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A New, Nuclear, India?

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.

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

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