Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has taken a major political risk in deciding this week to go ahead, as scheduled, with elections in volatile Punjab State despite the assassination of its leading Sikh moderate, Harchand Singh Longowal.
The decision to hold the elections despite this week's assassination of his most respected -- and moderate -- Sikh interlocutor is being used here as a test of Gandhi's ambitious attempt to seek accommodation with the often militant Sikh minority, a policy that Gandhi has pursued forcefully since assuming the prime ministership last year after his mother's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards.
Gandhi, having taken similar peace initiatives with militants in the strategic northeastern state of Assam, has placed his political prestige on the line.
As Gandhi's political advisers tell all comers these days, the 40-year-old prime minister has chosen to make his name in Indian history as an advocate and promoter of accommodation, rather than of the aggressive confrontation that marked much of his mother's long rule.
Nowhere has that accommodation been more important than in the surprise accord he negotiated with Sikh moderates last July 24. That agreement, for the most part, acceded to many Sikh demands, although not to the militants' pressure for the right of self-determination and an autonomous Sikh state within India.
Gandhi's most important negotiating partner in reaching that agreement was Longowal, who had emerged as a leading Sikh political leader because of his opposition to Indira Gandhi when she declared a "national emergency" that wiped out constitutional freedoms in India in 1975.
The July 24 agreement was significant because Longowal was the dominant figure in the Sikh's main political party, Akali Dal, and his prestige and standing held promise of uniting the Sikh majority behind the agreement despite the opposition of Sikh radicals.
Gandhi's success thus hinged in no small part on his expectation that Longowal could carry the bulk of Sikh voters behind him in the long overdue electoral test in Punjab. This was, in fact, one of the unstated conditions for the implementation of the July 24 accords.
It was Longowal's decision to field a slate of Akali Dal candidates in these key local elections, announced only 24 hours before his death, that seems to have doomed him. This has presented Gandhi with the challenge of revising his Punjab strategy or pressing ahead.
The message of Longowal's assassination was simple and straightforward: any Sikh who was solidly behind the July 24 agreement with the central government was a marked man and, despite all the security that surrounded Longowal, he was easily assassinated. The extremists made the point that they could reach even the most protected representative of the Sikh community.
As Pran Chopra, a leading Indian political scientist, put it in the daily Indian Express today: "The sanest voice in Punjab politics has been silent. We have lost the tallest man in Sikh politics in recent years who had put all his force behind a marriage between the mainstream of national politics on the one hand and the particular interests of community and the state on the other hand."
From Prime Minister Gandhi's point of view, the whole compromise he negotiated hung on the influence of Longowal and his moderate, although less visible, associates upon the Sikh majority they represented.
The drama for Gandhi now is that with Longowal dead, the Sikh majority consensus he had sought to weld may have crumbled. There are signs of division over the accords, the pending elections and the choice of Longowal's successor.
Only in the coming days of political negotiations among the Sikhs will the prospects for the July 24 agreement and the future become clear.
In the meantime, the terrorists have made their point that any candidate from Akali Dal who chooses to contest the election, especially on a moderate platform, must face the prospect of being a target of the extremists who killed the party's most important leader.
Because of the threat of such terrorism, Gandhi has been under great pressure to defer the Punjab election. Yet the state has been under emergency rule by the central government for the past two years -- a situation that has fueled Sikh resentment.
The choices faced by Gandhi were clear: he either had to bow to the influence of terrorists and annul the elections or, as he chose in the end, push ahead with a vote that would establish whether the moderates or the extremists spoke for the majority.
After much debate within his own party, in Parliament and among the Sikhs themselves this week, Gandhi decided that he had little choice but to go ahead with the election -- even if it was a political gamble that he stood a great chance of losing.