A New, Nuclear, India?


In early March this year, India had a new government. It was the seventh to be formed in less than a decade; and it seemed for the first few weeks as though the eighth was not very far off. The Hindu nationalist BJP (Indian People’s Party) and its allies, in office for a total of thirteen days in 1996, had a hard time mustering the required majority in the parliament and then came under heavy pressure from its coalition partners.

The leader of one of the BJP’s more important allies, from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, an eccentric former film star called Jayalalitha, whose party has eighteen seats in the parliament, bargained hard to have her supporters included in the central cabinet, and started attacking the new prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for forcing out one of them after he was charged in a corruption case. The Prime Minister was slow to fire two others of his coalition partners—both facing corruption charges. Other partners branded him as weak and indecisive, and then made their own demands; one called for the dismissal of an elected state government. Rumors about the impending collapse of the government in the forthcoming parliamentary session had started going around when in mid-May the government resorted to an old bogey—national security—to buy time for itself.

After four wars with China and Pakistan in the last fifty years, and several violent separatist movements, a general consensus exists in India on issues of national security: no political party can question the country’s huge defense expenditure (nine soldiers for every doctor) without being called anti-national. Thus saber rattling and rhetoric about threats to India’s security from China and Pakistan have become favorite ruses of beleaguered Indian governments. India’s first nuclear test in 1974 came in handy for Indira Gandhi when she was facing a crippling railway strike (the first of the political challenges that eventually led her to suspend civil rights in 1975). When faced with growing allegations of incompetence and corruption in 1987, Rajiv Gandhi had military exercises held provocatively close to the Pakistan border and made political capital out of the resulting tension. The jingoism of a weak coalition government almost forced India into war with Pakistan in 1989.

Some sort of Indian response was in the cards once Pakistan, which acquired nuclear capability in the 1980s, announced in April the successful test-firing of an IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) capable of carrying nuclear warheads as deep as 1000 miles into Indian territory. On May 28 Pakistan announced that it had carried out nuclear tests. But few people expected the response to the April announcement to be as emphatic—and, for the BJP, well-timed—as India’s five nuclear tests in early May, which radically redefined India’s relationship with the world.

A low-intensity military conflict with Pakistan has been going on for the last decade in the remote northern reaches of the Himalayas; and there is increasing evidence that China has shared some of its nuclear knowledge with Pakistan. However, the government’s claim, in a letter from Vajpayee to Bill Clinton, that India’s nuclear testing was meant to dramatize the country’s security concerns before an international audience is only part of the truth.

India acquired nuclear capability in 1974 with what it termed a peaceful explosion: “The Buddha has smiled” was the coded message of success to the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi; more incongruous words have been used since then to defend and justify India’s nuclear policies. Successive Indian governments have refused to sign the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) and CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) on the grounds that these treaties discriminated against the countries outside the group of five nuclear powers (US, Russia, France, China, and Britain): an exclusive club formed of countries that had exploded a nuclear device before January 1, 1967. The Indians have long wanted to gain entry into that club: the assumption is that official recognition of their status as a nuclear power (while facilitating India’s much-sought-after permanent seat in the Security Council) would free them from the discriminatory strictures imposed on signatories of the treaties, and would bring them the special privileges and rights of other club members, which include the right to privately refine and develop nuclear armories without testing.

Much rhetoric about the need for a disarmament schedule and attacks on Western countries for their hypocrisy have been heard from the Indian representatives at various international forums on the nuclear question in recent years, while India, according to intelligence agencies in the US and Europe, was busily accumulating enough plutonium to make several bombs. Much is also known about India’s ambitious plans to build nuclear submarines and missiles, including an ICBM. Clandestine work on developing nuclear weapons has gone on for a long time. But India so far had been careful to keep up an image of self-restraint by not formally declaring or displaying its military capacity, especially recently, when relations with Pakistan and China have generally been better than at any other time in the last two decades.

The response in India makes it clear that it was more a local than an international audience that the BJP had in mind. The nuclear tests have been extremely popular, particularly among the urban middle class, the BJP’s prime constituency: initial opinion polls showed an approval rating of 91 percent; the figure may have gone down slightly since then. In the period following 1984—when the party was gaining strength—the bloody terrorist movements in Punjab and Kashmir (which caused an estimated 40,000 deaths) and the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi as well as other Indian leaders exacerbated an underlying paranoia toward Pakistan among middle-class Hindus. In his letter to Clinton, Vajpayee described Pakistan as “bitter”—without giving a reason for that bitterness. But many Indians think it has to do with Pakistan’s humiliating defeat in the war over Bangladesh in 1971. They also believe that a vengeful Pakistan has fomented and aided all the violent secessionist movements in India in the last two decades—has, in effect, conducted a proxy war against India.

To large sections of the educated middle class, the nuclear tests—one of which, so the Indians claim, signaled hydrogen bomb capability—represent a toughness toward Pakistan that they have long wanted. Not unexpectedly, the hard-line home minister, L.K. Advani, has talked of punishing Pakistan for its support of Muslim secessionists in Kashmir. The tests removed a feeling of “national weakness” among Indians, a BJP spokesman said. This is why criticism of the Prime Minister virtually ceased for a while after the tests: he was now praised, even by his recent opponents, for being courageous and decisive, for having done what no previous government could do, and for having also in the process delivered on the BJP’s electoral promise to exercise what is referred to in India as the nuclear option.

Most Indian newspapers, although not all, have welcomed the tests and joined the government in deploring the double standard of the five nuclear powers that would deny India what they themselves possess in abundance. The opposition parties at first felt themselves compelled to go along with the public mood; the Congress Party, under Sonia Gandhi, first considered opposing the tests, then supported them, and, after the huge surge in the BJP’s popularity, which threatens them directly, is now slowly modifying its position. Some parties that formed the previous government even tried to claim credit for the tests by saying that they had prepared the ground for them. Among political parties, only the Communists at first dared to raise questions about the BJP’s motives and timing. The nation-wide euphoria over what is seen as a big step for India in the world is now likely to keep the BJP’s fickle partners in line: they will be nervous about the possibility of another round of elections, which may return the BJP to power with a clear majority, for dramatic international sanctions would stoke a defensive patriotism within India that the BJP is well-placed to exploit.

After the first wave of euphoria and celebrations, dissenting voices, however, are beginning to be heard. Scientists from two prestigious Indian institutions, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and Institute of Mathematical Research, have published protests against the tests, pointing to the incongruity of a third-world nation aspiring to first-world nuclear status. India’s two most respected news magazines, Outlook and Frontline, have expressed deep skepticism about the tests; these magazines represent the opposition to the tests among India’s small metropolitan intelligentsia.

But whipping up xenophobia and patriotic fervor among the middle class alone cannot ensure the government’s stability. Troublesome partners are quiet only for now. What is clear is that nuclear muscle-flexing will not go any way toward solving India’s gigantic problems of poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, and overpopulation. These problems are best addressed by stable governments. Whether the present government, despite its current popularity, can last its full five-year term is doubtful.


