Manmohan Singh
Manmohan Singh; drawing by David Levine


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 party to which Gandhi and Nehru as well as Mrs. Gandhi’s murdered relatives, her late husband, Rajiv Gandhi, and mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, belonged.

But Mrs. Gandhi appears to have listened not only to her inner voice but also to the Hindu nationalists who refused to accept her as prime minister, citing her “foreign origins,” and, reportedly, to her own children, who feared, not wholly irrationally, that as prime minister she may be as vulnerable to violent death as her husband and mother-in-law were. Her act of renunciation—especially appreciated by Indians who see most politicians as venal seekers of money and power—has given Mrs. Gandhi a moral authority that may be greater than the power she could have wielded as prime minister. It has armed her with what political wits in Delhi call her very own “weapon of mass destruction.” But it still remains to be seen how she will use it against a defeated but still strong BJP, or how she can use it to revive the Congress, which, though blessed with power, still resembles a party in decline, dependent on potentially fractious allies and lacking a visible and articulate leadership and strong pan-Indian organization.

The Hindu nationalists had been an insignificant political force during the first decades of independent India. In those days, the mostly upper-caste leaders of the Congress managed to attract an assortment of Indians—Brahmins as well as Dalits (low-caste Hindus), Muslims, Sikhs, Christians—and left little space for an effective opposition. Personal charisma of the sort Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, possessed often obscured political and economic issues.

But India had changed by the 1980s and early 1990s—the time when the BJP became prominent. The minorities were restive; the Dalits and other low-caste Hindus had their own aggressive representatives, who were not content with the patronage of the Congress; and region-based political groups demanded more independence from the federal government. The problem for the political elite in New Delhi was how to accommodate their growing political self-awareness, their often antagonistic interests.


Congress governments, tainted by corruption scandals, appeared unable to deal with rising prices, unemployment, and secessionist movements led by religious minorities in Kashmir, Punjab, and the small states on India’s northeastern border. The founding ideal of India—secularism—looked shaky as Indira and then Rajiv Gandhi tried to befriend Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu extremists in an attempt to hold on to the great power of the centralized Indian state.

It was in these circumstances that the BJP became attractive to the Hindu middle class in urban areas, its enduring support base. On certain issues, such as secularism, it had the virtues of clarity, if not of tolerance. India, it said, was the original and sacred land of the Hindus, and all those who wished to live in it—particularly the minorities—had to embrace Hindu culture, which, though damaged by Muslim invaders, still came through clearly in the Vedas, and in the lives and sayings of Lord Rama, such modern political figures as Swami Vivekananda, and previously obscure nationalist ideologues whom the Hindu nationalists began to exalt, once they were in power, as national heroes in revised history textbooks.

This rhetoric of reviving a glorious Hindu culture drove the BJP’s attempt to remove the mosque allegedly built upon Lord Rama’s birthplace in the north Indian city of Ayodhya by the sixteenth-century Mogul emperor Babur. This often violent campaign culminated in December 1992 as frenzied mobs led by Hindu nationalist leaders demolished the mosque, causing riots across India in which thousands of people, mostly Muslims, died.

As a party mostly led by, and catering to, upper-caste Hindus, the BJP was wary of low-caste assertiveness, which threatened to undermine its vision of a united Hindu nation under a (though this was left unsaid) paternal upper-caste leadership. Yet the BJP needed low-caste votes in order to become a serious rival to the Congress, and therefore could not wholeheartedly oppose the policy of affirmative action for low-caste Hindus that angered and alienated many upper-caste Hindus. And so the BJP denounced the cruelties of the caste system and struck electoral alliances with Dalit parties while trying to appease upper-caste Hindu voters with the promise of building a Rama temple in Ayodhya, hoping all the time that a strong show of Hindu nationalism would paper over the contradictions.

These contradictions were unavoidable by the early Nineties: pan-Indian, upper-caste dominated parties such as BJP and Congress could gain power in New Delhi only with the help of small regional parties that, more often than not, represented newly empowered low-caste Hindus. The BJP’s economic policies were equally improvised: dictated by circumstances rather than by ideology. It was clear by the late Eighties that India’s quasi-socialist and sluggish economy needed reforms, and the Congress party attempted them in 1991 when Manmohan Singh, then the finance minister, arranged a loan from the International Monetary Fund, devalued the rupee, relaxed labor laws, liberalized imports, and opened India’s previously protectionist economy to foreign trade and investment. These reforms gave India an average economic growth of 6 percent in the next decade, compared to the 3.5 percent growth during the first three decades of in-dependence.1 But they also entailed cuts in government spending and subsidies in the crucial areas of agriculture, public health, and education, and they did not lead to a dramatic rise in employment.

