When the manager of a government food shop tried to close early, people waiting in line shouted, "We'll tell Indira and she'll make you work." Similarly, an autorickshaw driver pointed to a picture of Indira Gandhi and said, "She's the only one we can depend on."
There is no question who is running India now. Just 41 days after regaining the post of prime minister, Indira Gandhi has a grasp on power that eluded the two men who held the post during the 34 months she was out of office.
While she has not been able to tackle the mounting economic woes of the country nor get her way with the Soviets in the foreign policy field, she has solidified her grip on India in ways that have left many here fearing the return of authoritarian elements of the harsh emergency rule that brought about her downfall in March 1977.
Her most far-reaching action, and the one that has generated the most controversy, came Feb. 17 when she dismissed the governments in nine states run by opposition parties in a move to strengthen her grip on the country.
Former prime minister Charan Singh charged that the move meant "fascism is on the prowl again."
The Economic Times called it an "unjustified action," and the Financial Express said it was "a reprehensible decision."
"The lesson of the emergency seems to have been completely lost on its perpetrators. Mrs. Gandhi's government has thrown all scruples -- moral, political and constitutional -- to the winds. She has once again proved . . . pthat she has no faith in the multi-party system and the right to dissent," the paper said in an editorial.
Yet, it can be argued that Gandhi simply followed the example of the Janata government that tossed her from office in March 1977. It dissolved state parliaments run by her branch of the Congress Party as soon as they were elected, a move she strongly opposed.
The Gandhi government contended that her landslide victory last month showed that the nine state legislatures no longer represented the will of the people.
Moreover, some of her allies explained, she needs the support of the upper chamber of Parliament, which is elected indirectly by the state legislatures and of the state governments to put her program through.
Earlier this month, in a move that even some Gandhi supporters objected to, the senior investigator of a case that led to the conviction of Gandhi's son, Sanjay, 33, was dragged off for questioning early one morning in connection with accusations made against him 30 months ago and found to be baseless at the time.
Government sources denied that N. K. Singh, deputy inspector general in the Central Bureau of Investigation, has been arrested, even though he was taken from his home in Delhi to the neighboring state of Haryana by 10 armed policemen and forced to post bail.
The Singh case drew complaints in Parliament from opposition politicians and protests by other police officials and their enemies.
Most significant, however, was the reaction from some Gandhi supporters. Businessmen here who campaigned for her now openly worry that she may go too far. Even Girilal Jain, the editor of the Times of India, which supported her, acknowledged that many who are not Gandhi critics regard it as "a dangerous portent."
While saying Gandhi was not to blame for the police action against N. K. Singh, he pointed out that the Indian prime minister "has still to cope with an enormous residue of distrust of her . . ."
"This distrust of by far the most effective leader in the country is not surprising," he continued. "The emergency and Mrs. Gandhi's style of functioning partly account for it."
In an inaugural radio address, Gandhi promised a "healing touch" and vowed not to be vindictive against her political foes. Yet she subsequently devoted much of another speech to airing what the Times of India called her "bitter feelings" about the way she was treated when out of office.
Shortly afterward, reports were leaked to a news agency here that a special commission had found that close relatives of the two men who were prime ministers while Gandhi was out of office -- Morarji Desai and Charan Singh -- had used the power of their family position to bully government officials.
These were the same type of charges that other commissions had leveled against Gandhi, her son Sanjay and their associates, many of whom now are once more in the government.
Congress-I (for India) politicans are trying to get all the mileage they can from these charges without falling prey to claims of vindictiveness.
At the same time, the charges against Gandhi and her followers are disappearing. Both special courts set up last year to hear charges that Gandhi, Sanjay and others abused their powers during the emergency have now found they were constitured illegally, and have dissolved themselves.
Sanjay and former information minister V. C. Shukla, meanwhile, are appealing in the Supreme Court their conviction on charges of conspiring to destroy a political satire film. This is the case that N. K. Singh investigated.
While the lawyers argue in court on his behalf, Sanjay is riding high as India's number two political leader. He controls a bloc of 42 members of the lower house of Parliament. They cluster around him and dress in similar white, homespun clothes with a bright-colored shawl casually tossed over their shoulders.
Many are former Youth Congress leaders, and their allegiance is to Sanjay. When the government's new home minister, Zail Singh, was having a hard time defending himself against the more adept members of the opposition, Sanjay's bloc let him escape by disrupting the proceedings with shouts and catcalls.
They also led Youth Congress assaults on oppostion state governments that led to charges that Sanjay was trying to wreck the federal-state relations in India. Some of the Youth Congress demonstrations ended in violence, with Sanjay's parliamentary allies arrested.
A codefendant with Sanjay is a case involving a conspiracy to demolish houses in two villages near Deim during the emergency, Jagmohan, has just been named lieutenant governor of Delhi, the highest official of the municipality. His case is till pending before the courts.
The new police commissioner of Delhi, P. S. Bhinder, also stood trial on charges of committing excesses during the emergency but was acquitted
The Indian press is especially concerned that Gandhi will repeat the strict censorship and jailing of journalists that occurred during her 18 months of emergency rule.
Information Minister Vasant Sathe tried to calm them with a promise that they should feel "absolutely free." But further shock waves rippled through the journalistic community here with reports the Gandhi government was considering merging India's four national news agencies -- two English-language, two Hindi -- into one, as it did during the emergency.
Nonetheless, Gandhi retains the national popularity that swept her into office with more than a two thirds majority in the lower house.
Even those who dislike her politics admire the new strong image she is giving India on the world scene, and image that was sorely lacking during the Desai and Charan Singh administrations.
Leaders from President Carter's representative Clark Clifford and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrel Gromyko to the kings of Nepal and Bhutan have come or are coming here.
There are indications, however, that her halcyon days may be ending as the country's economic problems mount. Prices have risen in recent weeks and it looks as if the Gandhi government will have to present an austerity budget.
This may explain why Gandhi moved early to topple the state governments as her ability to win elections is expected to decline as economic problems mount.