After two months in office, Prime Minister Morarji Desai readily admits that he has been too caught up in politics to devise an economic policy or other essential program for India.
The 31-year-old prime minister says, however, that neither politics nor economic reform is the most pressing task facing him as he launches a new administration in a country run for 30 years by the Congress Party.
What is most important, he said in an interview, is to eliminate fear so that authoritarian rule may never again be imposed on india's 600 million people.
"Fear has been one of the basic characteristics of this country for 1,500 years," he said. "Of course, fear gripped the minds of the people to the maximum extent during the 20 months of emergency. But if there had been no fear to begin with, Mrs. Gandhi would not have injected it."
It was the stunning victory of Desai and his makeshift People's Party in the March elections that brought an end to the emergency rule Indira Gandhi had declared in June 1975.
Now, the prime minister said, the time is right for eliminating this atmosphere of fear once and for all. He would do this, he said, by seeing to it that government workers "are not used to frighten people" and by providing Indians with jobs "so that they get a fair deal in life."
His government, he said, will not rush through fear "but will try to create a healthy respect for law." All this could be achieved, he claimed, in about five years.
Desai, a puritanical idealist plans to base his administration's programs on the teachings of his spiritual guide, Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi. This mean, in essence, that he intends to concentrate his efforts in the nation's village, where the bulk of Indians scratch out their existences.
"It is a herculean task, not a small one," he said. "But it is only the difficult tasks which offer challenge."
Desai is touchy about discussing his reputation for devotion to such ascetic habits as eating only fruits, nuts and milk, spinning cotton for weaving simple white garments, refusing to take any innocualtions and practicing some extraordinarily unusual forms of health care.
"Am I an ascetic?" he asked rhetorically, displaying his well-cut, homespun shirt, vest and shoti, a diaper-like form of sarong, "Am I wearing a Join cloth?"
His diet, he said, while stark, was "not cheap. It costs as much as other things." Indeed, Desai is noted for demanding the best of everything he uses. He signs his letters with a fine, French-made gold pen, wears only the best quality of homespun and keeps his spacious office air conditioned to winter levels while the outside temperature rises to a stifling 105 degrees.
Although a number of Indians, his supporters as well as his opponents, consider Desai an eccentric in many ways, they agree that he is a thoroughly seasoned and experienced politican. starting his career as a civil servant in 1918, he has been in and around government ever since and was deputy prime minister from 1967 to 1969.
Now, having achieved the pinnacle of powr at an age when most politicians have long since ended their careers. Desai said that he must act swiftly, while at the same time he tries to make people realize that he is hard at work in their behalf.
The government has to quickly clean up the economic "debris" left behind by the Gandhi regime and remove the "wrong people" from political positions, he said.
"Take the question of prices," Desai said. "The previous government has injected so much money into the economy that its effect is now perceptible and, therefore prices cannot come under control quickly. I will have to undo the evil first. And that takes time."
The prime minister conceded, however, that it would be difficult to contain popular demands for reform.
"We have got to do something all the time," he said. "We can't ask the people to wait. But when they see that things are happening, they will wait. I have already told them that we would require at least a year to make things move and to see that things keep moving."
What has kept him from moving so far, he noted, has been concentration on elections for nine state assemblies controlled by the Congress Party, Voting is set for the middle of June and the outcome will be a powerful indicator of whethr or not voters who cast their ballots against the Congress Party in the national elections are now prepared to cast positive votes for Desai's Janata Party.
The prime minister and many of his aides are known to be worried about the impact of their failure to reduce prices, to appease demands by unionized workers who have taken the end of the emergency as a signal to go on strike, to set a national budget and to get down to the trying business of running this country.
"Can you think of 100 things at a time?" Desai asked an interviewer in an almost plaintive tone. "All of these visitors are crowding me and leaving me no time. When am I to think?" but how can I say no to them?"
While many observers say that Desai has mellowed over the years, he quickly grows sensitive on two subjects: India' relations with the United States and the Soviet Union and on his views about women.
At the outset of his administration, Desai said he intended to make India "more genuinely nonaligned", but he recalled in the interview that India bought most of its military equipment from the Soviet Union "because the Americans and others refused to sell."
Asked whether India would go on relying mainly on the Soviets, the prime minister said, "we shall take supplies from wherever we get [them], but ultimatley we have to be self-sufficient. That is what we are aiming at."
While India has often has been criticized for its expenditures on its million-man that he will spend what is necessary "to defend ourselves." He would forego atomic weapons, but conventional equipment "has got to be renewed from time to time. That requires expenditure. You have to modernize it - planes, tanks, all these - they go on changing. Therefore, we have to be up-to-date about it."
His response was even sharper when his interview of several weeks ago was recalled in which he said that women leaders, like Indira Gandhi and Britian's Margaret Thatcher, could not be effective prime ministers or commanders-in-chief.
"I don't want to touch on it because it has already caused a lot of controversy," he said. "Why do you want to create controversy?" he asked with a tight smile.
Later, Desai, who tends to lecture, chastely told me that journalists do not have the same sense of responsibility as political leaders. "If we exchange places, then you will be more responsible and I will be less," he said. "Responsibility comes first from people and then from government."
many of the problems Desai inherited from Indira Gandhi have plagued India for centuries, but some have been intensified by the stringencies of emergency rule. Foremost among these is family planning.
In an effort to control the constant drive of an added 13 million people each year, the former prime minister's controversial son, Sanjay Gandhi, imposed a compulsary sterilization program throughout northern India. This was one of the foremost reasons for the defeat of his mother and their party, most Indians concur.
But the result for the government is that family planning has become such a senitive issue that any attempts to control the burgeoning population seemed destined for failure.
"We are not giving up family planning," Desai said in reply to a question. "We are pursuing it, minus coercion. No force will be applied anywhere, but it will be more by educational process and by providing facilities."
Desai noted that countries like Britian and Japan were more densely populated than India, but he then admitted, "for us it is a problem because prosperity and means of production are not available for everybody.
India's other perennial plague, food shortages, Desai said, would not be a serious problem "because our capacity for production of food is three times what it is today. That is the capacity of the rural areas and once we enable the agriculturists to do this, then we shall have far more surplus food."
Although the country has stockpiled an estimated 19 millions of grain, some experts say that 4 million tons have alreay been destroyed by rats and other claim, would be consumed in a few months if the next monsoon is a poor one, as is feared.