NEW DELHI — Despite charges of corruption in his government and a humiliating series of setbacks for his party in state elections, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi appears to have defeated a challenge to his leadership.
"He has emerged from financial scandals, election defeats, constitutional crises and dissension within his party as the unchallenged leader of India," a loyal aide said the other day. "I can't think of a more magnificent plan to pull him down than what has happened over the past three months. But at the end, after all the dust had cleared, Rajiv Gandhi was still standing."
Clearly, Gandhi no longer has the overwhelming popular support he had after the assassination of his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in 1984. Most political analysts agree that if a parliamentary election were held today, he would probably lose.
Barring a political catastrophe, there will be no parliamentary election until 1989, but there will be an election today for president, and virtually no one doubts that Gandhi's handpicked candidate will win.
This probably ensures that Gandhi will complete the last 2 1/2 years of his five-year term. And it will give him plenty of time, his supporters say, to recover from the decline in his popular support.
Gandhi's party, the Congress-I ("I," for Indira, was added in 1978, when she broke with the traditional Congress Party), has long been associated with corruption and inefficiency. Most recently, it has been stung by charges that party members took kickbacks from foreign defense contractors.
Gandhi himself, laconic and aloof, with little of the popular appeal his mother had, is perceived as a protector of his middle-class friends.
Withstood Political Attack
"From being viewed as a benevolent monarch who naturally spoke a different idiom as befits royalty, but who had the good of his subjects at heart, more and more . . . the prime minister (is) regarded as a callous ruler who neglected his kingdom while recklessly squandering his meager revenue on his fads and his friends," wrote the Calcutta-based editor of the Statesman newspaper, Sunanda K. Datta-Ray.
Even his strongest supporters concede that the 43-year-old prime minister, who is not only the son of Indira Gandhi but the grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, barely survived a bold political move to remove him from power.
Details are only now coming to light, but it seems clear that for a few days last month, after the Congress-I's defeat in state elections in Haryana, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was in jeopardy.
Political analysts have described it in the press as the ruling family's lowest moment since Indira Gandhi was defeated in the election of 1977 and forced to the political sidelines until her dramatic return in 1980.
Subtlety and Conspiracy
The latest challenge, involving all the subtlety and conspiracy that Indian democracy can muster, had its origins in the planning for Monday's presidential election.
The vote will be indirect, involving not the people but members of Parliament and the state legislatures sitting as an electoral college. The president is a largely ceremonial figure subordinate to the prime minister and the Cabinet, but opposition leaders and rebels in the Congress-I saw the election as an opportunity to show that Gandhi had lost control of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. Congress-I controls 402 of its 544 seats.
A move was made to persuade President Zail Singh, who had feuded with Gandhi--he said he was not being informed of government decisions--to declare himself a candidate for reelection. Doing so would be a direct slap at Gandhi, who had already named Vice President Ramaswamy Venkataraman as his choice.
Singh, 71, who had been nominated for the presidency by Indira Gandhi in 1982, did not need much persuading. For months, he had been hinting that he would be interested in a second term under the right circumstances.
Singh was supported by a number of older party leaders--among them Vidya Charan Shukla, Jagannath Mishra, Arif Mohammed Khan, Kamlapati Tripathi and a Gandhi cousin, Arun Nehru, who considered themselves Indira loyalists who had been stripped of power by Rajiv Gandhi as he sought to reconstruct the party in his image.
A more practical consideration in Singh's decision was his personal safety. In the massive presidential palace--once the residence of the British viceroy--he would continue to be relatively safe. But outside, he was a target for Sikh separatists who regard him as a traitor to his religion for siding with the government in 1984, when troops raided the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Sikhs' holiest place.
According to sources close to the situation, Singh put off a decision until after the June 17 state elections in Haryana, which were looked upon as a test of Gandhi's leadership. If Congress-I should lose, Singh reportedly told associates, he would be a candidate for reelection.