The Congress Party that led the movement for freedom from the British did provide India that essential stability for forty-three out of its fifty years, when it was the only pan-Indian political force in sight. But its decline in recent years has led to a fast turnover of political parties and personalities, with coalitions springing up overnight and members of parliament changing parties twice or thrice in a single day amid rumors of payoffs and fierce competition. Late last year, the BJP did look as if it might replace the Congress, which was seriously weakened by dissidence, while its leaders were preoccupied with fighting corruption charges in the courts. After a long run in power it won just enough seats in the elections two years ago to enable it to support, from outside, a ragtag coalition of regional and left-wing parties and keep its main competition, the BJP, at bay. For the 1998 elections, the BJP was set to achieve an easy majority in the parliament.

Then, shortly after Christmas, Sonia Gandhi announced her decision to campaign for the Congress, the party of her late husband and mother-in-law, and the situation changed for both the Congress and the BJP. In Goa, where I heard Sonia Gandhi speak at an election rally, I met an Italian journalist. He was part of the large contingent of Italian reporters and photographers trailing Mrs. Gandhi on her campaign tour across India. He already had his story. Sonia Gandhi was big news in Italy, but it wasn’t her politics anyone was interested in. It was the glamour of the dynasty, the glamour of royalty in democracy, the journalist said. It’s like—what’s the English word?—yes, soap opera. Even Oriana Fallacci, he said, couldn’t have thought up a plot where a middle-class woman from a small town near Turin tries to res-cue India’s oldest political party from extinction.

The rescue seemed improbable at the time. For one, Sonia Gandhi herself was under a cloud. Fresh revelations about the Bofors scandal that unseated her husband in 1989 implicated one of Mrs. Gandhi’s closest Italian friends in Delhi as having served as a middleman in the illegal commissions allegedly paid to Rajiv Gandhi in a deal with the Swedish artillery manufacturers.

Mrs. Gandhi’s decision to campaign for the Congress came after a prolonged period during which she was repeatedly importuned to take an active role in politics by fractious party leaders who would only agree with one another about the need to make Mrs. Gandhi supreme leader. The pictures of white-clad Congress leaders contorting themselves into postures of obeisance on Mrs. Gandhi’s impeccably mowed front lawn became a regular feature in the morning papers. Their exertions were prompted by the fact that the Congress Party had declined more rapidly in the last seven years, when no member of the Nehru-Gandhi family was at its helm, than at any other time in its 113-year history.

Even before she was officially appointed the president of the party, its relentless wooing of Mrs. Gandhi bestowed a lot of authority on her. Her reticence only added to her mysterious aura; she now commands a curiously Olympian extraconstitutional status in New Delhi. Her special privileges were maintained even during the two years the Congress was out of power. Visiting heads of state continued to call upon her at her house in Delhi’s most exclusive district; she was seated along with former prime ministers at official occasions; government regulations were circumvented in order to keep the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation well supplied with money.

During the campaign, many commentators discounted Mrs. Gandhi’s influence over the electorate on the grounds that the political climate had greatly changed since the heyday of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, when Pandit Nehru or Indira Gandhi, by sheer personal charisma, could carry with them such utterly diverse groups as the Brahmins and the Dalits (low-caste Hindus)—not to mention the Muslims who used to vote en masse for the Congress. The feeling was that the old days of consensus politics were now gone, and that the Indian electorate had entered a new phase of maturity. To the stereotypical pictures of the long queues of expectant villagers outside polling booths—perhaps the most powerful and misleading image of Indian democracy yet—were added pictures of the low-caste shoemaker in a small village, someone who was no longer tempted by the Congress’s promises or dazzled by the Nehru-Gandhi name. He recognized his self-interest and knew how he could protect it by voting for men of his own caste. The representatives he voted for, genuine sons of the soil, were said to constitute a new, aggressive class of political leaders.

But the election demonstrated how much such analyses underestimated the great appeal of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Mrs. Gandhi evoked a rapturous response almost everywhere she went—and she went to a lot of places, four or five every day. Huge crowds—up to 100,000 strong—waited for long hours in all extremes of weather for her helicopter to arrive. A single gesture from her two children sent the crowds into frenzies of applause and cheering. People wept on TV while listening to her speak about the sacrifices of her assassinated relatives; tearful mothers pointed to the resemblance, which is actually very slight, between Mrs. Gandhi’s son, Rahul, and his father.

Sonia Gandhi’s Italian background, at first thought to be a liability, and her association with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty only made things easier for her. No Indian leader outside that dynasty has been able to effectively project for himself the pan-Indian identity it almost effortlessly possesses; or to avoid the taint of regionalism, casteism, or communalism. Nehru was a Brahmin from Kashmir but resident in Allahabad, an Urdu-speaker, and an Anglophile. Indira Gandhi was educated partly in Switzerland and England, and married a Parsi man. Her half-Parsi son, Rajiv Gandhi, went to Cambridge and married an Italian woman. The melange of cultural identities is unusual in Indian politics; also, glamorous. So it is that mass perceptions of the Nehru-Gandhi family usually coincide with the family’s careful self-presentation: secular, cosmopolitan, and possessed of a larger (for Nehru, almost mystical) feeling for India and Indians, above all for the toiling millions.

Public memory in India is notoriously short (Indira Gandhi was back in power three years after the worst excesses of the Emergency), and few people remember much of the dynasty’s political record. Nehru, who died in 1964, is now a legendary figure to most Indians. Sanjay Gandhi’s ruthless uprooting of whole communities in Delhi, Mrs. Gandhi’s cynical Realpolitik in Punjab, where she encouraged Sikh militancy to unsettle an opposition government, Rajiv Gandhi’s disastrous military adventures in Sri Lanka: all these events, mulled over by political analysts, seem not to matter much to the masses. What has proved most persistent in memory is the brutal manner of the deaths of Mrs. Gandhi and her sons, the patched-up corpses, the images from their funerals (all but the earliest telecast live across India), of first a grief-stricken mother, then a son, and then his widow and tender-aged children.

Sonia Gandhi used this memory to good effect, and her speeches, which blended melodramatic legend-making with harsh facts about poverty and underdevelopment, went down well in a predominantly rural country—particularly among women—oppressed by high inflation, lawlessness, and corruption. It was a campaigning style that owed much to her mother-in-law, who when pushed into a tight corner would send an emotional message of hope and consolation that bypassed preexisting political and economic realities and reached out directly to the masses. Like Indira, who was hailed as Durga (the Hindu goddess who is the incarnation of female energy) after the defeat of Pakistan in the 1971 war, Sonia Gandhi was well aware of the symbolic value of presenting herself as a benevolent mother-goddess figure—a tactic that, to judge by the number of prominent women leaders in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, appears to work well not only in India but throughout South Asia.

Because of Mrs. Gandhi’s last-minute efforts, Congress was granted a reprieve. It recovered, thanks to her, some of its old support among the poorest of voters and among Muslims. Instead of being reduced to double digits in the parliament, it has managed to remain a major player by winning 142 seats, while the BJP won 179 seats. In the months ahead, the Congress at least theoretically has enough power to topple governments, or even, with a bit of horse-trading, to form its own government, with Sonia Gandhi again in her now customary role of aloof and mysterious arbiter. Nevertheless, particularly in view of the strong support for the BJP after the nuclear tests, Congress still looks like a party in its last stages: a party with one attractive figure, but with no program, or even leaders—some of its old stalwarts were defeated in the recent elections and the younger ones have been unable to rise above the party culture of sycophancy and internecine squabbling.

