End of Indian Dynasty Leaves Nation Adrift Slain Rajiv Gandhi Was Expected to Lead His Party Back to Power

Article excerpt

INDIA is reeling after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, a scion of the political family that has anchored the country since independence.

A massive bomb explosion at a Tuesday election rally in southern India ended Mr. Gandhi's reluctant political odyssey as head of the dynasty of his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and his mother, former premier Indira Gandhi.

Gandhi, at one time a contented airline pilot, was thrust hesitantly into politics after the 1980 death of his younger brother, Sanjay, Mrs. Gandhi's political heir apparent. Four years later, Rajiv succeeded his assassinated mother and ruled for an erratic five years until a stunning election defeat in 1989.

"This family is like your Kennedys. One after another they have fallen," said government employee Rajesh Kumar, waiting in line to honor Gandhi lying in state. "What will happen to our country?"

For many Indians - already tossed by months of heightened religious strife, economic crisis, and government paralysis - Gandhi's death compounds the sense of tumult. It leaves the country adrift at the time of an election that many observers say could chart a new course for the world's largest democracy.

The three-day election, which began Monday and was interspersed by violence and fraud in the north, has been postponed. It is scheduled to be completed June 12 and 15. The government has set up a special commission to investigate the assassination.

According to polls, the Congress (I) Party, the centrist repository of Nehru's vision of a secular and casteless India, was poised to dominate but not sweep the vote and catapult Gandhi back into power. Gandhi, who once commanded a huge parliamentary majority, resigned in 1989 after a humiliating setback at the hands of V.P. Singh, his onetime lieutenant. Mr. Singh, whose government ruled for less than a year, is attempting a comeback with a power base of Muslims and lower-caste and casteless Hindus, tra ditional Congress vote banks.

A strong challenger to both is the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose appeal in this predominantly Hindu nation of more than 800 million people defies the traditional separation of state and religion.

"This will have a serious impact," said caretaker Prime Minister Chandra Shekar, who ruled with Gandhi's help for four months before a squabble ended the alliance and forced this poll.

"The passing on of a person like Rajiv Gandhi will have a severe impact, not just on the poll but also on the politics," he told the Monitor yesterday.

Most crucial in the near term will be the ability of the Congress Party - a centralised behemoth torn by factionalism and apparently rudderless without a Nehru or Gandhi - to stay intact, analysts say. If the party can maintain a united front in coming days, it could lure back former members who defected in a dispute over Gandhi's leadership, says analyst S. Nihal Singh.

Two interim compromise candidates are Congress dean Narasimha Rao and veteran politician N. D. Tiwari. Congress could also reap a sympathy vote such as that which earned Gandhi a huge parliamentary majority in the 1984 poll after his mother's murder.

If Congress splinters, the main beneficiary will be the BJP. It has gained support by pushing to replace a controversial Muslim mosque with a Hindu temple and to end protections for Muslims and other minorities. …

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