Mrs. Gandhi seems intent on undermining opposition to her rule
Farooq Abdullah, the feisty chief minister of the Muslim-dominated state of Jammu and Kashmir, has always been anathema to the Indian premier. Thus, with India facing a national election later this year, the ruling Congress-I Party - in what its general-secretary declared was the party's ''right'' - unleashed a campaign of political violence in January in that sensitive border state. The campaign was aimed at toppling Dr. Farooq's opposition state government. Hundreds were arrested or injured. At least nine died.
The reverberations were felt from that strategic, disputed stronghold to the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the volatile Punjab, and Communist-controlled West Bengal.
The recent violence in Kashmir was only the most recent reminder that Mrs. Gandhi is intent on controlling as much state machinery as possible, including that now in opposition hands, before going again to the hustings and seeking an unprecedented fifth term for herself and her party.
The prime minister is a formidable political foe. And a pattern of actions designed to undermine opposition to her rule has emerged.
In late 1983, for instance, there were attempts to buy off members of the state legislature in Karnataka, but the attempts were cleverly tape-recorded by the Janata Party's chief minister, Ramakrishna Hegde. The embarassing set-back to the ruling party is now known derisively as ''Indira's Watergate.''
There also has been street violence instigated by the Congress-I Party and attempts to destabilize the Marxist government of West Bengal, with party stalwarts then clamoring for federal intervention along with facile arguments that law and order had broken down. Violence also has been allowed to continue in the Punjab, where the Sikhs are demanding political and religious reform, even though the state is nominally under central government control. The Sikh's strongest party, the Akali Dal, has been accused by the prime minister of receiving ''foreign assistance.'' Perhaps not surprisingly, no evidence has been produced.
The bogey of a ''foreign threat'' (meaning Pakistan) has become nearly synonymous with the prime minister's references to the border states of Punjab and Kashmir. There are no indications, however, that either country is preparing for war, but, in the words of one dipomatic official, ''when one's facing elections, war jitters never hurt.'' India and Pakistan have gone to war three times over Kashmir.
Opposition politicians have charged that the prime minister is being blatant in her destabilization attempts, and that she is determined to topple or fatally weaken as many opposition-controlled state governments as she can.
''Whether she brings them down or simply besieges them,'' one Western official said, ''she is clearly laying the parameters for her electoral campaign. Whether in Karnataka, West Bengal, the Punjab, or Kashmir, she is projecting herself as the only person, now standing between a unified India of integrity and a communal, chaotic, foreign-inspired regime.''
The price for political miscalculation in Kashmir, however, could be decidedly high, and far more crucial for the prime minister than in other opposition states.
The increasingly sophisticated chief minister, son of the legendary ''Lion of Kashmir,'' Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, was a political novice when he trounced Mrs. Gandhi in elections last June. Since then, he has been catapulted onto the national opposition scene.
Dr. Abdullah could be critical in determining the outcome of nation's 20 percent Muslim vote. By keeping him besieged in Kashmir, precisely to keep him away from the national political scene, Mrs. Gandhi could drive the British-trained doctor into the very arms of those forces with whom she charges he already colludes, the pro-Pakistani fundamentalists. This group has been campaigning for a plebisite, as called for in 1948 by the United Nations but never held.
Thus, after a fortnight of January violence, even some circles close to the Indian premier have begun to pause and question the worth of disrupted transportation systems, government buildings gutted by fire, and ongoing clashes between Congress-I Party workers, and the increasingly frazzled Kashmir police.
The state's governor, B.K. Nehru - cousin of Mrs. Gandhi's father and an appointee of the central government in his Kashmir post - was twice summoned to New Delhi for urgent consultations.
Twice he was reportedly asked by Mrs. Gandhi to dismiss the Farooq government and assume ''governor's rule,'' on the grounds that law and order had totally broken down.
No friend of the Congress-I Party's state organization, the tenacious governor flatly refused, cautioning Mrs. Gandhi - who was in no mood to be cautioned, according to one familiar with the talks - that contrived violence, in a state as sensititve as Muslim Kashmir, could lead to communal warfare. And, in the complex aggregate of India, communalism can quickly spread. What has surprised a number of Indians, and foreign diplomats, is the dogged way in which the 66-year-old prime minister has thrown around her political weight. It would appear to belie her confident pronouncements that she has no political opposition, but faces only regional or communal coalitions of quarreling, discredited men.