The future of India may have been prefigured in early 1990 in a riot between Hindus and Muslims which took place in the town of Mathura, two dusty hours drive from New Delhi. The violence broke out after a procession of Hindus carried a statue of Ganesha, a Hindu god, to the wall of the seventeenth-century mosque in the town’s center, and proceeded to install it in a niche previously cut into the wall. Local Muslims, enraged by this insult to their sacred precincts, ran to the mosque, and soon stones started flying. For two days mobs surged through the streets, leaving perhaps three hundred people injured and forty houses and shops gutted. Not long afterward, the Hindu leader who had organized the Ganesha procession was arrested.

I went to Mathura to see for myself how the rioting had started, and I had tea with a senior police officer, who told me that the Hindu ringleader had knowingly incited the riot, and deserved harsh punishment. Later I talked to a recently elected municipal representative, a member of the Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party (BJP), who saw the case differently. The arrest was a miscarriage of justice, he said, because all the man had done was “assert his Hindu identity.” On Mathura’s walls one could read the same resentment, in hundreds of graffiti: “Say it with pride, I am a Hindu.”

The Mathura riot was a scuffle compared to subsequent Hindu-Muslim clashes in which hundreds have died, but the diametrically opposed views of the policeman and the politician captured the heart of the political conflict that is sweeping India today. The challenge comes from the Hindu nationalists, a movement nearly as old as the ruling Congress Party itself, but until recently unable to win converts to its message of Hindu chauvinism and its claim that secularism amounts to suppressing the authentic Hindu heritage of the subcontinent.

During the past three years Hindu nationalists have shaken the country with a poisonous and divisive campaign to claim a dilapidated mosque, which they say marks the birthplace of the god Rama, the avatar hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana. That movement has set off dozens of riots, while the BJP, the movement’s political party, has steadily improved its electoral position, rising from 7.4 percent of the vote and 2 seats in the 1984 elections to the 545-seat lower house, to 11.4 percent and 88 seats in 1989, and then to 23.2 percent and 119 seats in the 1991 elections.

The Hindu nationalists want to sweep away the concept of secular nationalism that Nehru, and to some extent Mahatma Gandhi, made into India’s founding political credo. Nehru had a socialist’s disdain for religion, and he believed that India’s survival depended on purging its politics and national identity of all sectarian impulses. Understandably, the deaths of perhaps a million people in riots at the time of partition only reinforced his thinking. Nehru insisted on a strictly secular discourse in politics—appeals on religious lines are expressly banned by law—and set out to create a basis for a modern Indian nationalism that would be acceptable to the groups who have survived the subcontinent’s strife-torn history.

In his Discovery of India, Nehru created a fable that celebrated the achievements of Mughal emperors and Rajput maharajahs alike, playing down the ceaseless conflict and fratricide. He gave a special, perhaps disproportionate, place to the vision of ancient emperors like the Buddhist convert Ashoka of the third century BC, and the Mughal Akhbar of the sixteenth, who could be portrayed as having a proto-secular outlook, or at least a strong impulse to harmonize contending religious forces within their empires. That view of India’s history is stressed in school texts, and on public posters throughout India, like the faded and dusty one at the Varanasi airport that reads:

We must cease to be exclusive Hindus or Muslims or Sikhs, Parsis, Christians or Jews. Whilst we may staunchly adhere to our respective faiths, we must be Indians first and Indians last.

—Mahatma Gandhi

The Hindu nationalists, on the other hand, see India’s history not as a record of proven and varied cultural achievements but as a blood-soaked battlefield on which the two main contenders, during several centuries of conflict, were Hindu civilization and Muslim invaders. Hindus, they argue, were the chosen people of the subcontinent, and in the view of one of the movement’s primary theorists, V.D. Savarkar, Hindus form a distinct, unified nation, one that is by all rights the appropriate basis of Indian nationalism. Muslims, in this account, were freebooters and religious fanatics who, arriving from Turkey, Afghanistan, Persia, and Central Asia beginning in the eleventh century, shattered Hindu society, broke temples, forced conversions at swordpoint, and imposed an alien culture. Justice demanded that the glory of past Hindu civilization be restored as the basis of Indian political identity, and all the followers of “alien” traditions on the subcontinent, especially Muslims and Christians, must bend their knee to the Hindu order, and forget the special privileges Nehru granted to them, as he put it, “to increase the morale of the minorities.”


