India After Ragiv

In a haze of sandalwood smoke, the dynasty that ruled India for most of its 44 years of independence came to an end on a funeral pyre in Delhi. The remains of Rajiv Gandhi were burned on the same spot where his mother, Indira, was cremated seven years ago-like him, a murder victim. In a pathetic attempt to keep India's version of Camelot going, Rajiv's retainers had elected his Italian-born widow leader of their Congress party, the dominant force in Indian polities since the last days of the British Raj. Sonia Gandhi, who had opposed her husband's entry into polities, turned them down. It appeared that a sympathy vote would help to propel Gandhi's Congress party back into power in a delayed national election. But for the first time since independence in 1947, Indians could no longer expect leadership from their country's first family.

Rajiv Gandhi, who served disappointingly as prime minister from 1984 to 1989, was waging a brave even reckless-comeback campaign as Indians started voting last week. "One more chance for Congress, and I will change everything," he promised. Then he arrived at the town of Sriperumbudur in the troubled southern state of Tamil Nadu. With almost no protection, he plunged into a crowd of well-wishers. A small, dark woman stepped forward and bowed deeply before him. A bomb strapped to her back went off, killing both of them and 16 other people.

Although no one claimed responsibility for the killing at first, most investigators were inclined to blame Sri Lankan Tamil separatists, who are known for their skill with explosives and their flair for suicide missions. "It was a Tamil job," a top police official told NEWSWEEK flatly. But the Interior Ministry's intelligence bureau had a contrary theory: that Gandhi was killed by opponents of the separatists. It said something about the chaos and duplicity of Indian politics that Gandhi himself had been on both sides of the Tamil issue in recent years, potentially giving either of them a reason to want him dead.

Indian politics had a nobler sense of purpose when Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv's grandfather, became the country's first prime minister in 1947. In the Nehrus had it all, including the complete self-assurance that comes from being upper-caste Brahmans educated in the born-to-rule tradition of the British aristocracy. They even acquired the most revered name in modern India when Nehru's daughter, Indira, married a man called Gandhi-no relation to the spiritual father of independence, Mahatma Gandhi. Nehru served from 1947 until his death in 1964, making India a model for developing nations: the world's largest democracy. His heirs transformed Nehru's idealism into venal power politics, threatening both development and democracy (page 32). Indira Gandhi served twice as prime minister and once as a virtual dictator, under her state of emergency from 1975 to 1977. After her Sikh bodyguards killed her in 1984, Rajiv led Congress to a stirring election victory, promising clean, efficient government. The hope he inspired faded fast, destroyed by corruption and governmental inertia. This year Rajiv tried to change his elitist image by reducing his personal security. "In the last election, I was removed from the people by the party machine," he explained. "I lost touch with them. This time, I am doing it my way."

When Gandhi approached the crowd in Sriperumbudur last Tuesday, a local journalist, N. Jayanth, heard firecrackers going off in the background and then a loud thud. "I thought it was just part of the celebration," he said later. "Then I saw the body of a woman constable flying toward us. That's when we realized a bomb had exploded." Bodies were strewn in a 10-foot circle. Gandhi was first identified by his Lotto jogging shoes. "Four of us lifted his body," recalled Jayanth. "There was no face at all, just a hollow."

The woman who killed Gandhi was not identified by late last week. Judging from the scattered remains of her body and from a newspaper photograph taken of her just before the bomb went off, the authorities concluded that she was about 35 years old and five feet tall. She wore a wig and glasses, and her dark complexion matched that of most Tamils (and many other Indians). Under her traditional shalwar kameez attire, she wore a wide denim belt. According to Dr. P. Chandrashekharan, director of forensic sciences for Tamil Nadu state, the back of the belt contained a plastic explosive surrounded by steel pellets; the trigger was at the front. The explosion blew off the back of the woman's head, along with Gandhi's face, suggesting that she fired the bomb while bending forward.

