Indians often ask how their huge, diverse nation, wracked by three major separatist insurgencies, a deepening religious divide and ingrained caste violence, survives as a democracy.

After the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in a bomb blast in southern Tamil Nadu state Tuesday night, they will be asking that question again.They always do in moments of national agony, which have been numerous in India's 44 years of independence from Britain.

Always, in calmer moments, Indians say the forces that unite them are in the end greater than those which divide.

Few really believe there is any alternative to the democracy, however flawed, of which they are proud.

That belief, however, will now undergo another serious test.

Gandhi, 46, was the third generation of a family that led India to independence from Britain in 1947 and that has governed it for most of the years since then.

He led the Congress Party, already the unifying factor in a country the size of Western Europe when his grandfather Jawarharlal Nehru joined its ranks seven decades ago.

Now many ask whether the party has outlived its usefulness to India.

Gandhi's assassination was hardly the way they hoped its future would be decided.

The killing leaves the tiny minority government of Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar with less caretaker authority than ever. It is already blamed by Congress Party demonstrators for failing to stop the unknown bombers who killed Gandhi.

It leaves the Congress Party rudderless in an election campaign in which the remaining voting for 60 percent of the 537 seats at stake has been postponed until next month.

Above all it underlines India's endemic political violence and raises the question of whether anyone has a solution to it.

An assassin killed the pacifist founding father of India, Mahatma Gandhi, just months after independence. Rajiv Gandhi's mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was gunned down by her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984.

Gandhi threw himself into the unwanted campaign which led to his death knowing that some powerful party underlings questioned his leadership.

Political scientists voiced doubts about the unity of his party, saying it had artificially preserved its pre-independence embrace of the political spectrum and was overdue to split left, right and center.

Some were wondering whether India should sacrifice its often near-anarchic exercise of freedom for the sake of economic progress.

But the questions look a lot tougher now that violence, not persuasion, has ended the Nehru dynasty.