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INDIA'S LEADERSHIP CRISIS. Gandhi under fire for political failures, impetuous style

Rajiv Gandhi is an embattled figure. His country is beset by domestic strife and border tensions. He faces defiance in the bureaucracy and dissatisfaction within his political party. The Indian prime minister appears farther away from solutions than when he took office in October 1984.

For the first time, Mr. Gandhi faces a barrage of criticism not only for a perceived lack of credibility but also for what is viewed as the petulant way in which he has taken recent decisions. Newspaper editorials warn that Gandhi's impetuous behavior has done more damage to his image than any of his major failures.

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``We're concerned about his tendency to have a siege mentality that puts him on the defensive,'' comments a source close to Gandhi. ``He'll say, `You've put me into power. I'll do what I think is right.'''

Gandhi's leadership crisis has been building since last year. Analysts portray him as a victim partly of his lack of political will and partly of his inability to choose the right team. He has shuffled his Cabinet nine times.

``The prime minister needs persons in his team who will make up for his lack of experience and background on public affairs,'' commentator Arun Shourie writes. ``On all counts, [he] is now totally without counsel on the general affairs of the state.''

Critics cite several recent actions as serving the intentions of a politician rather than a statesman: the humiliating ouster of his top foreign policy official, saber rattling at Pakistan, and the moving of Finance Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh to the Defense Ministry. At the outset, Gandhi's main aims were to clean up government, liberalize the economy, and improve ties with neighbors. Since then, his measured successes with some initiatives have been eclipsed by glaring failures with others.

Things came to a head last month, when Gandhi dismissed Foreign Secretary A.P. Venkateshwaran. Some analysts saw the ouster as a culmination of growing differences between the Foreign Service and the premier's office. They suggest that Gandhi saw Venkateshwaran as being too soft on Pakistan and China. Mr. Venkateshwaran's ouster not only seemed to counter Gandhi's policy of reconciliation with neighbors but also sharpened dissaffection within the bureaucracy.

Last month, rising tensions with Pakistan over border troop movements created an impression that Gandhi was seeking to bolster his image. The two nations later agreed to pull out some of the troops, a boost to Gandhi.

Gandhi's major failure, however, has been with the Sikhs. The worsening violence in Punjab State, where Sikh militants demand an independent homeland, has led to a surge in Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism.

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There is a widespread perception that Gandhi has allowed himself to bow to pressures from Hindu politicians in his party against the national interests. Gandhi's 1985 peace accord with Sikh moderates ran against a roadblock: the erosion of influence of his party, the Congress (I), in the neighboring Hindu-majority state of Haryana. Elections are due in Haryana this year, and a loss could have repercussions in other states. The 1985 accord's key provision - transfer of Chandigarh, the capital shared by the two states, to Punjab in exchange for land - has not been carried out.

Similarly, a peace accord with local leaders in Assam State so far exists mostly on paper. The accord with the state's moderate ruling party was designed to defuse violent Hindu agitation against Muslim immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. But delay in carrying out the terms, which include sealing the Assam-Bangladesh border, appears to have caused a decline in support for the moderate government and a rise in radicalism.

More recently, Gandhi appears to have had success in appeasing minorities, such as in Mizoram and in the Darjeeling region. In Darjeeling, Nepalese Indians' cries for a separate state appears to have yielded promises by Gandhi for peace talks. But critics say that a readiness to negotiate only inspires other secessionist movements.

Last year, Gandhi began to feel the pinch from party stalwarts after Congress (I) losses in Punjab and Assam State elections. It is to mollify them, analysts say, that Gandhi has chosen power-sharing arrangements in other states, where Congress (I) stands to lose elections.

For instance, in the sensitive border state of Jammu and Kashmir, he reinstated Muslim opposition leader Farooq Mohammed Abdullah as chief minister of a coalition government. But whether the coalition will hold after next month's vote or whether Hindu-Muslim communal tension in the state will abate is uncertain.

The shifting of finance chief Singh to defense, ostensibly to deal with heightened tensions with Pakistan, has cast doubt on Gandhi's policy of economic liberalization.

India's economy under Indira Gandhi, some analysts say, was built to suit politicians' ends through a vast array of bureaucratic controls, high taxes, and public spending under the rubric of socialism. As a result, the government was saddled with a huge domestic debt, a black market economy, and a corrupt bureaucracy.

While the incentives to liberalize took root even during Mrs. Gandhi's time, Rajiv Gandhi has tried to institutionalize them. He put Singh, believed to be the least corrupt of his Cabinet members, in charge of relaxing import controls, encouraging private investment, and introducing tax reforms to minimize cheating. In 1985, he introduced tax cuts that were widely applauded as a measure of the government's sincerity. This was followed, however, by stiffer enforcement of taxation laws.

Singh's determined pursuit of increased revenue through sweeping tax raids seems to have humiliated big businessmen, who are already upset over growing competition from imports and new ventures with foreign business. Some analysts saw Singh's transfer as an effort to placate business groups that provide campaign funds.

Gandhi now holds the finance portfolio. It remains to be seen whether he will continue to pursue liberalization initiatives. Some observers still feel that Gandhi, if he asserts political will, can achieve a lot more.

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