BADSHAHPUR, INDIA, NOV. 8 -- Toonda, a 78-year-old peasant farmer who goes by only one name, dropped by the woodcutting shop here this morning to sharpen his plow. A visitor asked what he thought of the political spectacle in the capital, an hour's drive away, where moves are afoot to form a new government following prime minister V.P. Singh's ouster on Wednesday.

"People are dying everywhere, people are burning buses on the road, prices are going through the roof -- and where is the government?" Toonda replied. "Nobody's really interested in governing the country. They're only interested in their seats."

After weeks of violence across the country and opportunistic politicking in New Delhi, Toonda's cynicism about India's political establishment appears to be widely shared. Disappointed that Singh was unable to fulfill his promises to instill integrity in government, and disgusted by this week's jockeying in the capital, many Indians express despair about the future of their fragile democracy.

"None of the parties in the field can escape responsibility for the squalid levels to which the country's politics has been reduced in these two months," said the Indian Express newspaper in a front-page editorial. "The Indian state and the political system have been reduced almost to a shambles by a combination of unbridled play of personal ambitions and the crassest kind of populism that has stirred up dormant animosities."

The manuevering continued without any concrete result in New Delhi today. President Ramaswamy Venkataraman, met with former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and other leaders to discuss the situation but made no announcement about what solution he favored. Gandhi declined an offer to form a government, and his Congress Party reiterated that it would support socialist Chandra Shekhar's bid to lead a minority government.

Indians ranging from illiterate villagers to university political scientists have no shortage of theories about why the country's politics have descended into backbiting and confusion. Those old enough to recall the days immediately following independence lament the passing of such strong leaders as Jawaharal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi, whose authority over the country went largely unquestioned for two decades and whose secular, nationalist beliefs helped to unite a fractious polity.

The weakening of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the Congress Party it built -- evident in Rajiv Gandhi's recent ineffectual leadership and the party's fragmentation -- has thrown centrist Indian politics into disarray. Rival politicians share the Congress's basic ideology of a mixed socialist economy and secularism but they scrap among themselves for power and prominence.

Into this void has rushed the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party, whose religious nationalism and promises of change seem to appeal to many in the middle classes who are tired of old-style politics. But as the BJP has grown, it has polarized voters, ignited Hindu-Moslem violence, and forced politicians of all stripes to choose sides.

Many urban Indians blame the present state of affairs on collusion between big business houses and the political establishment. They say business success in India often depends less on energy or ingenuity than on access to government licenses and contracts, so the country's oldest and largest conglomerates have learned to reward helpful polticians with cash or lucrative business deals.

Such trends have left ordinary Indians feeling angry toward their politicians but uncertain about how to force a change.

Under a shade tree in Bhondsi village outside New Delhi this morning, a half-dozen retired civil servants and soldiers agreed that every politician they could think of, with the possible exception of Singh, was a crooked opportunist. "I think they are all culprits," said retired soldier Ved Prakash. "They are corrupt and selfish."

The group was wary of fresh elections, worried that religious and caste violence might get out of hand. The retirees doubted whether any leader could emerge from a new vote strong enough to tackle the pressing problems in their daily lives, which they identified as inflation and the threat of religious and caste war.

In a nearby high school classroom, about 50 10th-grade civics students were asked, under the watchful eye of their proud teacher, whether it mattered who was prime minister. "It doesn't make any difference," one boy rose to say.

His answer appeared to anger his teacher, who interrupted in rapid-fire Hindi, "What do you mean it doesn't make any difference? Are you saying it doesn't matter who is the prime minister?"

Seemingly taken aback, the boy contemplated his teacher's questions briefly and then said, "Until they sit down and do something it won't make any difference. They can only be judged by their actions."