NEW DELHI — Funerals, it is said, are reunions, tragic yet social affairs that bring together a wide assortment of friends, family, and colleagues whose worlds seem to intersect only at the point of one individual's death.
So it was last Friday at the cremation site called Shanti Sthal on the banks of New Delhi's Yamuna River, where thousands of presidents, politicians and public worshipers from throughout the world came together to witness the spiritual departure of slain Indian leader Rajiv Gandhi.
Vice President Dan Quayle was there in the VIP section, seated just a few feet from the blazing stack of sandalwood as it consumed Gandhi's remains. So was Britain's Prince Charles.
But, almost lost to the outside world, there was also present an assortment of lesser-known national leaders who together constitute one of the more extraordinary regional phenomena taking place in the world today.
Theirs were the human faces of South Asia's newly emerged democratic club, five neighboring nations--Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka--that now for the first time share the same constitutional commitment to political freedom and majority rule.
The fact that these official mourners included representatives of both the ruling parties and the opposition in some of those South Asian countries was an optimistic sign. But the fact that it took an assassination in the one nation that has served as both anchor and model for the region's new democratic order to bring them all together was a painful reminder of just how fragile their ideology remains in lands where poverty has long succumbed to dictatorship.
How India copes with the aftermath of Gandhi's assassination could have wide implications for democracy throughout the region, most analysts agree, and nowhere more so than in Pakistan and Bangladesh, where New Delhi has served as a particularly important touchstone for democratic reformers.
For the first time, right-wing Indian analysts have publicly speculated that this nation might be better off in the hands of its military. Few take seriously the idea of a takeover by India's highly professional and historically apolitical armed forces, but the fact that such ideas are even floated suggests the depth of frustration and chaos accompanying what has been an unusually violent election campaign here.
A more important question may be the impact of the assassination on voter participation when the interrupted balloting resumes next month. Low voter turnout on the first day of polling was more reminiscent of the apathetic United States than a vibrant, regional model of democracy.
It was all there--this equivocal picture of democracy's future in South Asia--in the faces of the VIP mourners at Gandhi's funeral. . . .
There was Khaleda Zia, the prime minister of Bangladesh, who is desperately trying to preserve her fragile, newly won democracy amid unprecedented disaster. The recent cyclone that caused $1.5 billion in damage to her impoverished, 20-year-old nation and killed at least 138,000 of its people is testing to the limits the new democratic order that Zia helped bring about during a popular rebellion that just months ago brought down long-serving dictator Hussain Mohammed Ershad.
The middle-aged Zia could easily empathize with the widow who stood stoically beside the pyre Friday. Like Sonia Gandhi, the Bangladeshi leader lost her husband to democracy's enemies a decade ago, when he was killed during a military coup that ushered in the country's decade of dictatorship.
Seated nearby, however, was a human symbol of hope for Bangladesh's newly elected Parliament--Zia's principal opponent, Hasina Wajed, whose Awami League party has decided to play one of the most crucial roles in a democracy, that of the loyal opposition.
"I think the killing has dealt a big blow to democracy in India, and, in fact, all over South Asia," Wajed said, reflecting on the cause that brought them all together.
Just a few seats away was another woman who now knows that same opposition role all too well. Draped in Asia's traditional white dress of mourning and wearing her trademark, high-fashion sunglasses was Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, who was defeated last year by the very democracy that she sacrificed so much to win.
Bhutto, whose father was overthrown in 1977 during one of Pakistan's many military coups and later hanged, instantly became a world symbol of democracy when she led her Pakistan People's Party to victory just three months after the nation's military ruler, Zia ul-Haq, was blown up by an assassin's bomb in his C-130 presidential aircraft in August, 1988.
But, as in so many nascent democracies, Bhutto's government was paralyzed by political squabbling and charges of massive corruption, which struck so close to home that her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, is now in prison awaiting trial on a number of those charges.