NEW DELHI, JUNE 7 -- Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi won widespread domestic applause last week by ordering Air Force transports, escorted by jet fighters, to drop relief supplies to Tamils involved in the civil war in neighboring Sri Lanka. The move also briefly helped to distract public attention from an array of political problems at home for the Indian leader.
Many analysts here agreed that the dramatic aerial resupply, after Sri Lanka patrol boats had turned back Indian fishing boats loaded with relief supplies, was inspired largely by domestic political concerns; India has more than 50 million Tamils with close ties to those in Sri Lanka. But after winning a brief chorus of support for the airlift, Gandhi's government is again facing sharp criticism on domestic issues.
Moreover, India's brusque treatment of its smaller neighbor has drawn international condemnation, notably from other nearby countries, renewing the division in South Asia between India and the weaker nations that live in its shadow.
Since early this year, Gandhi's government has labored under growing public controversy about its handling of several issues, especially allegations that officials of his administration took millions of dollars in bribes in awarding a contract to the Swedish arms manufacturer Bofors. The alleged kickbacks are linked to the awarding of a March 1986 contract to Bofors for an artillery weapons system for India's Army.
In addition, Gandhi's policy of nearly two years in dealing with the crisis in the state of Punjab collapsed last month. He dismissed the moderate Sikh state government there that he had once hoped might control Sikh extremists seeking independence from predominantly Hindu India. Gandhi has also been through a constitutional dispute with India's president and faces critical elections in Haryana State.
A.S. Abraham, the Bombay-based editor of the Times of India, questioned in an editorial the official Indian contention that it flew the supplies into Sri Lanka as an essential humanitarian gesture: "There remains the question of whether India's determination to prevent Sri Lanka from carrying its military solution to the bitter end has been motivated by domestic political, rather than objective altruistic, considerations."
Over recent weeks, Sri Lanka's offensive against Tamil guerrillas fighting for regional autonomy led India's own Tamil community to press Gandhi to intervene. Gandhi could not risk alienating his Tamil constituents, in part because the government of Tamil Nadu State is his party's most powerful ally in southern India.
"It is true that the government is facing several crises," said Rajendra Sareen, an analyst who publishes a New Delhi-based public opinion survey. In an interview, Sareen said "it is also true that the government has to show the Tamils in south India that it has their best interests in hand, or it will risk another agitation" by Indian Tamils, who campaigned for autonomy from India in the mid-1960s.
Last week, when Gandhi's government held a four-day confrontation with Sri Lanka by sending first a fleet of fishing boats and then Air Force planes to deliver relief supplies to Tamils there, it was able to redirect national attention to foreign affairs and try to shore up its sliding popularity.
The dramatic Indian intervention in Sri Lanka coincided with the release, scheduled in advance, of a Swedish government report on the Bofors deal that had the potential to intensify what is already one of Gandhi's biggest political headaches. And, by taking along nearly 100 journalists on its Sri Lankan initiative, the Indian government was careful to insure the greatest possible press coverage.
On Friday, stories about the airlift overshadowed the news of the Swedish report on the Bofors deal, and Indian opposition leaders from across the political spectrum applauded Gandhi's action with rare unanimity. "This was the first move this government carried out properly to its logical end," said Madhu Dandavate, the leader in parliament of the Janata (People's) Party, normally a strong critic of the government.
Over the weekend, a high-ranking official of Gandhi's Congress (I) Party conceded privately that diverting attention from the Bofors report provided part of the government's motive for the drama off India's southern coast. In addition to momentarily overshadowing the Bofors scandal, the supply mission "has also brought up our stock in Haryana" State, where the Congress faces a politically critical state election on June 17, the official said.
Gandhi's respite from criticism was brief.
Parts of the Swedish government report, leaked to reporters by officials here, revealed none of the bribe-taking by Indian officials that has been alleged by critics of Gandhi's government. However, the report, which appeared to have focused mostly on the Swedish end of the transaction, did say that Bofors spent between $26 million and $39 million, or 2 to 3 percent of the total cost of the deal, to pay unidentified persons in India who were said to have provided consulting services to help win the contract. That conclusion sharpens Gandhi's difficulties on the issue, because his declared policy has been to negotiate defense contracts directly with suppliers, insisting that no agents or middlemen be involved.
The high-ranking Congress (I) Party official said the Swedish government passed on to Gandhi's administration a list of five persons who may have received the funds. On Friday, Gandhi ordered a parliamentary investigation and vowed to punish the beneficiaries "no matter how highly placed they might be."
The Swedish report left Gandhi facing continued accusations of wrongdoing by officials of his administration. With sometimes shrill rhetoric, the numerous opposition parties have sharply criticized Gandhi, some calling for his resignation.
While the airlift may have momentarily relieved Gandhi of domestic criticisms, it has rekindled a basic Indian foreign policy problem: relations with the much smaller nations that live nervously in its shadow. The Indian flight into Sri Lanka has crystallized the worries of its neighbors, any of whom would be vulnerable to similar interventions by India.
Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal all condemned the airlift, with a Pakistani spokesman calling it a "deplorable infringement of international law." Like Sri Lanka, those countries are members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), a two-year-old grouping whose foreign ministers are to meet in New Delhi on June 17. Amid the protests by other SAARC members, Sri Lanka has called for a debate on the Indian action at the SAARC meeting and the United Nations.