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NEHRU'S SECULARIST `GOOD' WAS INTERRED WITH HIS BONES

In life Jawaharlal Nehru was often compared to the great banyan trees of India: enormously grand, wonderfully sheltering - but in whose shade nothing grows.

This week, precisely 27 years after Nehru's death at 74 following a long period of deteriorating health, India is still seeking the roots of a viable future. The violent religious and sectional passions that earlier cost the country its saintly Mahatma, Mohandas K. Gandhi, have now taken, in succession, Nehru's daughter and grandson. And what happens next may matter significantly not just to India but to the United States as well.There was a time, not that long ago, when this point would have appeared not only self-evident but understated. For a generation after World War II, a dominant idea in many academic, diplomatic and media circles was that the future of Asia would be decided by what was perceived as the titanic struggle between democratic India and totalitarian China.

The notion of such a defining competition for the world's largest continent seems ludicrous today, but it was very much in vogue when I arrived in New Delhi in March 1963 as the Baltimore Sun's chief Asia correspondent, assigned to live in India because my editors were convinced, like so many of their contemporaries, that this would be the decisive arena for Asia's future. (They were not pleased when I subsequently reported, first, that if there was such an overriding India-China competition, the rest of Asia seemed blithely oblivious to it, and second, that if this alleged competition was indeed to be decisive, we were betting on the wrong horse.)

But I soon went calling on Nehru, still a dazzlingly impressive figure, self-described as "a queer mixture of East and West" - white-haired and eloquent, softly chuckling as he delivered sly, Cambridge-accented Briticisms, the red rose shaking in his white sherwani coat (which inspired one of the West's most ephemeral fads: the "Nehru jacket").

It was a time of relative amity with the United States, to which Nehru felt India had moved "nearer" because of the prompt help it had given in 1962 when China started a border skirmish. But in our extensive talk in his simple, sunlighted office in the sandstone Parliament building, Nehru unwittingly foreshadowed India's descent. Time and again, he reiterated his rigid insistence on three tenets of ideology: socialism, secularism and nonalignment.

From the vantage point of 1991, it seems clear, Nehru's ultimate obituary was provided by Shakespeare's Marc Antony, when he observed: "The evil that men do lives after them,/ The good is oft interred with their bones."

The good was secularism: the Gandhian vision of a society in which people of all religions, and no religion, could live in harmony. Yet the Mahatma himself was gunned down by a Hindu fanatic who thought him too kind to Muslims. Angry Sikhs killed Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma), and the early suspicion was that Indira's son, Rajiv, was dispatched by Hindu separatists allied to those fighting the Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka. The undeniable good seems frighteningly elusive.

Meanwhile, while secularism faltered, the other two tenets of Nehruism thrived all too well. Non-alignment has become an entirely predictable dead end, as the Soviet Union's unhidable failures brought an end to the Cold War and thus to the easy Third World game of playing off one superpower against another. And socialism, the belief that government planning is the key and private profit is the enemy, has been so horrendous a failure that Rajiv Gandhi was moving, however tentatively, to abandon it.

The smartest economic policies in the universe would not turn around India overnight; a crowded nation of 844 million, deeply divided, heavily poor and illiterate people will have massive problems as far as the eye can see. If India sunders along religious lines, it will have no more tranquillity than Belfast, Beirut or Colombo, and even its great strength - a historically non-political army - will not save it. If it turns instead to the long-scorned technology, market economics, free trade and capitalism that have enriched so much of the rest of Asia, while "Indian leadership" was becoming an ever-sourer myth, the world's second largest nation may emerge from the shade of the banyan tree at last.