The origins of the Hindu nationalist movement go back to the latter half of the nineteenth century, when a number of Western-educated Hindus, deeply impressed by the strength of character they saw in many of the colonial overlords and Christian missionaries, set out both to reform and revive Hinduism. Finding justification in Hindu philosophy and sacred texts, they rejected the most embarrassing or degenerate practices of Hinduism, like idol worship, child marriage, caste discrimination, and Brahminical supremacy. They preached a highly refined Hinduism based on the austere, ancient texts of the Vedas.

Many of those Hindu revivalists also argued that the sorry fate of Hindu civilization, dominated, as they saw it, by outsiders for nine hundred years, was the result of Hinduism gone wrong, a failure of Hindus to follow their spiritual obligations. They agreed with British writers of the period who described Hindus as weak, cowardly, and effeminate—as Swami Vivekananda, a major revivalist figure put it, “a race of women”—and argued that Hindus must cultivate their spiritual as well as manly virtues if they were ever to end foreign domination of Hindutva. Such thinking was invigorated by the Romantic ultranationalism sweeping Italy, Germany, and other European countries; the Hindu nationalists argued that saving Hinduism was a course necessary to “restore” the golden age—more imagined than historical—of Hindu civilization. As another influential Hindu revivalist, Aurebindo Ghose, put it, “Nationalism is a religion that has came from God.”1

One passionate disciple of the Hundu nationalist thinkers was Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founder of the organization that is the parent of the present-day BJP. Hedgewar was a young Brahmin medical doctor from Pune, a town in Maharashtra that was the scene of bloody Hindu-Muslim riots in the 1920s. Hedgewar was distressed that Hindus in his town were too cowardly to confront the much smaller Muslim community in Pune. He believed that the divisions among Hindus, along lines of caste and religious faction, fatally weakened their society, and only a cultural renewal would bring back the leaders comparable to his personal hero, Shivaji, the seventeenth-century Hindu king who successfully fought the Mughal emperors.

Hedgewar conjured a new form of Hinduism, one that saw dharma, the path of virtue, not as the obligation to live according to the requirements of one’s caste, the traditional understanding, but an obligation to serve the Hindu “nation,” “the living god.” If this understanding of dharma could be instilled in enough Indians, India would rise up again by an almost ineluctable, mystical process. Hedgewar’s vision was a radical departure from the Hinduism of the sects, caste, idol worship, and all the other features of this very amorphous faith, and it was damned by the more traditional Hindu leaders.

To spread his message he founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps) in 1925, and enrolled his followers in daily meetings that stressed both his mystical-nationalist philosophy, vigorous physical exercise, and martial drills aimed at instilling “vigor” in young Hindus. The RSS distinguished itself by guarding Hindus against Muslim rioters in Pune, and quickly grew into a nationalist movement, but it could not hope to compete with the Congress or the charisma of Mahatma Gandhi, its leader during much of the pre-independence period. The RSS opposed Gandhi’s emphasis on the nonviolent principle of “ahimsa,” which they saw as degrading the “virility” of Hindu men, and they rejected Nehru and Gandhi’s acceptance of a multicultural nationalism for India—a false premise that they believed was the root cause of partition in 1947.

The Hindu nationalists were pushed even further to the margins of Indian life after Nathuram Godse, a fanatical member not of the RSS but of a similar group, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Prime Minister Nehru, who strongly disliked the Hindu nationalists and branded them “fascists,” banned the RSS and related movements for two years, even though no evidence has ever surfaced linking the RSS to the killing.

Yet the RSS has survived to become both one of the fastest growing organizations in India, with 2.3 million members, and the vanguard of the Hindu nationalist movement. It has thousands of lifetime members who pass up marriage and work as organizers and propagandists for RSS. They spend their days trying to instill right-thinking dharma among Hindus, particularly by recruiting boys and young men to take part in the indoctrination and gymnasium sessions—called shakhas—of the kind that Hedgewar pioneered.

In the big cities of northern India, the shakhas are easy to find. The RSS men and boys meet daily in small, grimy parks of lower-middle-class neighborhoods, the typical recruiting ground of the RSS; they play fast, rough games like kabbadi, a violent type of tag; they stand in ranks saluting a saffron flag while they recite ultranationalist slogans. I once asked a group of RSS boys in their early teens if a Muslim could be a good Indian. The quick response from several of them was no; but then they quickly discussed the question among themselves, and said that they had a better answer. “Yes, a Muslim could be a good Indian, if he worshiped Rama.” That is a most unlikely proposition, to say the least.


