Prime Minister Indira Gandhi finds herself mired in a political crisis in which her government appears immobilized and her personal leadership is being publicly questioned for the first time in her long political career.
The skyrocketing price of sugar and its frequent disappearance from the shops has turned into the most visible symbol of the growing discontent with the 10-month-old government's apparent inability to resolve India's rampamnt inflation and continued communal strife.
But even Gandhi supporters have begun to criticize the government's inabilitt to deal with day to day affairs let alone with a host of special problems. Moreover, Gandhi's leadership abilities and decisiveness are increasingly being questioned.
"A Crisis of Leadership" was the headline the magazine India Today used on a cover story whose main illustration was a cartoon of Gandhi unsuccessfully trying to hold up a door that was breaking apart under the weight of the country's problems.
Indira Gandhi, the article began, "sits at the head of a government that appears to have been seized by an inexplicable paralysis."
"This is the first time that Mrs. Gandhi is facing a crisis of this magnitude," the article continued. "She has experienced political defeat, but never was her power of leadership been called into question."
"Has the PM [prime minister] lost her zest for leadership," asked G. K. Reddy, perhaps New Delhi's most respected political commentator, in his column in the Hindu newspaper.
Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of India's revered Mahatma Gandhi and a political foe of Indira Gandhi (no relation) asked a similar question in the magazine Himmat: "Is Mrs. Gandhi losing her flair and grip?"
With the exception of twice denying widespread rumors that she is in ill health -- which had the reverse affect of reinforcing the rumors -- Gandhi appears to be ignoring the rising storm of criticism. In recent, weeks she has gone on a tour of holy temples, unusual for her since she is not known as a particularly religious woman.
But she has not acted during the past 10 months with the decisiveness and political acumen that many expected from her.
She still has not filled one-third of her cabinet, including such major posts as defense, and the civil service is reported to be demoralized by shifts she has made in the upper echelons strictly on the basis of loyalty.
Her cabinet and chief ministers of the states under the control of her Congress I(for Indira) Party are widely considered to be the weakest in India's 33-year history as an independent nation -- picked more for their loyalty to her than for their ability.
Moreover, she is believed to be cut off from all advice except from a group of "yes men" that has stuck by her over the years.
Beyond that, Gandhi has made no bold moves, for instance, in the wake of the loss of oil from India's two main suppliers, Iraq and Iran, to heal the breach with the northeast state of Assam where agitations over the past year have cut off the flow of one-third of India's vitally ended domestic oil production.
Nor has she paid a personal visit to the town of Moradabad, where bloody Hindu-Moslem communal riots in August left more than 100 dead and where killings still continue. This contrasts markedly with the image she presented during her 33 months out of office, when she made a point to visit every trouble spot in the nation and was often the only politician to do so.
Thus there is appearance of a government fiddling while India burns.
Wholesale prices are up more than 27 percent since January, when she took office, with the price of onions, which she made a major campaign issue, the only commodity to go down. Even a cup of tea at a roadside stall -- the common refreshment here -- has increased 66 percent since January and one Delhi housewife no longer serves sweets with tea and asks guests to bring their own sugar.
Since she won election on a platform to bring law and order and end communal strife, crime has increased and there have been 400 major clashes between different ethnic, religious or caste groups that have killed 750 persons.
Industrial production has dropped 5 percent since January. The power shortages have worsened to the point where Delhi -- the capital of a country that likes to refer to itself as the 10th largest industrial giant in the world -- cannot generate enough electricity to prevent frequent power outages.
In foreign policy, India increasingly has become more isolated in the region and the rest of Asia as the only non -- communist nation to recognize the Vietnamese-installed government in Cambodia and for its refusal to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Close supporters of the Gandhi goverrnment echoed in a series of interviews this week her public statements that al l these problems were inherited from the 33 months in which she was out of office. They said she is building up systems that were allowed to decay under past administrations and that results will be seen soon.
But other supporters as well as her political foes see signs of major changes, which were first supposed to come this summer after state elections gave Gandhi's party massive majorities in state as well as the national legislatures.
The death of her son and closest political advisor, Sanjay Gandhi, last June in a plane crash short-circuited the intiatives that were to have appeared then. Since he was the iron fist that kept the ruling politicians in line and since large numbers of the newly elected state and national legislators owed personal loyalty to Sanjay, the Congress I Party has been in disarray since then. Gandhi, according to such serious commentators as Reddy, has appeared unable or unwilling to pull them back together.
She acknowledged in a revealing interview shortly after Sanjay's death that the loss left hidden scars.
Some observers here believe the loss of Sanjay left her with no will to govern. Others, engaging in the dangerous game of psychohistory, said she had only two aims in running for office. One was to vindicate herself after her humiliating 1977 defeat brought about largely by the excesses of her harsh emergency rule and the other was to assure that Sanjay -- who was blamed for many of the excesses -- -- would succeed her to continue the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled India for most of its life as an independent state.
Now, according to this widely expressed view, she has no reason to govern.
But some of her opponents believe she is deliberately allowing the country to go through paralysis and drift to give her an excuse to declare an emergency similar to the one under which thousands of political foes were jailed, heavy press censorship was instituted and she ran the country untrammeled by democratic traditions.
"The trick in all this," wrote Arun Shourie in the Indian Express, "is to let things drift till the people themselves are convinced that things indeed have become intolerable, till they themselves clamor for the whip hand."
The Gandhi government last month took on extreme powers of preventive detention that allow it to throw people in jail for as long as a year without filing formal charges.
Already, under these new powers 700 persons -- described as "black marketeers, profiteers and hoarders" -- have been jailed in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and 10 "leading criminals" have been arrested here in Delhi with more on the list.
In Bombay today, police arrested 3,000 persons after six opposition parties staged a one-day strike to protest rising prices and increasing crime. Many of the 3,000 were arrested for violating a state government ban on rallies and for trying to obstruct public transportation. But police said 750 were jailed as "a precautionary measure."