For much of the time it ruled India, the Congress had no effective opposition in the parliament.1 But this advantage has not been good for Indian democracy, and it has been even less good for the Congress. Mahatma Gandhi may have had in mind the unhealthy consequences of the Congress’s hegemony when he said he wanted it to disband after independence.

The Insider by P.V. Narasimha Rao, the last Congress prime minister of India—who served between 1991 and 1996—is a remarkable new book that tells us more about the inner workings of the Congress, and hence India’s rulers, than any other book in the last fifty years. 2 Rao is a scholar and linguist of some repute in his native language, Telugu, and has spent five decades in national politics, during which time he worked very closely with the Nehru-Gandhi family. Few Indian politicians, active or retired, ever write books, and those who do are careful to spill only a few largely irrelevant beans.

The Insider is the first attempt of its sort: an account of Indian politics that is both personal and broadly historical, and also, startlingly, has the ring of truth. It raises serious doubts about the nature of Indian democracy, the way India has been ruled by the Congress, the increasing decay and corruption. In the process, it exposes the wide gap that exists between the appearance and reality of India’s Westminster-inspired democratic institutions. According to Rao, with India’s independence, “imperial authority…merely turned into Central authority…. Neither the democratic nor the federal principle had taken root to supplant the feudal ethos… [of] past centuries; the concept of kingship…was ingrained in the collective consciousness…. Democracy in action at best consisted of the question: Who should reign?”

Thus “chieftains appeared in the garb of chief ministers.” A good part of The Insider is taken up with dramatizing the attributes of one such chieftain called Mahendranath: “iron-handed administration, cruelty, sadism, egocentrism, intolerance, arbitrariness, aggressiveness, ruthlessness, sexual license as of right…and an utter contempt for the people except, of course, at election time.” “Umpteen Mahendranaths,” Rao asserts, “[dotted] the length and breadth of the country.” One of them is Chaudhury, a politician “with no particular ideology other than power.” Chaudhury does not “believe in any of the rhetoric of the Party’s statements and resolutions. In a country of sub-naked illiterates living in sub-human conditions, what is the relevance of any ideology, he often asked…. We wanted to rule our own country, so we made the British quit. That doesn’t mean we have to reject British techniques of administration. Rule with a firm hand and to hell with ideology!”

The main character of The Insider is Anand, who is very clearly based on Rao. From his childhood in a South Indian village, and then as a student inspired by the idealism of Gandhi and Nehru, Anand charts Rao’s own journey through the Congress to the highest executive job in the country. Shrewdly, Rao has written a book that is halfway between autobiography and fiction. Although recently sidelined within the Congress, Rao is still an active member of the party under Sonia Gandhi; he also has several corruption cases against him in the courts. Straightforward autobiography would have inhibited him; fiction probably has enabled him to be less economical with the truth.

It has also allowed him to reinvent himself. Anand is portrayed as being disenchanted by the cynical power games played by his party, by the skullduggery, hypocrisy, and corruption that are the Congress’s legacy to the Indian state. This is disingenuous. Rao himself was a player, and a rather good one at that: one of the charges he is currently facing is that, as prime minister of India from 1991 to 1996, he bought five MPs for $1.2 million each from a regional party in order to prop up his minority government.

It is Rao’s larger view of his subject that redeems his frequently ponderous narrative and pedestrian prose. Anand, as minister for land reforms in a provincial government, is eloquent on the government’s failure in the 1950s to redistribute cultivable land: once again, high-minded programs originating from Nehru’s office in Delhi became victims of vested interests within the Congress. The landlord class, from which many of the Congress’s leaders came, could not be antagonized; and thus the cruel economic disparities of rural India continued even as the men of the Congress learned to mouth the rhetoric of socialism.

Various books have been written about Nehru’s seventeen years in power, but they tend to focus on events in New Delhi, on what Nehru thought or said or believed. Anand, as a provincial politician, describes from a previously unavailable perspective those years when various corrupt party bosses turned not only the Congress but also Indian democracy itself into a bargaining counter for special-interest groups, each narrowly organized around specific castes, religions, and regions. (Set in the early 1950s, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy also offers a convincing fictional account of these competitive political tendencies within North India.)

What becomes clear through Rao’s narrative is that Nehru’s paternalistic style of governance strengthened an old Indian trait of looking up to remote, regal figures for ways out of social and economic distress; it set the stage for the populist personality politics of his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who, no democrat herself, took on the party bosses, and did so by the simple expedient of appealing to the masses over their heads. Garibi Hatao (“Abolish Poverty”): this was the seemingly obvious (for India) and effective slogan with which she won in 1971 one of the largest majorities ever secured in the Indian parliament.

Rao touches briefly on Mrs. Gandhi’s autocratic tendencies, her grooming of businessmen-politicians much like his character, Gopi Kishen, who, while not quite in Mrs. Gandhi’s so-called kitchen cabinet, her coterie of sycophants, “procured provisions for the kitchen.” During the days of the British Raj, Rao writes with heavy irony, Gopi Kishen was “initiated into the mysteries of politics-cum-business” by his millionaire father, who made him spend a few days in jail with other freedom fighters so that when he came out his record of patriotism would help him rise fast and high up the political and business ladder. The irony here may seem at first overdone, but Rao is merely being truthful about a very common kind of self-serving politician that came to rule India after independence.

Rao concludes his narrative in 1973, two years before Mrs. Gandhi’s infamous Emergency was declared—an act Rao now says he disapproved of, if not enough for him to think of leaving the party. The abrupt conclusion comes as a disappointment because the real story, as we know it, accelerated only after 1973. Rao has promised a sequel, but whether he’ll tell the full truth about Mrs. Gandhi’s autocratic rule will probably depend on whether he is allowed greater power within the Congress by Sonia Gandhi.

Mrs. Gandhi’s response to a court conviction for electoral malfeasance was to arrest opposition leaders clamoring for her resignation, suspend civil rights, and encourage a cult of the supreme leader around herself: “Indira is India” was the popular slogan of the time. Her ambitious son Sanjay bullied his way around democratic procedures and become a proxy prime minister. In the early 1980s, Mrs. Gandhi began to covertly support Sikh militancy in Punjab and Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka in order to gain the votes of local Hindus. Both strategies were to backfire. She was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984, a few months after ordering the disastrous invasion of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The conspiracy to kill her son, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991, was the work of Tamil secessionists who had been originally outfitted and trained by the Indian army on Mrs. Gandhi’s orders.

Rajiv Gandhi, an airline pilot by profession, won the largest-ever parliamentary majority in an election held a month after his mother died—an election Mrs. Gandhi was expected to lose—but soon squandered his immense goodwill through a series of blunders. Senior Congress leaders organized the mass executions in Delhi of 3,000 Sikhs following his mother’s death, but Rajiv had only this to say: “When a giant tree falls, the earth shakes.” The Sikhs have yet to forgive the Congress for the killings.

A lover of gadgets, Rajiv built up a personal coterie of smooth-talking young friends and advisors who knew more about the latest Apple notebook than about India’s drinking water problem. The public exchequer was drained by flamboyant and wasteful ventures designed to take India into the twenty-first century—a pet theme of Rajiv’s. He committed the Indian army to a bloody and futile war in Sri Lanka, rigged elections in Kashmir. But it was the scandal over kickbacks from Bofors that inflicted the greatest damage. He lost the 1989 elections, and a coalition of opposition parties took over from the Congress.


