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India unwrapped

The New Year gift of a not-so-new government which India gave itself is still in the unwrapping stage. The major policies have not all been made or let known; not all members of the central cabinet of ministers have been appointed. The loyal core of Mrs. Gandhi's support claims that, unlike the 1977-79 interlude of coalition politics, someone is in charge of the country and soon things will start moving. Others see the hand of her son Sanjay at the wheel and argue that the future cannot but be a re-run of a zig-zag past, the actors being the same, even if the tactics be different. India does not seem to have seen the last in its current series of political surprises.

The travails of the Indian majority, their nature and causes, are well known. What has kept the nation going, however, is the momentum gained in the initial decade or two of independence in three mutually supportive directions: federal unity, constitutional democracy, and economic development. Also, relative to the present, public life used to be cleaner.

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None of these, or all of them, could be sufficient to meet the age-old need for social change but they could be a steady help in the path to justice for all. So, unless there is to be a fascist or communist "correction" of course, prime ministerial prudence consists in strengthening these foundational gains. But a wise option need not be an easy one.

The present turbulence in the Northeast symbolizes the centrifugal pulls at the federal fabric. The answer is not to work the constitution more unitarily than its intention, and certainly not the use of force against agitators moved by the fear that they might become a minority in their own land, thanks to unauthorized settling over many years of people from across the international border with Bangladesh.

The guiding principle ought to be that the federating units should find full self-expression within the constitutional framework and not be smothered by its deliberate or unintended distortion.

Constitutional democracy in India has taken such knocks in recent years that those who understand politics look at politicians with a certain cynicism. One of Mrs. Gandhi's ministers is on record that opposition is desirable but not essential for democracy. The concept of a neutral civil service is at a discount, key positions in government and government companies being filled on the criterion of loyalty to the ruling party.

Several vacancies will arise this year in the Surpreme Court, the last bastion of constitutional democracy, and if these are to be used to create a "committed judiciary," there will be, as it happened earlier this decade, more clever, and therefore spineless, judges on the bench. Appointments to the judiciary up to the highest court should be on the basis of evaluation by peers and induction to it by seniority. There is no other way to keep politics out of the Indian judiciary.

The recent dismissal of nine opposition-controlled state governments, and the wooing over of a couple of others to join her party wholesale, have not exactly enhanced Mrs. Gandhi's constitutional credentials. To say that the previous government did much the same in similar circumstances is only partly true and may fit in with the Mosaic law, but it hardly squares with the democratic temper , much less with the federal principle.

All these and much more might be pleaded as the preparation for a radical socioeconomic transformation in keeping with Mrs. Gandhi's familiar promises. Presumably, the big plunge would be after the elections in several of the states this midsummer.

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For the present, however, the government has not got the expected grip on the economy. Prices rule high at an inflation rate of around 20 percent, industrial inputs like power continue to be erratic, the tendency of govcernment spending to overrun the revenue is unabated. There are reports that big industrialists and transnational corporations would be called in to help production. At the same time half a dozen commercial banks have been nationalized. This is in character for a party that hopes to lurch at will to the right and to the left and thus rule from the center.

The remedy to India's economic condition is of course production, but production of what, for and by whom? There are no clear official answers yet.

There is a certain continuity, often tenuous, in India's unfulfilled political tradition and economic wisdom. If. Mrs. Gandhi seeks to strenghten it , results should come with the help of people beyond her own party. should she try to bend its course, it might break without her succeeding.

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