The BJP joined much of India’s political elite in supporting the Congress reforms, which were opposed most strongly by the Communist parties, whose most loyal constituency in the states of West Bengal and Kerala consisted of small farmers and the unionized working class. The BJP could see that the reforms benefited greatly those who were best placed to take advantage of new opportunities in business and trade and the economy’s fast-growing service sector (information technology, jobs outsourced by Europe and America): the educated middle class, the BJP’s primary constituency, which, despite growing fast in recent years, still makes up less than 20 percent of India’s population.

The reforms also attracted a generation of rich Indians who live in the US and the UK and were eager for cultural and economic links with their ancestral land—a desire that turned nonresident Indians into the BJP’s most devoted followers and sponsors, and helped the BJP itself evolve rapidly, despite its Hindu nationalism, into a keen advocate of economic globalization.

Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms in 1991 did not much help the Congress, which lost the elections in 1996. The BJP and its allies held power for a mere thirteen days in 1996 before giving way to a coalition of center-left parties. The coalition soon collapsed, and in 1998, the BJP and its allies formed the government in Delhi.


By then, the BJP, led by the relatively moderate Vajpayee, had toned down its previously hard-line stance on such issues as the building of a Rama temple in Ayodhya. The party leaders presented themselves to middle-class Indians as modern, efficient alternatives to the antiquated, dynasty-obsessed Congress leadership. But it soon became clear that many of these leaders were unwilling to let go of the Hindu nationalist ideology that they had imbibed from childhood in the training camps of the RSS (National Volunteers Organization), the parent body of the BJP, of which the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi was once a member and to which both Vajpayee and his deputy, Lal Krishna Advani, belong.

A few weeks after assuming power, the Hindu nationalists broke India’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing—Indira Gandhi had supervised India’s first and only nuclear test in 1974. The BJP claimed to have removed a feeling of “national weakness” with the new tests. Its senior leaders challenged Pakistan to an all-out war; and Pakistan promptly responded with seven nuclear tests of its own.

For most of the next six years, relations with Pakistan remained hostage to hawkish ideologues within the BJP such as L.K. Advani, despite Vajpayee’s wish to enter history as a peacemaker. The hawks were not helped by Pakistan’s continuing support of Muslim militants in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, which reached its culmination when Pakistan-backed militants seized high mountain peaks in Indian-held Kashmir, and withdrew only after much bloodshed and American diplomatic pressure on Pakistan. The hawks also seemed to have dictated the Indian government’s decision to use military force to deal not only with the popular anti-India insurgency in Kashmir but also with Pakistan. In 2002, hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers remained for months in battle-ready positions on India’s long border with Pakistan, provoking worldwide fears of a nuclear war between the two neighbors. This reckless and expensive move, aimed partly at putting American pressure on General Musharraf, seems to have produced few tangible results—official Pakistani support of Kashmiri militants lessened only after Musharraf found himself under attack by radical Islamists for his new proximity to the Bush administration after September 11.

Dismissing Nehru’s policies of non-alignment as futile, the BJP-dominated government sought to turn India into the United States’ closest ally in Asia. India offered bases to the US military during the attack on Afghanistan in October 2001. The offer was not taken up since Pakistan was closer to Afghanistan than India was. Undeterred, Vajpayee in March 2003 offered his services to resolve peacefully the crisis over Iraq—an offer rejected slightly contemptuously by Condoleezza Rice.2 The BJP also built close military relations with Israel, which is now the second-largest supplier of arms to India.

The BJP and its extended network of activists maintained an aggressive position on cultural issues. The federal minister for education, Murli Manohar Joshi, supervised the rewriting of history textbooks, which presented many Muslim rulers of India as barbarian invaders and vandals, and glorified their Hindu detractors. Joshi, who lost his seat in the recent elections, also sought to include astrology in the science curriculum. Until this year, the Mumbai politician Bal Thackeray, the leader of the Shiv Sena, one of the BJP’s more extremist allies, declared, and even managed to enforce, a ban on cricket matches between India and Pakistan. Hindu activists routinely attacked art exhibitions, libraries, cinemas, and theaters for their allegedly unpatriotic and anti-Hindu bias.

In March 2002, Hindu extremists, ostensibly retaliating against the killing by a Muslim mob of sixty Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya, massacred over two thousand Muslims in the prosperous western Indian state of Gujarat. Members of the BJP government in Gujarat and the police assisted and protected many of the killers.3 Despite international and national condemnation, Vajpayee did not sack Narendra Modi, the BJP chief minister, who declared himself vindicated by winning the state elections held a few months after the massacre of Muslims.

As Modi’s victory indicated, well-to-do Indians were likely to support the Hindu nationalists, even the extremists among them, as long as they continued to liberalize the Indian economy and help create a con-sumer revolution. The urban prosperity achieved by the reforms initiated in 1991 became most visible during the BJP’s six years in power, when new freeways, shopping malls, brand-name boutiques, Starbucks-style coffee bars, and restaurants with exotic cuisine and London prices transformed the cities of Bangalore, Hyderabad, Delhi, Chennai, and Mumbai.