The current RSS leadership, departing from Hedgewar’s disdain for politics, has enlarged the organization’s scope beyond what the founder called “cultural” work. The RSS has entered politics, although indirectly, through allied groups more or less under RSS control. Most important is the BJP, a party formed in 1982 whose leadership is dominated by RSS men, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Organization), a Hindu religious group that promotes the cause of Hindu unity and militancy—usually in close coordination with the political maneuvers of the BJP. Though the RSS would like the BJP and other Hindu organizations to work in unison and follow its lead, relations among them are strained on some points, and RSS control has weakened as both groups have expanded rapidly; many of their new members have no connections with the RSS.

The RSS likes to argue that the rise of its popularity and the political success of the BJP in the late 1980s is the result of its dogged work of organizing from one town to another. That is part of the story, but other developments helped prepare the ground for the Hindu nationalists. One was the growing prominence of Indian Muslims in the towns and cities. Long a poor, passive, ghetto-based group cut off from their co-religionists in Pakistan, urban Muslims found new confidence in the 1980s when their sons and fathers went off to take lucrative jobs in the Gulf states and sent home considerable amounts of money. Muslim businesses began prospering. Old mosques were equipped with powerful loud-speakers to broadcast the call to prayers; new mosques were built, and to hear resentful Hindus tell it, a new arrogance made itself apparent among India’s Muslims.

At the same time India’s rate of economic growth nearly doubled, creating a new consumer economy and a middle class of perhaps 200 million people. India’s middle class was no longer an elite, Westernized group, as it was at partition, but a highly acquisitive, anxious class whose members only vaguely comprehended the point of secularism while very sharply feeling a grievance against any group with a supposed special status—especially Muslims. That sense was only sharpened by the uprising, starting in 1989, of Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir state demanding secession.

This polarization of Hindus and Muslims in the superheated atmosphere of the cities had many consequences, most of them violent. Muslim and Hindu criminal mafias grew more powerful and were often unofficially linked to Hindu and Muslim political groups. They clashed, and sometimes set off wider Hindu-Muslim riots, which steadily increased in ferocity in the 1980s.2 Newly prosperous Hindus began pouring money into bigger, more elaborate temples, often in conscious competition with the mosque down the block, as happened in Patna, the capital of the state of Bihar, where the mosque and temple in the city center are locked in a Babel-like competition to be the tallest and most spectacular. “Why don’t they go to their own country?” has become a common refrain of Hindu parents when the muezzin’s calls to prayer wake their children in the night. More and more Indians, even in polite company, began to talk that way.

The BJP was quick to see the fertile ground for their view that Hinduism and India shared a magnificent manifest destiny, and its corollary, that Muslims and Nehru’s secularism were a blight on India’s future. BJP politicians promoted the anti-Muslim sentiment by circulating divisive images and myths. Muslims, they said, cheered for Pakistan during the universally followed India-Pakistan cricket matches—which has undoubtedly happened but is not a typical response. Muslims refuse to use birth control, and thereby are conspiring to take over India through their growing numbers—a far-fetched possibility, quite aside from the ridiculous idea of a conspiracy. (In fact, most Muslims live in the countryside, and according to a closely held government study, are among the most deprived and downtrodden groups in the country.)

The BJP line also heightened anti-Muslim feeling by attacking the special privileges officially enjoyed by all sizable Indian minorities, for example the right to be judged by their own personal law on civil matters, rather than India’s civil code, and their right to own and run schools and other institutions without state interference—something far more difficult under the law for Hindu groups to do. The BJP made much of an article of the constitution barring non-Kashmiris from owning land in predominantly Muslim Jammu and Kashmir—a sure example, it was claimed, of “discrimination” against the Hindu majority.

The BJP also turned on the Congress Party, attacking its secularism as nothing more than “pseudo secularism.” Here they were on solider ground. It is certainly true that Congress politicians routinely played the Muslim card by granting favors to Muslims in order to secure their vote, which determines the outcome in some constituencies.

In 1986, the plight of an old Muslim woman, Shah Bano, helped the BJP get national attention. Her husband had divorced her, and, as required under Muslim law, he paid her only a very small settlement that in effect condemned her to penury. She sued for further support under the Indian civil code, and the Supreme Court upheld her claim. Some Muslim leaders viewed this as a threat to their protected status in India and loudly demanded that the ruling be reversed. Rajiv Gandhi lost his nerve in face of extremist Muslim bluster and used Congress’s large majority in the parliament to rewrite the law in a way that overrode the court’s decision. Gandhi then faced a backlash from the Hindu nationalists, who pointed out, with widespread approval, that he had backed down on a clear-cut issue of human rights in order to “pander” to a militant faction of Muslim opinion.

