NEW DELHI — Early in my time in India, I rode beside N.T. Rama Rao atop the Chariot of Divine Enlightenment.
At the time I did not feel particularly enlightened, and certainly not divine--especially after a banana thrown by one of the politician's adoring fans hit me square in the chest and nearly knocked me off. Mostly I felt foolish.
Four years later, however, as I complete my tour here and prepare to leave, I recall the strange ride as one of the most telling moments of the months in India, one that spoke both of the beauty of the great Indian democracy and of the dangers sapping it.
For as Rama Rao, chariot and all, affirmed the existence of a vital and vigorous political system, so the presence of a huge crowd of supporters--mostly young men without jobs or the prospects of jobs--called to mind India's biggest challenge: its ever-growing population.
I lived through the bloody anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi's assassination in October, 1984. The screams of " Bacchao lo "--"Help me!" in the Hindustani language--that filled those dark nights are impossible to forget.
I witnessed the industrial horror that took place at the American-owned pesticide plant in Bhopal when deadly methyl isocyanate gas spilled into nearby slums, killing more than 2,800 people.
I watched India flex military muscle in Sri Lanka, exercising its version of gunboat diplomacy to intervene in the island nation's ethnic conflict between Tamil separatists and the Sinhalese majority.
And I saw Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi apply radical economic reforms in an attempt to stimulate a system long-dominated by heavy state industries and licensed monopolies.
But at the end, that political rally jumped first to mind. The Chariot of Divine Enlightenment is what Rama Rao, a south Indian political leader and former Telegu language movie star, called a 1942 Chevrolet truck. He had customized it for campaign appearances such as the one, four years ago, against the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Inside the truck was a ladder that allowed Rama Rao to ascend god-like through an opening in the roof. At the rally, he invited me up with him. Several doctors periodically checked Rama Rao, a first-class hypochondriac, for blood pressure and other vital signs. Other aides kept him from being clotheslined by electric wires, something the Hindu gods he used to portray in the movies never had to worry about.
The event was good theater and, as it turned out later, good politics. Rama Rao overcame allies of Mrs. Gandhi to be reinstalled as leader of Andhra Pradesh, a state with a population equal to that of France; he remains in office today. His victory was a fairly typical example of India's lively democracy, the model and envy of the Third World. But there was something else about it that gnawed at me for the rest of my time in India.
Below the divine charioteers, in the dusty streets of Sri Kalahasti, a medium-sized city in Andhra Pradesh, a huge crowd surged against the truck. A sea of young faces--mostly men in their late teens and early 20s--gathered for the political event.
The faces shone with energy and intelligence and hope. But the surrounding town and the barren terrain--stripped of vegetation by chronic overgrazing and human foraging for firewood, devoid of industry and trade--promised a future of desolation and despair.
The majority of the young men were unemployed. There was no work for them in this area unless they somehow landed a job in the nearby city of Tirupathi, where a modest tourist industry serves the thousands of pilgrims who visit a famous temple at the top of the hill.
Their main chance was to go eventually, like thousands before them, to the big cities--Hyderabad, Madras, Bangalore and Bombay--for work. Population experts have predicted that by the turn of the century Bombay and Madras will have been swollen with similar migrants to become two of the largest cities in the world, each with more than 20 million residents. Hyderabad and Bangalore are expected to reach 10 million. So those young men at the rally in Andhra Pradesh represented something unfulfilled and perhaps unfulfillable about India and its beloved democracy.
How can terribly poor India, struggling valiantly in a Malthusian quagmire of increasing population and diminishing resources, possibly manage to answer the hope in the eyes of those young men? What will happen to them and their sisters? How much longer can the world's largest democracy remain democratic?
In the Third World, India inspires the classic question: Is the glass half full or half empty? Almost alone among the poorer nations, it has clung fiercely to a democratic system. With the exception of the infamous emergency period of the late 1970s, when civil rights were temporarily suspended by the late Indira Gandhi, it has kept intact its basic freedoms and democratic institutions.