New Delhi Nearly everyone predicted his election victory, but no one is venturing a guess whether India’s youngest leader can solve the enormous problems facing the world’s second most populous country.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi inherited a rosy economic outlook along with some of the worst domestic strife in India’s 37-year history. He also takes over a foreign policy fraught with regional tension.
The Cambridge-educated leader, whose nickname is ‘‘Computerji,”’ has promised to ‘“‘take India into the 21st Century’’ by introducing computer technology. But he must deal at the same time with centuries old caste and religious conflicts and a runaway population approaching 750 million, including 320 million people who live in poverty. Only China is more populous.
“He is carrying heavy baggage from his mother’s rule, and everyone will be watching to see how much of it he can shed,’’ a Western diplomat said.
Only one month after taking power, Gandhi was confronted by history’s worst industrial disaster the tragedy that killed more than 2,500 people and injured at least 100,000 others in the central Indian city of Bhopal.
A government investigation is trying to determine if Union Carbide was responsible for the Dec. 3 leak of deadly methyl isocyanate. It is Gandhi, however, who must shoulder the fallout over the manufacture of dangerous substances .in India by foreign companies.
One of Gandhi’s priorities in 1985 will be to assuage the anger of the country’s 15 million Sikhs, who make up 2 percent of mostly Hindu India.
Slain Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stunned the Sikh community last June by ordering the army to storm the Golden Temple at Amritsar, religion’s holiest shrine. After Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination by two Sikh bodyguards Oct. 31, Hindus rampaged against Sikhs throughout northern India in the worst religious violence since the Hindu-Moslem battles that accompanied partition in 1947.
Hindus set fire to the beards and turbans of Sikh men, beheaded others and heaped Sikh corpses. Onto trains bound for New Delhi.
Gandhi may break the ice on the Sikh issue by offering to negotiate longstanding Sikh demands for more autonomy in the Punjab region, the Sikh controlled region on India’s northern border with Pakistan.
“Rajiv has no hang-ups about the issue,’’ a senior Indian official said. “‘He can make a new beginning.”
Gandhi said he would have a proposal ready for the Sikh Akali Party shortly after the election.
Punjab as well as the volatile northeastern state of Assam did not take part in the recent national elections. Government sources said the polls may be postponed indefinitely until tension eases in the areas.
Gandhi faces his second-biggest domestic headache in Assam, where sectarian violence in early 1983 left more than 4,000 people dead.
It erupted when Mrs. Gandhi ordered elections despite warnings | that militant student leaders planned violence against Bengali immigrants in the state, bounded by Bangladesh and Burma.
The student revolt spread to Assamese villagers, who slaughtered Bengali women and children in numerous massacres throughout the lush Brahmaputra river valley.
Today, special judges are trying to sort out Mrs. Gandhi’s order to deport all Bengali immigrants who entered the state after 1971. The big problem lies in the criteria being used to identify the aliens.
Article extracted from this publication >> January 11 1985