The effect was much less pronounced in villages, or even in small cities like Benares, where it wasn’t hard to notice that the roads remained broken, the new cafés catered mostly to foreign tourists, and the rickshaw driver asked for the same meager fare he had asked for five years before. Such disparities are now most obvious in public health. Government budgets have declined since the beginning of reforms in 1991—the annual per capita expenditure on public health is less than $4—and India now has one of the most privatized health care systems in the world. While high-tech hospitals in the big cities cater to rich Indians and foreigners, or medical tourists, public health facilities in small towns and villages are rapidly deteriorating. Communicable diseases such as malaria, dengue, and encephalitis have revived. Half of all Indian children are undernourished and more than half a million of them die each year from diarrhea. An estimated five million Indi-ans are infected with HIV/AIDS—a growing problem, which, as the World Bank recently claimed, India continues to ignore.

A powerful ideology often shaped the reforms: that the free market can usurp the role of the state. This meant that government often withdrew from precisely those areas where its presence was indispensable. Though India had more than sufficient food grains in stock, the government’s failure to distribute them effectively led in recent years to an unprecedented rise in the number of drought-affected villagers starving to death in many of the most populous states.4

But new-found wealth created a heady mood among the middle class—what the leaders of the BJP called the “feel-good factor” (so important that in March this year the BJP was initially reluctant to send the Indian cricket team to Pakistan out of the fear that it might lose and make the cricket-obsessed, nationalist middle class feel not so good anymore). Most English-language newspapers began to print entire daily supplements in order to cover film premières, fashion shows, champagne-tasting sessions in five-star hotels, and the lifestyles of beauty pageant winners, models, Bollywood actors, and other celebrities. The general air of celebration overwhelmed many formerly left-wing intellectuals, academics, and journalists. Convinced that the BJP would be in power for many years, they aligned themselves openly with the party, and lobbied for political and diplomatic posts. Some of the most influential TV news channels, newspapers, and magazines, including India Today, once India’s best newsmagazine, were content to become an echo chamber for the BJP’s views.

Not surprisingly, the BJP, and its supporters and advisers in the media, couldn’t see beyond the “India Shining” of the Hindu middle class and turn their attention to the 70 percent of Indians living in the countryside. They also barely noticed the Indians that lived in slums or in equally degrading conditions in the big cities—many of the BJP’s most surprising losses came in Delhi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad, where India supposedly shone most brightly, but where the poor remained a majority and probably felt most keenly their exclusion from the new prosperity. This partial vision partly explains the BJP’s decision to hold elections six months earlier than they were needed, its startlingly tactless image of an “India Shining” in their advertising campaign, as well as the failure of the opinion polls to predict the election results.


It may be tempting to conclude from the election results that Indians have emphatically rejected Hindu nationalism and endorsed Nehruvian secularism. Certainly Muslims, though about 12 percent of the electorate, seem to have voted with the intention of defeating the BJP. But the BJP and its allies have maintained their overall share of the votes cast—35 percent—and the allies of the Congress—small, regional, and caste-based parties—improved their share more dramatically than the Congress itself, which got fewer seats than when it lost power in 1996, and which now needs its allies in order to stay in power.

In any case, Nehruvian secularism and Hindu nationalism—potent words in Op-Ed articles and television debates—are unlikely to arouse much emotion among the majority of Indian voters, who have more pressing matters to attend to in their daily lives than ideology. For instance, the BJP’s relatively weak performance in Gujarat, where it won fourteen out of twenty-six seats, is explained not so much by a revival of Nehru’s ideas as by farmers protesting against high power prices and the scarcity of water.

The argument that the results reflect a revolution of rising expectations set off by globalization sounds much more plausible.5 Most economists agree that poverty in India is in decline, even if it is not clear whether inequality has grown or decreased. Official statistics about the percentage of poor people in the population show a fall in the period between 1987 and 2000: 26.8 percent from 39.4 percent in rural areas and to 24.1 percent from 39.1 percent in urban areas.6

Nevertheless, it may be risky to conclude from the results that Indians want more rather than less of economic reforms. For a case-by-case study of the recent election results seems to show a high degree of dissatisfaction with the present policies and tone of the economic reformers, such as Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states, who is an important ally of the BJP, and was, until recently, a leading figure of the new Indian economy.

In 1997, Naidu began receiving large loans from the World Bank. Advised by a UK-based think tank called the Adam Smith Institute and, later, by the international management consultants McKinsey and Co, Naidu privatized state-owned industries and withdrew subsidies and free electric power to farmers—bold actions in a state where 67 percent of the population depends upon agriculture for a living. Seeking to make the city of Hyderabad the Indian capital of information technology, he befriended Bill Gates, acted as host to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and spoke of getting computers to each village in his state.