With momentum building from the Shah Bano episode, the BJP threw its weight behind the issue that would do more than any other to bring it success in the 1989 and 1991 elections: the campaign to claim the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, an ancient town and Hindu pilgrimage center in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The dilapidated fifteenth-century mosque was built by a lieutenant of Babar, the first of the Mughal emperors. Sometime in the nineteenth century, or perhaps before, local Hindus claimed that the mosque in fact sat on the birthplace of Rama. The mosque’s builders, the story goes, had destroyed a temple dedicated to Rama marking the place where he allegedly had been born. The mosque had been locked up as a consequence of the dispute and associated court cases since 1949.

The Vishna Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the BJP, with full support from the RSS, took up an old demand that the mosque be removed from the site and a giant temple to Rama built in its place. They posed the issue as the ultimate test of whether Hindus were ready to stand up for their heritage, or as Murli Manohar Joshi, the current BJP leader, said at one rally: “Do you want to stay in an India as represented by the ethos of Rama or an India humiliated by Babar?” The VHP began a mass propaganda campaign to prove that the mosque stood on Rama’s birthplace, citing bogus archaeological findings and other “evidence.”

The governments led by Gandhi and, after the 1989 elections, V.P. Singh were caught off balance by the upswell in BJP suport during the Ayodhya campaign. But they were unwilling to back down because of the principles involved and the fear of a Muslim backlash at the polls. The Hindu challenge became more intense in September and October 1990, when L. K. Advani, then leader of the BJP, led a 10,000-kilometer procession around the country in a giant vehicle made up to look like Rama’s chariot. Advani posed with a bow and arrow—Rama’s preferred weapon—and demanded justice for Hindus in Ayodhya, with explosive results.

In the wake of the procession, there were many riots between Hindus and Muslims, most of them started by militant Hindu groups that marched in support of Advani, often through Muslim neighborhoods, shouting slogans like “THE ONLY PLACE FOR MUSLIMS IS IN THE CEMETERY OR IN PAKISTAN.” Hundreds of people were killed, most of them Muslims, many of them shot down by the clearly partisan police force. Advani denied any responsibility for the riots, and he had indeed been careful not to recommend that Muslims be attacked. But Advani, a lifelong RSS member, is, like most senior RSS leaders, a cool, disciplined, carefully spoken man who would not make such a naked appeal to violence. At the same time, he is far too clever not to have realized that the procession would inspire clashes—and that they in turn could rally Hindus to the BJP.

Critics of the RSS credit the organization with a wily, Brahminical streak, and there is little doubt that the RSS is prepared to manipulate emotional symbols to achieve its ends. The VHP, for example, propagates the myth that a small idol of Rama, located in the central dome of the Ayodhya mosque, appeared in a flash of lightning on the night of December 22, 1949. Today awed Hindu pilgrims prostrate themselves before the idol. But the truth is quite widely known, and recorded in police documents, that RSS men sneaked into the mosque that night, put the idol in the dome, and then returned the next day to proclaim the miracle. Indeed, it is hard to find an RSS leader who is willing to take the issue of Rama’s supposed birth at the site as a central one, so far as historical truth is concerned.

I asked K. R. Malkani, a very austere, lifelong RSS member and important party intellectual, what was the historical case for the Ayodhya campaign. He answered blithely, “Perhaps those ideas about Rama, and his birthplace, are just concepts. It is possible that Rama never existed. The birthplace of Rama reflects the dreams, hopes, and values of Hindus. To the average Hindu, Rama very much existed, and Ayodhya is his birthplace. That is what matters.” The truth, of course, is that the RSS helped propogate that belief for its own ends.

Malkani and Advani, however, represent only the sophisticated face of the movement. While they say that they are unleashing Hindu pride, very often what they end up encouraging is verbal or physical oppression toward Muslims. Many BJP and VHP supporters are little more than aggressive Hindu bigots who openly despise Muslims, and have little understanding or time for the finer points of Hindutva. Typical of that very large section of the Hindu nationalists’ ranks is B. L. Sharma, who was president of VHP in Delhi when I first met him, and is now a member of Parliament. I once asked him what, after all, was the problem with Muslims. First he pointed to his head, and said, “They have nothing between their ears,” and laughed. But when I asked him to be serious he said, “The Muslims have no character. If I were a Muslim meeting you now I would probably offer you my sister.” Late last year, Sharma led an attack on a Muslim member of Parliament, beating him up on the floor of the house. In the 1991 elections, he won his New Delhi constituency by a landslide.