Of that coalition, whose constituent parties frequently change their names, and which was in office for another short-lived term, from May 1996 to December 1997, only the Communist parties have managed to retain their longstanding electoral base in West Bengal and Kerala. The rest of the parties have split and split again—sometimes until they are close to extinction. It is the BJP—part of the coalition in 1989 before it struck out on its own in 1990 with what is called the Ayodhya movement—that has most profited from the Congress Party’s present difficulties.

In December 1992, the BJP achieved international notoriety when a mob, in a fit of frenzy, demolished the Babri Masjid (or mosque) in Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Built in the early sixteenth century, the mosque is commonly believed to be the work of the Central Asian conqueror and first Mogul emperor, Babur; and like many such Islamic monuments of conquest in North India, it was constructed out of materials from the Hindu temple that stood on the same site before being destroyed to make way for the mosque.

Hindu legend identified the site as the birthplace of Lord Rama, one of the most revered Hindu gods, and there had been some talk in the last few decades among some religious Hindus about moving the mosque to an adjacent site and rebuilding the temple on the spot. The BJP saw the political potential in the talk, saw how the issue could be used to bring into its fold many Hindu voters disenchanted with the Congress. It exploited the Ayodhya issue heavily, which may have contributed to the anti-Congress wave in 1989, when the number of BJP seats in the parliament rose from two to eighty-five.

Three years later, the mosque was demolished, burdening the BJP with the fundamentalist label, an especially damaging one in view of the concurrent rise of militant fundamentalism in Algeria, Egypt, and Iran. It has to be said, however, that when applied to an Indian situation, the label simplifies far too much; nor does it help to explain the BJP, which paradoxically claims to be in opposition to theocracy of any sort, has long termed caste, the mainstay of Hindu society, a social evil, and has presented itself as a guardian of true—as opposed to what it considers the Congress’s “pseudo”—secularism.

To see the demolition as defining the BJP’s essential character and intentions is to ignore, among other things, its surprisingly flexible, if not mercurial, rhetoric. In recent elections, it has presented itself as a party for radical change, committed to building a secular, progressive India where all citizens will be equal and there shall be no discrimination based on race, caste, or religion. Accordingly, the new Prime Minister in his first speech after the election declared war on hunger, fear, and corruption. Skeptics see these self-presentations as an attempt to duplicate the Congress’s now-diminished ability to be all things to everyone, and they may be right. In the last several years, the BJP has followed the Congress in accommodating a great many contradictory aspirations and impulses in its bid for power.

But it seems fair to say that the demolition came as a surprise to many of the BJP’s own leaders, if not to the party’s extremist allies, such as Shiv Sena, the Hindu party from Bombay led by a former cartoonist and self-confessed admirer of Hitler called Bal Thackeray. Thackeray himself first acquired prominence in the 1970s with his crusade against South Indian, mostly Hindu, immigrants in Bombay, whom he accused of taking all the jobs away from the local Marathi-speaking population. Before the demolition, Thackeray switched to anti-Muslim rabble-rousing, quite independently of the BJP, and with a much cruder line: Muslims should support India in cricket matches with Pakistan, he said, or they should get out of the country and go to Pakistan.

Thackeray was quick to lend his support to the BJP on the Ayodhya issue; and the BJP, eager to create a base for itself in the state of Maharastra (of which Bombay is the capital city), allied itself successfully with the Shiv Sena against the Congress in state elections in the early Nineties. Thackeray vigorously claimed sole credit for the demolition, for which he said his men in Ayodhya had been secretly trained, although the Shiv Sena was joined in destroying the mosque by members of various Hindu lumpen and millenarian groups who, unlike Shiv Sena, were part of the original movement to rebuild the temple and felt frustrated over the lack of progress in the BJP’s attempts to reclaim the site.

For the BJP itself the demolition was a public relations disaster.3 BJP governments in four Indian states were immediately dismissed by the president, acting on the advice of the prime minister, Narasimha Rao, who was himself under pressure from his cabinet to act decisively against the BJP. Senior leaders of the party were imprisoned and charged with criminal offenses. What had started out as a political movement designed to attract Hindu voters in large numbers had got badly out of hand. The BJP has yet to offer an explanation for the violence in Ayodhya, in which several members of the media were badly injured: statements from the party leaders still range between confused regret and aggressive self-righteousness.

The demolition of the mosque was a serious setback: in an election held in Uttar Pradesh soon after, the party did badly. Nor did the violent rioting between Hindus and Muslims that preceded and followed the demolition—the worst of it in Bombay, where the Shiv Sena ran amok, and retaliatory bombings organized by Muslim mafia dons in the Middle East and Pakistan killed 300 people in one day—do much for the party’s image among the then-emerging middle classes, who wanted, more than anything else, a stable social environment in which to make money. This is doubtless why the party, while reminding voters of its promise to build a grand temple in Ayodhya, has so far done nothing about it. The temple issue featured in the BJP’s electoral manifesto, but it has been pointedly excluded from the National Agenda drawn up since. “Where is Ayodhya?”: this was Vajpayee’s response to a TV interviewer wanting to know his plans.

Indeed, the party’s original theme of exploiting popular awareness of past Hindu defeats and humiliations seems very much in cold storage at present. An awareness of history that reaches back four centuries is normally a rare thing in India. But the depredations of its Islamic conquerors have been a heavy presence in the imaginations of the Hindu educated middle class since the late nineteenth century, when Hindus educated at British-style colleges and universities first arrived at a new emotional idea of India through their contact with European ideas of nationalism. Many of the great Hindu reformers of the time, such as Swami Vivekanand and Swami Dayanand, both of them part of the BJP’s pantheon, have recorded their troubled awareness of India’s past and present degradation under Muslim and British rule, of what they saw as the disunity, backwardness, and progressive enfeeblement of the Hindus. Invariably, they saw India’s salvation in a regenerated, politically organized, and assertive Hinduism.

The problem then as now is that Hinduism, with its plethora of diverse and contradictory traditions, its millions of gods and goddesses, its complicated caste hierarchy, is a highly amorphous religion—not so much a religion, in fact, as a way of life. As the Indian social critic Ashis Nandy puts it, one can only be a Hindu in so far as one is not a Hindu. The sheer diversity of Hindu practices makes it hard, if not impossible, to organize them around the lines of monotheistic, egalitarian religions like Islam and Christianity. The BJP, despite its best effort to semiticize Hinduism by harping on a single god (Lord Rama) and a single holy scripture (the Ramayana), can’t deal with that problem. It has been struggling instead to find a large enough constituency for its central theme of Hindutva, cultural nationalism.

It is not easy to figure out what the BJP means by Hindutva; and matters are not helped by semantic confusions around the word “Hindu,” which the BJP’s ideologues insist is a cultural rather than religious category, including in the term converts from Hinduism, the 13 percent of India’s population that is mainly Muslim, Sikh, and Christian—in effect all those who inhabit the punya bhumi (sacred land) of India. (The father of India’s missile program, and one of the key figures behind the nuclear tests, is a Muslim scientist who could serve as an example of the kind of Muslims the BJP likes: deeply nationalist and steeped in India’s great epics.)