Drought, debt, and lack of government support have driven almost three thousand small farmers to suicide—Andhra Pradesh accounts for three of every four suicides by Indian farmers in the last few years.7 Naidu’s government refused to give money to the bereaved families, claiming that this would only encourage more farmers to commit suicide.8 His government’s White Paper on agriculture claimed that the “outdated paradigm of small and marginal farmers in agriculture is no longer viable.” In the “new paradigm,” corporate and contract farming was to reduce the number of people engaged in agriculture by 40 percent and also make agriculture work for the global market.

Such talk didn’t help Naidu much. His party was humiliated, winning only 5 out of 42 seats in the general elections and 45 out of 294 seats in the state elections held simultaneously. In the neighboring state of Karnataka, the prosperity of Bangalore, partly created by information technology, seemed to make little difference to farmers oppressed by drought and high power prices: here it was the ruling Congress party, advancing a World Bank–dictated program of hiking power tariffs, which lost its majority in both general and state elections. Commenting on the Congress’s losses, the former chief minister of Karnataka admitted that his government had an “urban bias.” The Congress has now formed a coalition government with a regional party that campaigned against the economic reforms.

Economic reforms are sluggish in the states of West Bengal and Kerala, but the Communist parties there seemed to defy the revolution of rising expectations by winning more seats than ever before. In Bihar, socially and economically the most backward state in India, voters preferred the Rashtriya Janata Dal, a local party led by Laloo Prasay Yadav, one of India’s most flamboyant low-caste politicians, who was recently imprisoned on corruption charges, and who has shown little interest in pursuing economic reforms. The picture is even more confusing in the two states—Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh—which the Congress ruled until recently, and where the BJP won handsomely.

Indian politicians, however, tend to be more shrewd than analysts at figuring out who voted for them and why. The new federal government has announced dramatically increased spending on health and education, easier credit and subsidized power for farmers, and new rural employment schemes. In his first formal speech as prime minister, Manmohan Singh deplored the neglect of farmers by previous governments and promised a “new deal” for rural India. In early July, Singh was quick to visit rural Andhra Pradesh in response to news of suicides by over a hundred farmers in the state.

Still, the new government may not immediately have the money it needs to translate rhetoric into action. It is also true that many of the reforms, such as lowering trade barriers, are irreversible, as even the Communist chief minister of West Bengal admits, while inviting foreign investment in his state. The Communist parties may only be able to persuade the new Congress-led government to slow down rather than stop the privatization of government-owned industries. The Communists may succeed more in repealing such BJP-introduced laws as POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), India’s own version of the Patriot Act, in revising the BJP’s history textbooks, and in qualifying Indian support for the Bush administration, which the new foreign minister, in his previous role as a magazine columnist, described as a “menace.”

Manmohan Singh may find himself hemmed in not only by the Congress’s left-wing allies but also by members of his own government. Some of them have criminal indictments against them; others lobbied hard for prestigious and remunerative positions in the cabinet, and now covet his own job—the Congress is more tainted than the BJP by corruption, which is an endemic, and probably immutable, feature of Indian politics. Singh himself is much admired for his honesty, but with no political base of his own—he has yet to win an election to the Indian parliament—he starts off considerably beholden to Sonia Gandhi.

Mrs. Gandhi seems as surprised as most people by the election results, and it is not yet clear what she wishes the new government to do. She skillfully courted the allies that now sustain the Congress in power, and she has bravely fended off vicious personal attacks from the BJP. But she rarely speaks to the press, and she appears to the wider public as a somewhat mysterious and secretive person, overreliant on a small coterie of advisers and flunkies. She may quickly lose the moral advantage she gained by renouncing the post of prime minister if she and her advisers are seen as dictating, behind the scenes, to Manmohan Singh.

Certainly, the BJP will be waiting to undermine Sonia Gandhi, and her son and daughter, whom they see, accurately, as charismatic, third-generation leaders of the Congress. Out of power, the BJP is likely to step up its nationalist rhetoric and to accuse the Congress-led government of “weakness” as its officials continue the peace process with Pakistan and attempt to hold a dialogue with separatists in Kashmir. The BJP may also resurrect its campaign for a Rama temple in Ayodhya, half-hoping, as usual, that strident Hindu nationalism would somehow drown out discussion of economic policies and growing social disparities.

The BJP had originally flourished in the 1980s at the expense of the Congress; it is even better placed now to gain from its strongest rival’s errors and weaknesses. For now, it is the possibility of a strong BJP comeback that may best hold the new government together. The fear may even help to clarify to the government’s more unpromising members the mandate for change given them by many Indians—the neglected majority, which has proved yet again how even a flawed democratic system can check the excesses of a self-absorbed elite.

July 14, 2004

This Issue

August 12, 2004