The movement goes even more deeply into the dregs of society through a group called the Bajrang Dal, or Army of Hanuman, the monkey god who is Rama’s faithful companion. The Bajrang Dal is an official wing of the VHP, and in theory it is under the careful eye of the RSS, as are the VHP and BJP. But the Bajrang Dal members are not like the polite, middle-class boys the RSS typically recruits; they make up groups of toughs who like to fight Muslims, carrying small three-bladed knives called trishuls, which are etched with slogans like “Long Live Lord Rama.” They can usually be seen in the forefront of riots with Muslims, and they were the main force behind the storming of the Babri mosque in 1990, when rioters fought their way past police and did considerable damage to the mosque. Most of the senior RSS leaders say they deplore the Bajrang Dal’s nasty image, but they are not willing to disband it either. A mid-level BJP man once muttered to me, “We need people like that to fight the Muslims.” That must be an embarrassing twist for the RSS. Hedgewar’s original vision of the new Hindu man, virile enough to fight his own battles, has been reduced to a strategy of making use of thugs, often just criminal gang members who know little or nothing of the RSS’s principles, to stand up for their cause.

While the Hindu nationalists have recruited many followers, they have also benefited from turmoil within the Congress Party—particularly Rajiv Gandhi’s defeat in the 1989 elections and his assassination last year. So far the sharpest challenge to them has come from the left, particularly from leftist intellectuals but also from the Janata Dal Party and Communist Party of India (Marxist), all of whom are extremely alarmed by the BJP’s political breakthrough on a wave of sectarian political sentiment.

In order to combat the wave of VHP propaganda about the Babri mosque, a group of intellectuals, several from New Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, last year published an impressive collection of essays, Anatomy of a Confrontation, that took up the Ayodhya issue and the Hindu nationalist movement.

The essayists all share a fear, as the preface points out, that

were this movement to succeed, secularism would be strangled and India would be headed for a Fascist take-over…. The problem, acute enough already, is gaining in political urgency day by day and laying siege to the basic concepts on which free India has striven to build herself.

Two distinguished historians, K. N. Panikkar of Nehru University, and Sushil Srivastava of the University of Allahbad, survey the evidence of the VHP that the Babri mosque was built on the site of a temple marking Rama’s birthplace; they do a convincing, if somewhat convoluted, job of dismissing the Hindu case. Panikkar suggests that the legend of Rama may have originated during the nineteenth century with the spurious claim of a high priest, who was trying to counter a Muslim claim to own the site on which the priest’s Hindu temple had been built.

The most distinguished essay, however, by Romila Thapar, a scholar of ancient Indian history at Nehru University, traces the ways that the epic of Rama has been used and rewritten over the centuries to suit political and religious objectives—just as the present-day Hindu nationalists have sought to do by making a national issue out of Babri Masjid and at the same time elevating Rama and the Ramayana to the status of first among equals in the pantheon of Hindu gods and sacred texts.

The oldest known version of the Ramayana, the Sanskrit Rama-katha, by a scribe named Valmiki, is not a religious text at all, but an epic comparable to Beowulf or the Song of Roland. Rama is a heroic figure who rescues his bride, Sita, from a demon king, Ravana, with the help of his faithful ally Hanuman, the monkey god. He returns to Ayodhya to establish Ram Rajya, a monarchical rule of perfect righteousness.

The story was transformed by a sect called the Ramanandins in the early part of this millennium. They viewed worship of Rama, even more than Vishnu, as the most effective means of salvation, and wrote their own version of the story, emphasizing its importance as a sacred text and Rama’s godly omniscience. The next important step in the story’s transformation was its translation by Tulsidas, a sixteenth-century poet, from Sanskrit into Hindi, the vernacular of north India.

What the RSS and its affiliates are doing to Rama and the Ramayana, Thapar argues, parallels what other groups have done over the centuries. The Hindu nationalist movement, she writes,

has added yet another dimension to the ways in which the Rama-katha has been used. Its roots lie in the realization that in the same way as once long ago the story was used to propagate a new religious idea,…the worship of that avatara could now be used to build up a political base and political demands.

