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India's delegated democracy

Nothing so explains Indira Gandhi's unexpectedly decisive election victory as a social phenomenon of economically insecure voters seeking the political protection of a reputedly strong ruler. Those who tended to look upon the poll as part of a continuing process, unfolding the self-confidence of a people in their own struggles, have been proved wrong. Instead of a possible refinement of the 1977 verdict against the style and substance of personalized authority, there has occurred a diametric reversal of it.

How dramatic has been the swing in favor of Mrs. Gandhi? The arithmetic is not as flattering as the result. Three years ago her party (which is nothing without her) got 37 percent of the votes polled compared to nearly 43 percent now. But such are the quirks of the electoral system that its tally of seats soared from 153 to over 350 in a house of 542. It is then safe to infer that at least half the people are not for her. Which is not to say that they are clearly for someone or something else. And that about sums up the problem of Indian politics.

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Put simply, the opposition to Mrs. Gandhi has never been united, except in 1977 when her political magnetism was of little avail. That the opposition cannot hold together has something to do with its own concerns and credentials, which were a talking point for Mrs. Gandhi -- and will be, as long as the opposition is a jumble of ideological incompatibilities. Indeed, Mrs. Gandhi's Congress party itself used to be just that, until she outgrew ideology into charisma.

Pitted against a weak regime of quarreling old men at a time when prices and crime were rising, Mrs. Gandhi's slogan of a strong government was tempting. But what does it mean? Crime and corruption can be curbed by law if the enforcers come clean and are competent. And as for economic management, even in the short-term, strong-arm methods are not known to have been productive. Running an administration is harder than winning an election. So the search for wizards is on. But India is not Singapore.

The recent election is not without its saner aspects. As in 1977, the people have shown their readiness to disown politicians who twist or shirk their mandate. Even the poor evince a certain distaste for dubious politicians materializing during election time to preach principles. Political morality is increasingly identified with proven performance, though public memory does not always stretch as far back as necessary. Politics has been reduced, as never before, to crassly competitive commerce, and everyone knows it.

There are good people who believe that Mrs. Gandhi is wiser by the experience of her 11 years in power and redeemed by the post- 1977 agony and that she will be more benevolent than dictatorial. That may help her political longevity a little but where do the poor, or progress with justice, come in? On a visit to India at the close of the 1950s, Walter Lippmann asked himself, in some bewilderment, if "the gigantic economic revolution can be carried out by the parliamentary politicians and civil servants without the discipline and the dynamism of an organized mass movement." Those were Nehru's confident years.

The Communists apart, the parties in opposition to Mrs. Gandhi are less than authentic in terms of the political, intellectual, and moral tradition of India represented, in differing ways, by leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, and Jayaprakash Narayan. To organize the Indian people politically, preserving and promoting the values of this tradition, is the neglected function of Indian politics.

Political freedom has awakened economic and social aspirations which can be fulfilled only by enlarging it, and not by restricting it as Mrs. Gandhi tried and probably believes. Political liberalism must sustain economic radicalism. This is a constructive task needing people's participation in decentralized economic and political processes and the building up of a collective, ideologically developed and cohesive leadership.

Meanwhile, the most one may hope is that Mrs. Gandhi's second term of trial will be without the historic errors of her first.


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