When asked to explain Hindutva, the BJP’s ideologues usually lapse into exaggerated talk of India’s golden age, when great discoveries in science and astronomy were made, and every village was a self-sufficient democratic republic. They then go on to blame the Islamic invaders for disrupting the paradise, and speak of its recovery when Hindus unite to work their way through differences of religion, caste, ethnicity, and language to build a strong, self-assertive nation.

This version of Hindutva doesn’t seem an advance over what was proposed by the Hindu reformers of the nineteenth century: it is a dated solution, a mishmash of ancient Vedic wisdom, overblown ideas of India’s past glory, and now-forgotten nineteenth-century theories of European nationalism. It offers few practical ideas about how India can be regenerated; and, although it seeks to offset the damage done to India by centuries of a Muslim and British presence, very often, in its simultaneous and contradictory longing for an uncomplicated golden age and sophisticated nuclear technology, it seems merely another consequence of that damage.


Most of the parties that managed to unseat the Congress in 1977, 1989, and then in 1996, and are now slowly falling apart, were offshoots or disgruntled splinter groups of the Congress. Their members for the last fifty years have tended to be from the same ruling class as the Congress’s leaders; and in recent years they have regularly voted with the Congress against the BJP. The pretext is usually the defense of secularism. Behind it may also lie the not unjustified fear that the BJP may be the first alternative to the Congress to appear in India.

There is an ominous perception of the BJP that the Congress and its offshoots have encouraged, and that has been accepted in the rest of the world. This perception is now likely to be strengthened by the nuclear tests: the perception of the BJP as a sinister political force, almost fascistic, with its disciplined cadres and its complex internal hierarchy, part of the lunatic fringe of Indian politics. Unfortunately, labels like fascist, borrowed from another continent and another kind of politics, do little to explain an Indian phenomenon, rooted in the peculiar exigencies of the country. The BJP can be called an extremist party in the sense that it more forcefully articulates cultural and political aspirations that are already held in more normal, less oppressive forms in Indian society. For instance, the BJP’s nuclear tests are no aberration; they enhance an image independent India has tried to have of itself. One reason behind the Indian middle-class euphoria over the tests—which may have struck many people, especially outside India, as unpleasant and anachronistic—is that they represent a step forward in the aim first set out by the Congress, which was to beat the West at its own game by turning a poor, primarily agricultural country into a heavily industrialized, militarily self-assertive one.

The component of the BJP believed to be the most sinister is the RSS (loosely translated as National Volunteers Organization), which is the parent body of the BJP. Set up in 1925 in order ostensibly to encourage character-building among Hindus (as a first step toward recovering a once-glorious Hindu nation), it has since considerably expanded its membership (the actual number is not known, and there are now branches in the US and UK) and range of activities. Related groups now run a large network of primary schools across India. They organize Hindutva-inspired welfare schemes for the tribes living in the forests of Bihar, Assam, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh, to compete with the abundant Christian missionaries stationed there; they sponsor earthquake, famine, and flood relief; they run trade unions (the largest trade union in India, the BMS, is controlled by members of the RSS).

The RSS is believed to have a strong influence on the BJP, as might be expected since most of the BJP’s leaders were, or are, members. RSS volunteers, who assemble in their uniform of khaki shorts, black caps, and white shirt, belong to a range of professions: members of the armed forces, shopkeepers, teachers, clerks, engineers, doctors, scientists, lawyers, and journalists; they give money (the RSS is self-financed) and time for the organization, which also has its own full-time workers. The RSS holds morning assemblies, where younger volunteers do physical exercises and listen to lectures or talks on Indian history or current events that stress the greatness of Hindu values and the importance of Hindu unity—all part of becoming what a senior leader calls “the shining symbol of Hindu manhood embodying in himself all our traditional values of love, self-restraint, sacrifice, service, and character.”

Much of this has a distinct Ubermensch ring; and it is right to be suspicious of it, or to see it as the enactment of a middle-class dream of hypermasculinity. But the lower middle classes in small towns from whom the RSS derives its strength respond to it as answering needs that are more and more urgent in the chaos of modern India, where old bonds of family and tradition are giving way to an aggressive consumer culture that touches everyone but can be indulged in by only the affluent few. In India’s degraded urban environments, people live perpetually on the edge; rage and frustration are always on the surface; and material deprivation makes things like cultural identity, a sense of community and self, even more valuable. Few organizations in India offer a cultural mooring in quite the same way as the RSS does; and the general failure of the Communist movement in India has meant that educated lower-middle-class youth, lost as they are in the midst of relentless change, are likely to express their disaffection through groups like the RSS.

There is a strong anti-Islamic strain in the RSS’s ideology, although it is hard to see how, given the RSS’s intention of restoring Hindu pride that has been battered by centuries of Muslim rule, something of the sort could not be there.4 However, Indian Muslims are an impoverished, politically adrift, and fearful minority, and it is Pakistan that has recently become a favorite target of anti-Islamic feeling. The RSS represents and exploits an awkward Indian reality: a widespread, and almost visceral, distrust and resentment of Islam and Muslims has long existed among large sections of even the educated Hindu population. The destructiveness and intolerance of some of India’s Islamic conquerors and rulers may be things of the past; but the politics of religion, of divide and rule, which the British introduced in India for their own benefit—and which eventually led to the bloody vivisection of India—has left a legacy of bitterness among Hindus and Muslims in many parts of India. The Congress profited far more than the RSS or BJP by exploiting this mutual distrust: many of the approximately 8,000 riots between Hindus and Muslims since 1947 are thought to have been engineered by Congress politicians in order to polarize votes along religious lines in particular constituencies.

In fact, the RSS and the BJP are closer ideologically to an exclusivist kind of Hindu assertiveness that was initially part of the Congress but was sidelined once Mahatma Gandhi took over the leadership. Gandhi toned down the exclusionary neo-Hindu image the freedom struggle had projected in the early years of this century, even if he could not cleanse Congress of men who were aggressively, if covertly, pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim in their political outlook; and he did so by personally improvising a kind of soft folk version of Hinduism that he hoped would not alienate Muslims, who were crucial to the success of the freedom movement. The exclusionist strain in Hindu nationalism became more marginal as Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent resistance gradually moved to center stage. In the 1940s the aggressive demand for a separate Muslim homeland, and the Congress’s subsequent failure to prevent the partition of India, aroused in many Hindus second thoughts about the direction the freedom struggle had taken under Gandhi and Nehru.

Several small Hindu nationalist groups used this disaffection to revitalize themselves. But they remained dingy back-room affairs, on the fringe, popular only among a few Hindu refugees from Pakistan and a few reactionary Brahmin intellectuals in central and north India. It was one of these groups that was involved in the conspiracy to murder Mahatma Gandhi—a complicated event in that the assassin, like many Hindu nationalists, acknowledged Gandhi’s personal greatness, but saw his death as essential to the safety and welfare of Hindu India.