Thapar also believes that the Hindu nationalists are consciously trying to make out of Ramayana and Rama precisely what they believe Hinduism lacks: a monolithic foundation of one god (Rama), one book (Ramayana), one omphalos (Ayodhya), much as Christians and Muslims have.

This argument goes too far in ascribing a single mythologizing strategy to the entire Hindu nationalist movement, but there is no question that the VHP, at least, promotes Rama and the VHP-approved version of the Ramayana as the most important elements within the vast Hindu tradition. The strategy also fits well with the RSS view that Indians must unite around a “living god,” the nation, or in this context, Rama, if they are ever to be strong again.

But not all the Hindu nationalists take the Ayodhya strategy with equal seriousness, as has become evident in recent months. While the VHP is still pressing hard for its Ayodhya campaign, the BJP, a more broadly based, pragmatic organization, has backed away from that effort, afraid that voters were tiring of the Ayodhya campaign and its strongly sectarian, violent overtones. Up to a point, the violence may have helped the BJP; but BJP analysts began to worry that the activities of such followers as the Bajrang Dal bully boys had begun to hurt the party’s image.

Last autumn, the BJP changed its rhetoric to promote a more “Indian” and less “Hindu” cause, the threat to India’s integrity posed by the uprising in Kashmir, in which Kashmiri Muslims are fighting for secession in a bloody struggle with India’s army and paramilitary forces. Murli Manohar Joshi, the new leader of the BJP, taking a page from Advani’s book, organized a procession from the south of India all the way to Srinagar to highlight the call for a more iron-fisted policy toward the Kashmiris. The procession ended lamely when, because of concerns about security, the leaders of the BJP had to be flown to Srinagar on the last leg of the trip, and thousands of soldiers and police had to be deployed to secure a small park in the city for a flag-raising ceremony. In the end, the procession stirred up less feverish attention than the more visceral appeal to Hindu-Muslim animosity represented by Ayodhya. Appeals to national unity are also not limited to the BJP. The Congress, under the highly capable leadership of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, can easily make the same appeals to national integrity. In fact, Rao quietly ensured that Joshi reached Srinagar in order to avoid accusations by the BJP that Congress was “pandering” to Kashmiri Muslim sentiment.

The Hindu national movement also faces other problems in trying to broaden its appeal. The BJP is essentially an urban, upper-caste party which has yet to find a way to make its appeal to the huge, dark majority: the poor, rural, lower-caste, and untouchable Indians. They are a growing, organized force in politics, and increasingly unwilling to accept the upper-class, upper-caste leadership of the Congress Party or BJP. The BJP also suffers from linguistic and cultural limitations: southerners tend to view it as a party dominated by “Hindi chauvinists,” proponents of imposing Hindi as the mother tongue on all Indians—despite intense resistance from other proud linguistic traditions in India.

Those political limitations suggest that the Hindu nationalists’ real weakness is ideological. There is in fact no Hindutva; at least most Indians would place their regional, class, caste, and linguistic identities above anything so amorphous as the “living nation” of Hindu nationalism. For Hindus, other aspects of life may be more important than membership in a mystical Hindu nation—for example, speaking the Tamil language of southern India, or being a Yadav (a member of a low caste), or simply being dirt poor and under a landlord’s heel.

The Congress Party, on the other hand, despite the weakening of its block-to-block, village-to-village organization over the years, has a base among most groups and in most regions. Under Narasimha Rao, the party is regaining strength. His radical economic policies include an end to the requirement that most industries obtain licenses from the government, a longstanding source of corruption and an impediment to growth, as well as strong encouragement of foreign investment. Such reforms could boost the party’s fortunes even further if they succeed in restoring economic growth, which has fallen sharply from the 5 percent average of the late 1980s. If the reforms falter, perhaps under the weight of inflation, or if India suffers a catastrophic setback in Kashmir, then the BJP may be able to exploit a voter backlash against the Congress Party to win a parliamentary majority. Short of those conditions the BJP looks likely to remain the second party in Indian politics for some time to come.

Still, it is no small measure of its achievement that the BJP has come from nowhere to become the second most powerful party in Indian politics. Whether or not the Hindu nationalists win power, they have already left an indelible and unhappy mark on India’s political life: they have made it acceptable, even respectable, to vent distrust, distaste, and even hatred for India’s Muslims. In doing so, they add more heat to the fires of disorder that burn ever hotter on the subcontinent.

This Issue

May 14, 1992