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Some disillusionment sets in as India's Gandhi reaches 2-year mark

When Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister two years ago, he was an inexperienced politician who, nevertheless, inspired tremendous hope and expectations for a new and dynamic era in India's history. Today, disillusionment seems to be supplanting this euphoria -- which, observers acknowledge, was partly due to exaggerated public expectations as well as Mr. Gandhi's own early pronouncements. Many Indian and Western analysts blame Gandhi for displaying a lack of political will in failing to carry through major inititatives that formed the keystone of his government.

``The prime minister completes his two-year term without making a political impact on India,'' says political analyst Bhabani Sen Gupta of the Center of Policy Research. ``In fact, you'll find him on the defensive across the board on almost all of his key policy goals -- a government that works faster, good relations with neighbors, a conciliatory approach in domestic politics, andeconomic liberalization.''

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While many critics say that two years may be too short a period to show concrete results, they ask whether Gandhi will be able to implement significant change in his last three years in office. They cite obstacles such as: opposition within his government and political party, the Congress (I), or vested interests in business and industry. ``His heart is in the right place,'' a businessman says. But many analysts are concerned that Gandhi's indecisiveness and lack of coherent solutions to pressing problems are pushing India toward more political turmoil and economic deterioration.

The respected India Today weekly commented recently: ``Rajiv Gandhi's government is getting a reputation for acting first and thinking later. . . . People today need to believe in the government's ability to handle things right.''

Gandhi's first avowed task -- to strengthen national unity -- has been a failure, so far. Violence stemming from the Sikh push for autonomy led to the assassination of Gandhi's mother and former prime minister Indira Gandhi on Oct. 31, 1984. The deepening Sikh-Hindu conflict, analysts say, is Gandhi's greatest political setback. The July 1985 peace accord he signed with moderate Sikh leadership is all but forgotten today.

``Lacking a political solution, the government now wants to concentrate on law-and-order measures,'' a Western diplomat says. But Sikh extremism appears undiminished, despite Gandhi's assertions that ``terrorists are on the run.'' The Punjab situation has had major implications: the rise of Hindu revivalism and outbreaks of communal violence. It also has inspired other regional movements for greater autonomy.

Gandhi has had several Cabinet shuffles -- including a major one Oct. 22, in attempts to stop dissent in his party. ``The challenge that now faces Rajiv Gandhi is bigger and more complex than one of getting a proper Cabinet into shape. But he cannot even begin to address some of the issues until the right men are in the right places,'' India Today said recently.

Political pressures on Gandhi have also taken a toll on foreign policy matters. Ties with Pakistan, also a top priority, have seesawed. The main stumbling blocks -- India's assertions that Pakistan is building a nuclear bomb and aiding Sikh terrorists in Punjab -- have not been removed. Following September's Pan Am hijacking in Karachi, Gandhi said Pakistan ``had bungled'' the incident. Similarly, he had harsh words for Sri Lanka which he accused of double talk at a time when crucial negotiations were underway between Sri Lankan Tamils rebels and the government.

``There is a very large constituency in the country that believes Rajiv must return to Indira Gandhi's hard-line posture vis-`a-vis India's neighbors,'' says Sen Gupta.

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The decline in Gandhi's political fortunes does not bode well for his government's efforts to liberalize India's economy. Partly, the obstacles come from well-entrenched business interests that oppose his push for competitiveness and cost efficiency. Analysts also point to stodgy but influential politicians who uphold India's tradition of a socialist-style, planned economy.

Perhaps the most perceptible change in the last two years has been deregulation of industrial licensing procedures. The government has also pared down cumbersome tax laws and lowered duties on a range of imports. But there are signs that it is rethinking its liberalization programs. It has been reluctant to dismantle monopolies with low productivity and high production costs, or close down inefficient plants, because of the potential political impact. A rising balance-of-payments deficit has put import liberalization lower on the government's agenda.

``There is no one coherent approach to government,'' says a Bombay-based businessman. ``Each ministry has its own interests and cross-purposes which sometimes negate the intent of the policy directions.''

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