The killing of Gandhi in 1948 made these groups seem even more remote from the rest of the country. Responding to a national mood of revulsion, Nehru banned all the more prominent extremist Hindu groups, including the RSS. There was no evidence that the RSS had anything to do with the assassination, and the ban was soon lifted. Nehru’s position softened enough to allow him in 1962 to invite the RSS to participate in the Republic Day parade in New Delhi.

The BJP itself was formed under the name of Jana Sangh, in 1951, ostensibly to carry on in politics the task of nation-building undertaken in social and cultural life by the RSS. For many decades, the party was, like every other opposition party, under the gigantic shadow of the Congress. It was briefly in office with other opposition parties in 1977 and 1989, but coming to power on its own was a distant dream—at least so it must have seemed in the 1984 elections, when it won two seats in the parliament.

It was the Ayodhya movement that strengthened the BJP in the late Eighties, but it has come a long way since then. The party is now aware that the pressing issue for the middle classes is the future of economic reforms, and its emphasis in the recent election was on political and economic stability, not on cultural nationalism: the popular slogan of previous elections, Garv Se kaho Ham Hindu Hain (“Say with pride that you are a Hindu”), was not much heard this time. Inspired by the success of Tony Blair’s New Labour, party leaders talk now of the “New BJP.”

They went to some trouble to distance themselves from the party’s cousin organization, the VHP (World Hindu Council), the newest and most aggressive of the three organizations (the RSS and the BJP being the other two) that make up what is known as the Sangh Parivar (the Sangh Family). The VHP’s volunteers, mainly drawn from among temple priests and administrators, heads of ashrams and maths, (Hindu approximations of the Vatican), represent the most explicitly extremist religious element in the Sangh Family. The nuclear tests have, for now, weakened their pressures, at least, but in the long run the BJP-led government, no matter how secure its majority, cannot afford to antagonize the already very alienated 120 million Muslims in India.

In its pronouncements, the party offers peace, security, and equal opportunity. At virtually every party meeting, ways of attracting Muslims are discussed. The RSS was able to enlist a few Muslim members; the BJP put up several Muslim candidates in the recent elections, one of whom won and is now a minister in the central government. Moreover, since its growing defection from the Congress, the Muslim vote is up for grabs—a perception that recently forced even Mr. Thackeray to repackage himself as a defender of Muslim interests in India. These promises may not be empty ones, for in states ruled by the BJP there have been fewer violent incidents against the Muslims. Still, much of the Muslim vote went to the Congress in 1998, although it increased support for the BJP from 4 to 7 percent.

Similarly, in the state of Uttar Pradesh the BJP has been successful at manipulating caste politics. In what is the largest political constituency in India, it expanded its old electoral base of upper-caste voters by forming temporary alliances with a Dalit (low-caste) party and appointing low-caste men to important positions in the state government: the result in 1998 was a nationwide 12 percent rise in votes from low-caste voters. Rhetorically, too, the BJP has made a few changes in its official line. Its leaders now claim that the party is the truest heir of the old Congress—the Congress of Mahatma Gandhi and not of Nehru, whom the BJP holds responsible, not entirely unfairly, for many of India’s failures. In this view, Nehru is seen as an isolated Anglophile intellectual unaware of the needs and aspirations of the vast Hindu India that only Gandhi and a few other Congress leaders recognized. The perception is well-timed since it coincides with the recent unraveling of the most cherished of Nehruvian ideas of secularism, socialism, and nonalignment.

In effect, the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 was the culmination of a long process: the consistent failure of the high-minded secular-rational principles Nehru prescribed for the Congress and the Indian state. The process itself is a part of a larger historical trend: the passing away of the ideas of the first generation of postcolonial leaders—Nasser, Kenyatta, Nehru, Sukarno, glamorous international figures in the 1950s, whose grand vision for their newly independent nations was undermined perhaps inevitably by their successors. Nehru’s ideals were cast aside by members of his own family. In fact, in the late 1980s Rajiv Gandhi unsuccessfully tried to steal the Ayodhya platform from the BJP, and even usurped the BJP’s promise of restoring Ram Rajya (the golden age of Hindu mythology). His successor, Narasimha Rao, a devotee of various Indian holy men (The Insider is dedicated to one of them), was himself a silent spectator of the demolition of the Babri mosque. (He is currently writing a monograph on Ayodhya that will set forth his version of the events leading up to the demolition.)

The demolition caused the greatest anguish among the English-speaking Indian intelligentsia—Nehru’s most enduring legacy—a state-subsidized genteel-bourgeois world of broadly left-wing bureaucrats and academics. These intellectuals loathe the BJP and its related organizations, seeing them as Indian versions of Mussolini’s black-shirted fascists who will plunge India into civil war with the Muslims.

The secularist ideal, well-meaning but always somewhat vague, and backed by little more than the personal example offered by the genuinely secular Nehru, had been just enough to maintain, fitfully, an uneasy cease-fire between Hindus and Muslims after the brutalities of Partition. It depended too much on the good will of men like Gandhi and Nehru, which though strong enough to enshrine secularism in India’s written constitution couldn’t erase the long history of Hindu-Muslim antagonism. In the hands of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, the Nehruvian idea became vulnerable to the increasingly strong attacks mounted by the BJP, which called it “pseudo-secularism,” a habit of appeasing reactionary elements within the Muslim community who the nationalists felt had already been appeased enough by being granted a separate homeland in the form of Pakistan.

Throughout the last three decades, Hindu nationalists kept saying that the Congress refused to implement a uniform civil code in the country—an issue on which the BJP and the Communists are in broad agreement—only because it feared losing its support among certain mullahs and imams within the Muslim community. Often, the Congress acted in such a way as to confirm the BJP’s accusations that it was cynically pandering for Muslim votes in complete disregard of its own secular principles. In 1986, the government, using its majority in parliament, overturned a progressive Supreme Court ruling that made far-reaching changes in Islamic inheritance laws for women, in order to placate the all-male Islamic clergy which the Congress thought had a strong influence over Muslim voters. It turned the BJP into the unlikely champion of the rights of Muslim women. Successive Congress governments granted special political and economic concessions to the Muslim majority state of Kashmir, which many Indians felt only contributed to Kashmir’s isolation, and to its violent secessionist movement which began in 1990.

Support for the BJP’s recent decision to hold nuclear tests has also been indirectly strengthened by the threatening increase in small but well-organized Islamic fundamentalist groups across India—one of them was responsible for the bombings that killed sixty people in the South Indian city of Coimbatore during the recent elections. Such events in the past have usually been blamed on India’s unfriendly Islamic neighbors on its eastern border, the prime suspect being Pakistan. Separatist movements in Punjab and Kashmir may also have strengthened the BJP’s resolve to go nuclear—the most radical rejection yet of Nehru’s already partially obsolete foreign policy of peaceful nonalignment and denuclearization.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the third of Nehru’s projects—state socialism—ran aground. Four decades of protectionism had left the Indian economy stagnant. Most of the government-run heavy and light industries were in the red; exports were falling; the foreign exchange reserves had reached an all-time low. It was at a time of crisis when the Congress government, going against its own professed position, began to open up the economy to foreign investment in 1991; it freed many parts of the economy where entrepreneurs were subject to a labyrinthine and corrupt system of permits. The center in Indian politics made its first clear shift away from the left; and the BJP, then gaining support, was well placed to capitalize on this implicit acknowledgement of the Congress’s economic failures.

