Gandhi's politics ever since she was re-elected Prime Minister in 1980 was her insistence that her son--Sanjay, until his death in an airplane crash that year, and then Rajiv--succeed her. The game was expected to be rough and to last until the fourth quarter, but the two Skih assassins ordained a sudden-death finish.
Most of India accepted Rajiv's accession as inevitable. With characteristic astuteness, Indira had insured that there was no one of sufficient stature in the Congress Party to challenge him, or even be perceived as a challenger. So the mantle fell on the 40-year-old Rajiv, who has no administrative experience and who put in a political apprenticeship of just over three years.
As it happened, Rajiv, most of the government's senior ministers and President Zail Singh were out of New Delhi on the day of the assassination. But even before Rajiv returned to the capital, the reigning coterie had chosen him as the successor. Indira was like a mafia godfather. The moment she died, consiglieres and capos, led by Vice President R. Venkataraman, stepped forward, unbeckoned and unprompted, to uphold the son's right to the clan's power and authority. That moment of posthumous glory for Indira was also the prelude to a terrible tragedy.
Because Indira believed that she derived power from the masses, she did not care who was in her party so long as they pledged absolute fealty to her. The party organization had been the work of Sanjay, who was essentially a political condottiere. The Congress-I Party ("I" for "Indira") he put together in 1978, after his mother resigned from the Indian National Congress, included gangs of thugs, who enjoyed kicking a political adversary in the teeth. So when Indira was shot, this cadre decided to wreak vengeance on the Sikh minority. For three days hoodlums ruled the streets of Delhi; their orgy of violence left nearly 1,000 dead.
When the rioting was in proress there was neither law nor order in India's capital. The police, having been instructed long ago not to cross the local Congress bosses, looked the other way as the goons hunted for and killed Sikhs. Their depredations were tantamount to a pogrom. So widespread was the lawlessness and so helpless did citizens feel that when the new Prime Minister restored minimal order, he was widely acclaimed for his calm firmness.
The question that remains unanswered, however, is whether Rajiv Gandhi's accession would have been so unhesitatingly accepted if there had been no riots. Moreover, had President Singh, himself a Sikh, shown the slightest reluctance about upholding Rajiv's claim, the Congress's goon squads would have stormed the presidential palace. As it was, the presidential motorcade was stoned on its way to the hospital where Indira died.
Where do India and Rajiv go from here? After Jawaharlal Nehru's death, India's U.N. ambassador V.K. Krishna Menon was asked a similar question, and he answered: "After Nehru, Nehru; meaning thereby the democratic processes." Unfortunately the same cannot be said about Indira Gandhi. Her legacy is far more dubious. Rajiv must reap what his mother sowed.
In a way she fell victim to the excesses of her own partisan politics. She dragged her feet for so long on the question of greater autonomy for Punjab that the Indian people no longer troubled to distinguish between extremist and moderate Sikhs. She failed to reach a political compromise with the Akali Dal (the Sikhs' political party) and then ordered the Indian Army to storn the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the holiest of Sikh shrines, to remove the terrorists ensconced there. That decision was a terrible mistake, whatever the provocation and justification for it. The Sikhs became totally alienated from the central government.
Her critics discerned an ulterior motive in her handling of the Punjab problem. They accused her of betraying her father's legacy of a secular state. During the elections for the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly in June 1983, she injected a strident anti-Moslem note into her rhetoric. When, after six months of dissembling, she used the army in Punjab, her party extolled her as a decisive leader and, by implication, a savior of the Hindus. As a result, right-wing Hindus were emboldened to talk about forming a Hindu state, and many Congress Party members agreed with the idea privately. The charge of "minority intransigence," long applied to the Moslems, has been extended to the Sikhs as well. The Hindus say their tolerance was mistaken for weakness, both by the Moslems and by the Sikhs, and now they are paying the price for it.
Because Indira's politics unleashed old sectarian passions, India faces the challenge of restoring its commitment to secularism, which has never been robust. Only a secular India can be democratic; a Hindu India would be a totalitarian India.
Another major departure Indira Gandhi made from the liberal path was her frequent resort to coercion. She first tasted blood during the emergency, which lasted from June 1975 to January 1977. In one of her last interviews, she spelled out the justification for that authoritarian interlude: "I felt if the Congress government was thrown out, there would have been chaos and that we would not have increasing use of the army in domestic political disputes. For some years now, the armed forces have been regularly dispatched to put down insurgencies in northeastern India and later Punjab.
Because of her reliance on the army, Indira appointed complaisant generals. Last year the independent-minded Lieut. Gen. S.K. Sinha was denied the top command position he was in line for, and he chose to retire early. Senior officers find themselves drawn willy-nilly into intrigue and politicking. In the wake of the army deployment in Punjab, another ominous precedent was set when Lieut. Gen. R.S. Dayal was appointed to the Governor's Council as adviser in charge of home and security affairs. Following the communal rioting this month, a retired director general of the Border Security Force, a
paramilitary organization, was appointed Officer on Special Duty in the Union Home Ministry. In addition, the task of guarding the new Prime Minister has been temporarily handed over to the army. It is only natural that the generals might be entertaining notions that the army is indispensable. The next step is for them to start thinking about the dispensability of civilians in government.
For now, Rajiv has been given the benefit of the doubt because of the opposition's ineffectuality and disunity, and because the establishment (especially in big business and the bureaucracy) perceives him as the best hope for a continuation of Indira's style of politics.
But he is confronted with a Hobson's choice. By temperament he should be impelled to purge the Congress Party of Sanjay's riffraff, but the instinct for survival warns him to rest on the safe and familiar arm of Indira loyalists. Already he has failed one test by not ordering a judicial probe into charges that Congress Party members abetted the recent communal violence in Delhi and other parts of the country.
What frightens knowledgeable Indians is Rajiv's cabal. These shadowy figures, who had been content to operate from behind Indira's sari, have insinuated themselves into respectable government positions. Rajiv himself was brought up in an environment of political unaccountability and a blurring of the distinction between government and party. His "boys" have had no experience of political give and take, and for them, constitutional niceties and democratic norms are merely theoretical, hence dispensable. They have the instincts of a Charles Colson and the ingenuity of a Howard Hunt.
Rajiv's problems can only increase. Indira had reduced the Congress Party to an instrument of her dynastic ambitions. Now that her objective has been so fortuitously achieved, Rajiv finds himself saddled with a badly divided party organization. Indira assiduously encouraged factionalism so that she would always be the final and only arbiter and dispenser of "justice." Those divisions served to extract loyalty from her followers, but they will be counterproductive in the elections scheduled for December 24. Rajiv's boys hope for a kind of tearful election, in which the people blindly entrust the destiny of this nation of 700 million to their candidate simply because his mother was killed by two madmen. They are clearly underestimating the average Indian voter, who is no fool.