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A New, Nuclear, India?

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.”

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