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Profile : Delhi's New Master : For only $32 a month, Madan Lal Khurana is taking on the chaos of India's capital. Why is this man smiling?


NEW DELHI — It's 8 p.m., and a goodly part of the Indian capital's nearly 2 million cars, trucks, scooters, rickshaws and buses are still lurching homeward from one bottleneck to another, horns tooting shrilly.

Bony cows amble through dim side streets, pausing to browse in fetid garbage piles. The chilly evening air is heavy with smog that grows so dense that landings and takeoffs from Indira Gandhi International Airport may have to be postponed.

Electricity blinks off as demand overwhelms supply. Shanties have sprung up around the modern telecommunications facilities at Nehru Place, and executives coming to work must pick their way through slum dwellers' excrement.

Delhi's public transportation is so dangerously dicey that more than 100 people perished last year in bus accidents. The Yamuna river, a stream considered holy by Hindus, is a sewer by the time it flows past Delhi on its way to joining the equally sacred Ganges.

The question that comes to mind after a survey of the problems of India's capital--"Is anybody in charge here?"

Meet Madan Lal Khurana, a former high-school economics teacher born in Pakistan and a garrulous lover of badminton and Hindi film romances, who swept last month into the new post of chief minister of this chaotic, troubled metropolis of more than 10 million souls.

It was long a truism of Indian life that "he who rules Delhi, rules India." And ruling India one day is the dream of Khurana and his party, the Hindu nationalist group called the Bharatiya Janata (Indian People's) Party.

But history also shows that Delhi has often served as the graveyard of the powerful, including the viceroys and sahibs of the now vanished British raj. It is a double-edged lesson for Khurana to ponder as he is ferried about in his Indian-built white Ambassador sedan with chase cars of policemen armed with automatics.

For now, he's smilingly confident. For taking on Delhi's headaches (and grabbing a prominent spot on India's political scene) Khurana, 57, will be paid a base salary of 1,000 rupees--about $32--a month.

He makes no secret of his belief that he can so change things in Delhi that it will prove to Indians at large that the BJP is fit to govern their dazzlingly diverse country; that it is not simply a mouthpiece for disgruntled Hindus in the north who feel dispossessed in their own land.

"Delhi is a mini-India," Khurana, charming and raffishly elegant in a Nehru jacket of raw brown silk, declared over plates of sweets during an interview at his Delhi home. "There are people of all religions: Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Christians, from all states. The majority are from outside Delhi. In Delhi, there is no casteism--because this is a mini-India, no caste is dominant here."

But for now, Khurana is "chief minister" in name only. The government decision that revived an elective assembly in India's capital after a hiatus of 37 years and gave the city a semblance of democratic rule leaves him--at least for now--with minimal powers, even less than those enjoyed by the mayor of Washington, D.C.

This remains the National Capital Territory of Delhi, and it is far from having attained true home rule.

"That means the federal government still governs Delhi," said Sunderao Narendra, principal officer of the Indian government's press information bureau.

Lt. Gov. Prasanabhai K. Dave, an appointee of India's president, still has full control over policy decisions, law and order, taxes, finance and the budget--even over whether somebody's telephone is to be disconnected.

But those who know Khurana and his abundant energy doubt things will remain so simple.

A postgraduate student of economics at the University of Allahabad, he was general secretary of India's students union for two years. Zeroing in on Delhi as a springboard for his political ambitions, he served as a city executive counselor and won election from the capital to two terms in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's Parliament.

Since his victory at the polls in November, Khurana has been to see Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, India's home minister and top police officials. "They have assured me that in practical purposes, they will obey my orders," Khurana said.

For his part, Dave has publicly reassured Khurana and his six-member Cabinet that he intends to consult them even about matters that legally are under his purview. Nevertheless, the prospects for conflict seem boundless.

Since Khurana and his party swept 49 of the 70 seats in Delhi's assembly in Nov. 6 elections (he took office Dec. 2), he has been going out of his way to show he isn't just another mantra-chanting BJP hothead. He has spoken of the need to ensure equal respect for all religions and allied himself in particular with Sikh concerns.

Within weeks of taking office, Khurana set up an advisory panel on how to bring to justice the instigators of the November, 1984, riots in Delhi in which more than 2,000 Sikhs were killed.

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