Like mythical slain Hindu goddesses who came back to life in altered forms deposed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has risen from the political grave as a whirlwind thrashing out at both her successor and her own party.
Fighting desperately for political survival and to stay out of jail, the wily Gandhi is capable of plunging this entire nation of 630 million into chaos as she lashes out against friend and foe.
She is being aided, unwittingly, by Prime Minister Morarji Desai's floundering leadership and his inept response to her challenge.
The Desai government, which was swept into power in March by votes whom Gandhi infuriated during her ham-handed 21-months of "emergency" rule, is preoccupied with containing her drive for renewed power.
The only way government ministers appear able to get onto the front pages of newspapers these days is in response to Gandhi's initiatives. "I able to keep reminding myself," a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Delhi hostess said the other [WORD ILLEGIBLE] "that when I see Prime Minister in the headlines, it means Morarji and not Indira."
Desai, an 82-year-old puritan and health faddist, has provided virtually no direction to his government, a coalition that managed to unite only to flight Gandhi and her Congress Party.
Instead, he devotes himself to spinning out quixotic homilies on the evils of alcohol and the benefits of drinking one's own urine as, he says, he does everymorning.
His lack of leadership has disappointed many Indians, among them those who were, and remain, bitterly opposed to Gandhi. "Anything is better than what we had to endure under her," said author Patwant Singh. "But the new government has certainly let us down very badly."
Given the inherent weakness of Desai's Janata (People's) Party government, it is not terribly surprising that Gandhi has been able to befuddle the leadership. What is more striking is her capacity, and apparent willingness, to split her own party.
After quietly spending a few months in the political wilderness, she has emerged to divide the party sharply into two camps. One has been labeled the "pro-changers," those who demand that Gandhi replace K. Brahmananda Reddy as party president. The other less vocal group deplores what it sees as a drive to reestablish a "cult of personality" with Gandhi at its core.
Gandhi evidently feels that she needs the prestige of the party presidency to use as a shield against the virtual assurance that she will be arrested and tried on a mounting number of allegations of corrupt practices and abuse of power.
Thus far, the white-haired Reddy refused to resign as party president in Gandhi's favor.
In an interview at her home, however, Gandhi made it clear that she would not hesitate to take her campaign for survival into the streets if the party turns its back on her.
"I don't know how much the Congress Party is with me," she said in reply to a question, "but the people are with me. And I don't think the Congress can afford to be separated from the people."
Those who favor Gandhi's return as party president tend toward strong-arm tactics. At a recent meeting of the party leadership about two dozen of her supporters loudly heckled Reddy and disrupted the caucus several times with screams of "The Congress is Indira." During the emergency, their battle cry was "India is Indira."
More than 600 caucus delegates sat quietly through the uproar, clearly perturbed but evidently fearful of speaking against the woman who led the nation for 11 years.
Gandhi, suffering from a sore throat and fever, attacked Reddy and his defenders, who suggested that at this stage the Congress required unity above all else. "Unity for what?" the 59-year-old former prime minister demanded shrilly.
She accused the Reddy faction of actively seeking to subvert the party's interests in order to reach an understanding with the People's Party and its Hindu chauvenist Jana Sangh faction.
Some Indian analusts believe the ultimate result of this pressure and resistance will be a complete split in the Congress Party. It would bot be the first time. in 1969, Gandhi forced Desai and a number of his followers out and they formed what came to be known as the "Congress-Organization."
Should the party fracture again, according to internationally respected political writer Romesh Thapar. "She will be left with nothing more than a rump party of goondas (thugs) while the respectable members of Congress will slip over to the Janata."
Other analysts also see the possibility of a split in the ruling party itself. "This is merely an interim government," said Rajinder Puri, a syndicated columnist and People's Party supporter who has bitterly opposed Gandhi for years. "I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if the Janata breaks wide open in the next three to six months," he said.
Where this would lead is anyone's guess. A number of observers believe that the Jana Sangh would assume leadership. Represented in the current government by Foreign Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Information Minister L. K. Advane, the caderbased Jana Sangh is widely believed to be the best-disciplined party in India.
Although large elements of India's Hindu majority as well as most of the Moslem minority would not welcome rule by the Jana Sangh, many Indians now say that it is the only party capable of restoring a measure of stability.
Since Desai's government assumed power, the enforced stability established under Gandhi's "emergency" has decayed markedly, Gandhi has made a number of wildly exaggerated claims in this regard, but even her detractors admit that the quality of Indian life has slipped.
Labor unions, bottled up under emergency bans, have gone on strike throughtout the country. Prices of cooking oil, cotton cloth and other essentials have risen. The government has proven incapable of controlling prices and at the same time has failed to provide underpaid workers with a living wage.
Fortunately for the government, a series of good monsoons has enabled India to amass an unprecedented stockpile of wheat and rice, and the perennial crisis to food shortages is not now a consideration.
Nor has Desai taken significant steps on longer range problems.
When Desai entered office, he vowed to alter India's development process, from concentration on heavy industry to emphasis on the needs of shifting small farmers and the improverished rural masses. Nothing, in fact, has been done.
Family planning, crucial to the long range survival of this country in which the population rises by 13 million every year, has been almost totally ignored. Compulsory sterilization under Gandhi gave family planning a nasty name, but specialists say the government could and should be doing far more to get the program back on track.
A chronic power shortage continues to cripple farmers who rely on electricity for irrigation is the current dry season. In many parts of northern India the nation's wheat bowl, farmers receive as little as two hours of electrical power a day.
Here in the capital, hotels are crowded with representatives of major industrial houses who spend their days lobbying with ministers and officials for a piece of the future action in rural development, and their evenings muttering about the alternate "dry days" Desai has imposed enroute to total prohibition.
"We're still waiting for the government to declare its policy so that we can make our bid," said a spokesman for one of the largest industrial groups, "but the picture is muddled and as a result there's no investment and no expansion."
The business community is also distrrbed by the recent arrests of K. K. Birla, a millionaire industrialist, and several other prominent businessmen on corruption charges linked to Gandhi's rule. "We don't know what role, if any, the government has in mind for the priveate sector," said one industrial leader. "Some of them seem out to destroy us."
Yet, despite their basic disappointment, many Indians still seem to have a reserve of good will for the government. Those who look back beyond the "emergency" recall that price increases, wage disputes, strikes and other complaints have always been a part of the Indian landscape. By comparison with some recent periods, their circumstances are not that bad.
"Say what you will against them," commented an executive with a large New Delhi bank. "They've restored democracy and that's one thing Mrs. Gandhi certainly would not have done. If she didn't prove it during the emergency, she's left no doubt now that she's a true demagogue."