In the fall of 1999, a year after the Hindu nationalist BJP (Indian People’s Party) and its allies formed the federal government in New Delhi, I met some Indian Christian missionaries at a small church near Simla. They seemed full of despair. Hindu extremists had attacked Christians in the western state of Gujarat, and had allegedly burned alive an Australian missionary in the eastern state of Orissa. To make matters worse, the Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had appeared to question the religious freedoms guaranteed by the Indian constitution by calling for a “national debate” on conversions. The missionaries told me that the BJP government had created a “culture of impunity” in which even low-level police officials felt emboldened to harass them. They said they had never before felt so insecure in their own country.
After they had described their ordeal, they suddenly turned to me and asked me to join them in prayer. I couldn’t refuse, and as I sat there awkwardly, eyes half-closed, they solemnly told God that they lived in a country ruled by fanatical heathens and requested Him to bestow upon them His special wisdom.
I remembered the missionaries this May, as the remarkable results of India’s general elections came in. Opinion pollsters, political pundits, and journalists had predicted an easy victory for the ruling NDA (National Democratic Alliance), the coalition of the BJP and its allies, which claimed in its advertising campaign to have created an “India Shining” in the previous six years. But it was the opposition Congress that emerged as the largest party in the 545-seat Indian parliament: it got 145 seats, seven more than the BJP. Together with its allies, it gathered 219 seats.
Supported by Communist and other left-wing parties, which won an unprecedented sixty seats, Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of the Congress, looked set to be India’s next, and most unlikely, prime minister. It wasn’t hard to imagine the great relief of the missionaries. The feeling was also widespread among many Indian writers, academics, and journalists, who until recently seemed as demoralized as liberal intellectuals in Likud-ruled Israel. But the missionaries probably also felt personally confirmed in their exclusive faith. Instead of belatedly giving wisdom to the Hindu nationalists, who had ruled India for almost six years, God appeared to have simply replaced them, and—in a miracle of sorts—put a Christian, a Roman Catholic, in line for the top political post in India.
As it turned out, Sonia Gandhi declined to be prime minister, citing her “inner voice,” and appointed Manmohan Singh, an Oxford-trained economist and India’s former finance minister, to the post. Mahatma Gandhi had often used the phrase “inner voice” to explain his decisions as the supreme leader of the Congress. Mrs. Gandhi is understandably keen to claim the distinguished lineage of the party that led the Indian freedom struggle against the British and then ruled India for forty-three out of the fifty-seven years of independence—the same …