Although in its rhetoric opposed to any foreign economic presence—there will always be plenty of takers for that line in formerly colonial countries—the BJP was quick to see a new constituency in the middle class created by the resulting new wealth in small cities and towns. Not unexpectedly, it did very well in urban middle-class regions in the recent elections. An overwhelming 49 percent of highly educated voters supported it—almost twice as many as voted for the Congress. This new generation of Indians is drawn to the party it sees as the most reliable guarantor of economic reforms—a perception also endorsed by the big corporations, several of which financed the BJP’s expensive and slick election campaign.


The choice of a liberal-seeming prime minister and change in rhetoric are all matters of image making. Besides its position on the nuclear issue, what will be closely examined in the next few months is the BJP’s ability to tackle corruption—the greatest problem for many Indians. Corruption came to be institutionalized across India during Mrs. Gandhi’s tenure in the Seventies and early Eighties through a selective distribution of state patronage: public projects had illegal commissions written into them, large underhand paybacks were received from foreign arms sellers (something that eventually tripped up her son Rajiv); government officials in important positions and senior politicians, if they wanted to get anywhere, had to arrange for regular transfusions of money into the Congress’s kitty. As Rao puts it in The Insider, “When it came to maintaining a Delhi lobby, some chief ministers had to talk mainly with money.” Even promotions of minor civil servants required transfers of large sums of money; so did admissions to schools and colleges.

The rot has traveled all the way down from the highest office in the land, where Rao himself was accused of having received a suitcase full of sixty lakh rupees, or $150,000. You now often need to bribe people to get an ordinary rail ticket, or to have your telephone repaired. A news magazine recently featured a primer of sorts on corruption in India: how much to pay your child’s schoolteacher for enhanced grades, how much for a water connection, and that sort of thing. No irony was intended; the figures given were accurate.

Fifty years after independence, politics is now little more than an investment opportunity, an idea uncynically accepted in public discourse where a politician’s career is assessed with respect to the wealth he has amassed. The new “men of the soil,” the politicians from Dalit and other so-called backward castes, are only more recent examples of a political culture that was spawned by the Congress, a culture in which being a member of the ruling class is all too often a license for criminal activity. The new politicians’ several years of power in some Indian states have created a creamy layer of rich landlords and businessmen; for the millions underneath them, the disused public parks and broken roads renamed after low-caste politicians are the sole benefits from self-rule.

The most influential casteist politician in India is Laloo Prasad Yadav, the former chief minister of the state of Bihar. Yadav draws his strength from his carefully cultivated image as a messiah for members of his Yadav caste and for Muslims, both of whom are numerous in Bihar. His career could serve as an illustration for the theory offered by Chaudhury in The Insider: “Political power is the only means by which you can serve the poor in an underdeveloped country like India. So you have to be in power continuously, for the sake of the poor. If you happen to get rich en route that is only incidental. And logically, therefore, whatever you do to gain power is legitimate, since it is meant for the poor.”

Yadav was implicated last year in a series of spectacular scams involving the import of cattle fodder: he is charged with pilfering close to $300 million from the state treasury. After warrants for his arrest were issued by the Central Bureau of Investigation in Delhi, he turned his official residence into a fortress; and when it looked as if the army might be called in to deal with his armed defenders, he led a long procession to the local court and surrendered before a cowering judge—but not before he had appointed his wife chief minister. His prison turned out to be a luxurious government guest house from where he continued to issue fiats and decrees. He was released on bail to contest the recent elections, where, amid accusations of seriously corrupt electoral practices (organized, allegedly, by his wife), he and his supporters won seventeen seats in the national parliament.

The BJP promises change, but whether or not it is serious about this it is probably too late to make much difference. In any event, there is increasing evidence that it is not averse to the status quo. It has promoted legislators with criminal records to key ministerial positions in order to prop up its fragile majority in the state legislature of Uttar Pradesh. One of the candidates it has backed for the central parliament was a convicted criminal with twenty-five pending cases against him, including six for murder; he lost to someone who had thirty-five criminal charges against him. Charges have been made against the party’s own leaders, although most have so far been known for their personal probity.

The social climate for the BJP-led government is no more propitious than it was for any other governments in the past. The always fragile ideas in India of democracy and egalitarianism have been further enfeebled by the grab-all-you-can mentality spawned by the economic reforms among their prime beneficiaries, the new middle class. The narrow concerns of this class are best reflected by the English-language press and television, which, apart from a handful of exceptions, is even more confused about its role in a semiliterate third world democracy. It is certainly slicker, bigger, and more self-confident than in the days of the Emergency, when, if it was told to bend, as one imprisoned opposition leader, L.K. Advani, a BJP hard-liner who is now home minister, famously put it, it crawled.

However, much of the slickness and confidence seems devoted to covering the bogus celebrities and events of the new fashion and entertainment industry—the cultural offshoot of the liberalized economy. Cindy Crawford is coming! Cindy Crawford is coming! crows a serious news magazine, and over the next few days, both on TV and in print, the nation is made to follow closely Crawford’s promotional jaunt on behalf of Omega watches. Sixty-four Dalits are massacred in one village in Bihar by private armies hired by upper-caste landlords, and the news barely made it to the front pages, where news of another Indian woman winning the Miss World contest had made headlines. The largest-circulation English-language newspaper, The Times of India, recently started a Human Rights Watch column after the ailing owner of the Times newspaper group, Ashok Jain, was prevented from going abroad for medical treatment by authorities investigating his financial misdemeanors. After weeks of remaining preoccupied with Mr. Jain’s problems, with many damaging stories about his tormentors, the column now seeks to explain its new-found obsession with human rights. A recent headline reads: “All newspapers should focus on human rights violations: Justice P.B. Sawant.”

A nation ceaselessly exchanging banalities with itself,” V.S. Naipaul wrote in 1967, at a low moment in India’s post-independence history, and the remark seems even truer now. The breakdown of the legal system, and the assault on civil liberties, the routine torture of prisoners (in a bizarre incident last month, senior air force officers asking for a pay raise were arrested and forced to sit on electric heaters), the custodial deaths and extrajudicial killings—such common and disturbing symptoms of the deep malaise in the democratic system are not much noticed by affluent Indians, and nobody knows what the BJP proposes to do about them.

Despite its popularity after the nuclear tests, the BJP has still not freed itself from the contradictory positions of its coalition partners. The defense portfolio, for instance, is handled by a maverick old socialist who is a fervent supporter of the Tibetan cause, something not very high on the BJP’s own agenda. In foreign affairs, the policies of the BJP, having now cashed its nuclear card, are likely to be directed by its domestic fortunes. Relations with both Pakistan and China have been set back a few years by the nuclear tests, and may well deteriorate further—particularly with the former. The friendly relations with Russia, which has refused to impose sanctions on India, will remain. And, despite what it says in public, the BJP wants relations with Western countries restored to normal as soon as possible: one powerful reason is its well-to-do Indian supporters in the United States and Britain who have been helping to bankroll the party’s political campaigns.

There are also many local factors, such as the state government of Andhra Pradesh, whose support at present gives the government a wafer-thin majority in parliament and whose leaders may be worried about the possible impact of sanctions on the state economy, which depends on foreign investment. Once normal relations are restored, the BJP will probably try to advance the process of seeking closer military cooperation with the United States, in order to create a strong bulwark against China.

