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The Gandhi comeback

Indira Gandhi's stunning return to leadership is a tribute to her brilliance and resilience as a politician. Discredited in national elections only two years ago, she has once again proved to be the dominant national figure in Indian politics. As the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, she seems to retain a mystique and stature that places her well above her opponents, especially when the opponents have not demonstrated their own capacity for leadership. India may have misgivings about Mrs. Gandhi's autocratic ways, but they nonetheless seem to feel that, with her at the helm, India is at least being led.

This does not, however, remove pangs of concern, in India and abroad, over her election and what this spells for the world's biggest democracy. Mrs. Gandhi incurred widespread opprobrium for the authoritarianism she imposed on her country for 20 months in 1975-1977 under the guise of an "evergency." the question now is whether, as prime minister again, she will revert to the abuses of power and suppression of rights which took place during that bleak period or whether, having been tossed out of power once, she will have learned her lesson and choose a more moderate and democratic course. The election campaign itself was not encouraging in this respect. Mrs. Gandhi defended her ruthless emergency rule as a "necessary shock treatment" and spoke of completing the "unfinished revolution." All along, too, she has kept her son Sanjay, still in trouble with the law for allegedly corrupt dealings, to the fore as a close adviser.

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Given her overwhelming electoral mandate, Mrs. Gandhi no doubt feels she is in a position to impose a strong central authority once again. Indeed one cannot ignore that Indian voters returned her to power with such enthusiasm precisely because they are fed up with squabbling coalition politics, civil disorders, inflation, and labor unrest. It is not insignificant that she made strong gains among the urban middle class, who do want the "trains to run on time," as the saying goes.

Yet bringing a firm hand to India's enormous economic problems need not be accompanied by an erosion of freedoms, which in the past ran the gamut from muzzling the press to heavy-handed methods in implementing a sterilization program. In the long run India's capacity for democracy will continue to be the strong glue which keeps India united in the face of the tensions and conflicts arising from the existence of so many diverse religions, ethnic communities, and castes. To nourish this strength of democratic rule, even while fostering the self-discipline needed to make society function, is the goal which we would have Mrs. Gandhi vigorously pursue.

One other major question which will concern India's Western friends in the wake of the Gandhi victory is the nation's future foreign policy, espeicially its position on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In light of India's close ties with the Soviet Union, there would seem to be reason for concern. It might be remembered, however, that it was Mrs. Gandhi herself who, although she cemented India's ties with Moscow, nonetheless began to edge away from the Soviet Union and toward China -- a policy carried on by her successor, Morarji Desai. India will no doubt continue to remonstrate about US military aid to Pakistan but its foremost goal has been to keep all the great powers out of South Asia, including the USSR. Mrs. Gandhi may not shout it from the housetops , but it is hard to conceive she will not be worried about an increasing Soviet military presence on the borders of the subcontinent.

In sum, a new political period begins in India at a time of growing ferment throughout the whole vast region. It will call for leadership of the highest order. Mrs. Gandhi's remarkable comeback will be watched with fascination and hope -- but not without concern.


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