Investigators said the woman appeared to be a Tamil from the nearby island nation of Sri Lanka. But one knowledgeable Sri Lankan insisted that the woman looked Sinhalese, the island's dominant ethnic group. Most investigators suspected the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which supports Tamil independence in Sri Lanka. "We have no clinching proof yet, but prima facie there is enough material to point to the LTTE as the suspect," said Subramaniam Swamy, India's law and justice minister. But Anton Rajah, a spokesman for the Tigers, said his group "denies any involvement." And sources in Madras said Interior Ministry officials thought the Sri Lankan government might be responsible.

Rajiv and his mother originally supported the Sri Lankan separatists. Then, in 1987, he made peace with his neighboring government and sent more than 50,000 Indian troops to Sri Lanka to help put down a Tamil rebellion. Last March, sources said, he held a secret meeting with Kasi Andan, one of the Tigers' political leaders, and agreed the guerrillas could resume using hospitals in Tamil Nadu. His motive may have been to win favor with voters in the south. In theory, the Sri Lankans might have wanted to kill him. But the Tamils and other separatists, including Sikhs and Kashmiris, could have had similar aims.

After decades of family rule that rigorously suppressed internal competition, Gandhi's death left Congress leaderless. The party's overture to his widow was part of a South Asian tradition that has brought many female relatives to power, Indira Gandhi among them. But Sonia Gandhi was too devastated by her husband's murder to accept the offer. Congress may have to choose a successor from a roster of regional warlords. Among them:

Narasimha Rao, Rajiv's external-affairs minister, who chaired cabinet meetings when Gandhi was away. A soft-spoken intellectual from Andhra Pradesh, he is in poor health, but he might appeal to many factions as an interim choice.

Narain Dutt Tewari, a former industry minister. A suave Brahman with a strong power base in Uttar Pradesh, he was shunted aside because he seemed to threaten Rajiv.

Sharad Pawar, chief minister in the western state of Maharashtra. He leads a relatively youthful faction, but has little national following.

Arjun Singh, former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh state. He proposed Sonia Gandhi as party president, perhaps to advance his own cause.

Because all the contenders lacked Gandhi's stature, there was speculation that Congress might look outside, perhaps to an alliance with caretaker Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, the Janata Dal (Socialist) leader. The power brokers will have to act quickly, with an election near. The day before Gandhi's death, about 40 percent of the electorate went to the polls. The rest are now scheduled to vote in June. Congress has been challenged vigorously by the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party. But if Congress can come up with at least a respectable figurehead, it stands a good chance of regaining power.

Some party members continue to cast longing glances in the direction of the Nehru-Gandhi family. One group of six Congress elders asked Sonia to reconsider her refusal to head the party. Her children also were being sized up. Son Rahul, who attends Harvard University, is only 20 and so far shows no interest in politics. Daughter Priyanka seems to hold more promise, but she is still only 19. Two relatives are active in politics-Rajiv's second cousin Arun Nehru, 47, and Maneka Gandhi, 34, the outspoken widow of Rajiv's younger brother, Sanjay-but both of them have drifted into the opposition fold. Until Rajiv's children come of age politically, the family appears to offer India no credible leader. But the family has so thoroughly dominated politics that no one else seems ready to step in. A new prime minister will be found, of course, but the country may never again experience the stability that was perhaps the principal gift of the Nehru dynasty.

Ever since independence in 1947, when clashes between Hindus and Muslims claimed at least 200,000 lives, India has suffered from tensions among its diverse religious and ethnic groups. A guide to the protagonists and the recent history of violence:

Sikh separatists favor autonomy or independence for the state of Punjab. Key demands: greater access to river waters, the release of political prisoners and the establishment of Chandigarh as the Punjabi capital.

Separatists in the predominantly Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir want independence or unification with Pakistan.

Encouraged by the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party, radical Hindus have repeatedly clashed with the country's Muslim minority.

Refugees from Sri Lanka have been blamed for election violence in India.


3,000 die in clashes over voting rights during a state election in Assam.

Indian troops storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar, killing more than 1,200.

Indira Gandhi is assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards; 3,000 Sikhs are slain in the aftermath.

A record 1,567 people are killed in terrorist incidents in Punjab.

More than 1,000 people die in Hindu-Muslim rioting in Bhagalpur, Bihar.

Violence flares in Ayodhya over Hindu plans to raze a Muslim holy site.

Rajiv Gandhi is assassinated.