But the government’s biggest test lies in dealing with the deteriorating condition of hundreds of millions of Indians. It is not a matter about which the BJP has ever been called upon to do much, and the statistics suggest they have got their work cut out for them. 226 million Indians are without safe drinking water; 640 million without basic sanitation; 291 million are illiterate; 44 percent of the population (one third of the world’s poor) lives in absolute poverty.

India’s poor have borne the brunt of the food price rises that were partly caused by exposing the economy to the chaotic fluctuations of supply and demand in international markets. The prices of wheat and sugar have risen to new levels; the government had to ban the export of onions, which, along with a piece of bread, constitute the sole meal of the day for many Indians living below the poverty line, and whose price, after a bad crop, has gone up three times in the last few months.

The BJP’s main constituency, too, is in trouble. Six years of economic reforms, while making the poor poorer, increased middle-class consumerism. But the reforms are faltering; the economy is in deep recession. The crises of Southeast Asia haven’t reached India—yet. But the flow of foreign investment has dried up. Property prices in Delhi, Bombay, and Bangalore, once as high as in Manhattan and Tokyo, have slumped. Many Indian companies have announced drastic retrenchment plans. Desperate price cuts have been announced on foreign consumer brands such as Nike, Reebok, and Levi’s; they have proved too expensive for Indian consumers. After heavy losses, multinationals such as Sony and Kellogg are drastically revising their plans for India. To most of these multinational companies the much-trumpeted 200-million-strong middle class of India has proved disappointing: Mercedes-Benz, hoping to sell 10,000 cars a year, sells only forty and fifty every month. Peugeot’s joint venture with an Indian company is near collapse. The accumulated losses of top companies like Whirlpool, General Electric, Sony, Panasonic, Coca- Cola, and Pepsico are estimated at $375 million.

However, investments by multinational companies are expected to continue despite disappointing results so far; and they are unlikely to be much affected by the sanctions imposed by the governments of the US, Japan, and Canada after the nuclear tests. Since they stand to lose their own money, multinational companies are only likely to put pressure on the G-8 governments for a more tolerant attitude toward India: Boeing is already nervous about a deal with Air India that it fears may now go to Airbus. After announcing the cancellation of $1 billion in aid to India, the Japanese government soon slashed the figure down to $26 million and then said that all projects already approved would go through. Indeed, most of the EU nations, including Britain and France, are unwilling to impose any sanctions. Clinton’s own sanctions, which involve cutting off government aid, canceling credit loans and guarantees, and impeding World Bank and IMF loans to India, are expected to merely pinch, and not hurt, the Indian economy. Some infrastructure projects in the power and telecom sector are likely to be slowed down; the rupee, which has been shaky for some time against the dollar, has slipped, but may end up finding what experts call a realistic and desirable level.

Soon after the the events in Tienanmen Square, the Chinese government put together an irresistible package of reforms for foreign investors; the investments it attracted neutralized the effect of international sanctions and spurred faster GDP growth. A day after the tests, the BJP government announced the opening of the housing sector to foreign investment and then cleared a long-delayed mining license to a US company. There are other indications that the BJP government is following China’s example, by pushing at a greater pace the liberal reforms which opened up India to foreign investors seven years ago. In fact, the sanctions are being perceived as an opportunity of sorts by the Indian proponents of economic reforms, whose recent sluggish implementation has led to the current recession. Only last month India’s new finance minister was in the US, where he appeared before the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal in a bid to reassure American investors, who have the largest stake among all foreign investors in India, about the BJP-led government. (When asked about Swadeshi—the BJP’s catchall term for economic self-reliance—he dismissed it as a state of mind.)

The sanctions may isolate India within the international community—but only for a time. The example of France is not unfamiliar to the Indian government, which very clearly knew that sanctions would not seriously undermine the Indian economy. France faced a similar sort of international outrage after its nuclear tests 5 ; but the dust soon settled after it signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It is likely that after establishing India’s claims to the nuclear club before the world (and having in the process ensured its own survival, if only temporarily), the BJP government will adopt a conciliatory position. It is already talking of formalizing its self-declared moratorium on nuclear tests and may sign, after some token reservations and objections, the CTBT, which the last Indian government rejected, thus making it easier for the G-8 countries to do business with India again.

A stable government might have inspired more confidence among foreign investors. But for now it looks as if the BJP government can only stay in power by striking dramatic postures, the options for which are at present rather limited. It can’t build a temple in Ayodhya, or enact a uniform civil code, without losing its allies and causing riots between Hindus and Muslims across India; it can’t cancel the special concessions granted to Kashmir without reviving the secessionist movement that has shown signs of flagging. It can, however, keep pressing the hot buttons of Pakistan and China and raising alarms about national security without any loss in domestic support. Now Pakistan’s own nuclear tests have made it easier for the BJP to raise the bogey again. Faced with now-growing criticism for having initiated a nuclear arms race, the BJP is only likely to step up its jingoistic talk.

The jingoism would play a major part in the BJP’s preparations for the next round of elections. Large rallies meant to celebrate India’s emergence as a nuclear superpower are scheduled to be held in the next few weeks; party leaders are meant to go out and educate the masses about threats to India’s unity. If new elections take place by the end of this year, the Hindu Pride card is likely to return the BJP to power with a clearer majority. Until then, many members of the government will make as much money as they can during their brief tryst with state power.

You get a strong feeling of déjà vu—particularly when you consider the disproportionate amount of public time and energy that in India is diverted into futile political speculation. As 600 million Indians went to the polls in February, an army of pundits and psephologists took over TV screens across India; and the air grew thick with their talk of “swings” and “caste” percentages. For days and nights on end, they discussed events and personalities about whom the most accurate thing one could say was that they would soon be overtaken by events and personalities equally inconsequential.

Increasingly, the surface eventfulness of Indian politics turns out to be a deceptive thing; and the scientific jargon employed to explain it seems to be obscuring a very basic fact: that the political system, when assessed, as it should be, on the basis of its own home-grown deformities, has long abnegated its basic responsibilities to the needy millions, India’s invisible majority, and survives only through its ability to enrich people venal enough to be part of it. Democracy in India—that much-celebrated accomplishment—seems to have degenerated into a vast colorful circus of almost continuous elections. And now, as the economy stumbles, and tough times, after the current euphoria, loom ahead for the middle class, the poor may find that the small portions of bread that occasionally went with the circuses have become even smaller.

May 28, 1998

  1. 1

    The only example offered by democratic countries of this is the long, corrupt, and corrupting monopoly on power of Mexico’s PRI.

  2. 2

    New Delhi: Viking/Penguin India, 1998.

  3. 3

    In an interview soon after the demolition of the Babri Mosque, Vajpayee described the event as a “Himalayan blunder.”

  4. 4

    Interestingly, a grudging admiration for the British exists in RSS-BJP circles. Much like Karl Marx, Hindu ideologues in the nineteenth century often spoke of British rule in India as an “unconscious tool of history”—something that would help Hindus pick up the greatest virtues of European civilization on their own way to national greatness.

  5. 5

    India did not join in the international outcry against France, which has now reciprocated in kind and has even opposed US sanctions.