Gandhi's party leaderless violent backlash feared THE ASSASSINATION OF RAJIV GANDHI


WASHINGTON -- The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, halting the political dynasty begun by his grandfather, renders India's Congress Party leaderless and raises fears of a violent backlash against whatever group might be deemed responsible.

Over the long term, yesterday's bombing was seen here as adding new strains to India's struggle to reform itself economically and resist separatist pressures.

"It comes at the worst possible time," said Peter Galbraith, a toSenate Foreign Relations Committee staffer who got to know Rajiv Gandhi as a youth when his father, John Kenneth Galbraith, was ambassador to India.

The current elections were already the most violent in India's history, Mr. Galbraith noted. The latest tragedy, combined with separatist turbulence in Kashmir and Punjab and a rise in Hindu nationalism and communal tension, presents a test of both India's democracy and its future as a unified country, he said.

The Bush administration was more sanguine about Indian democracy and unity.

"Will it throw India into chaos? I don't think so," said a Busadministration official, while noting there probably would be "local rioting."

"The greatest initial fear," the official said, was of a repetition of the kind of violent retribution meted out against Sikhs following the 1984 assassination of Mr. Gandhi's mother, Indira.

"I would urge the government of India to have a firm hand," saidThomas Thornton, a professor of Asian studies at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies. The assassination has stricken India's civil and democratic structures, he said. And if a backlash develops, an increase in both sectarian strife and separatism could follow.

With no immediate heir apparent (his children are too young for politics), the Congress Party, almost indivisible from Mr. Gandhi's family since the time of his grandfather, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, has suffered a "major blow" and could break up, said Paul Kreisberg, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

If the election proceeds, the beneficiaries could be either the Janata Dal Party, led by former Prime Minister V. P. Singh, or the Janata Dal-Socialist Party led by Chandra Shekhar, he said. But if a sharp falloff occurs in election turnout, the militant Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party could benefit, Mr. Kreisberg suggested.

Mr. Thornton suggested that either Mr. Singh or Chandra Shekhar could now be absorbed as a leader of the Congress Party.

Whatever the immediate political outcome, "this increases the risk of instability and unrest," and will make it even more difficult for the government to make the tough decisions necessary to revive its economy, Mr. Kreisberg said.

While Indians are generally committed to democracy, yesterday's assassination may increase sentiment for a strong central government and lead some Indians to push for intervention by the military, he said.

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