bigotry is poisoning Indian democracy
Times, March 3 2003 original
is under attack in India just when it is at its most vibrant.
With all the attention on events in the Middle East and Islamic
terrorism, the world has taken its eye off the ball. For five
years the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party has dominated
the ragged coalition of parties that constitutes India's central
government. Commentators have largely taken a sanguine view
of this state of affairs. While admitting that the BJP may
have started out as a chauvinist party, intent on imposing
an exclusive Hindu identity on a multicultural nation, they
insist that it has been tamed by office and the realities
of coalition politics. But that view now looks complacent.
the casual observer might be forgiven for thinking the BJP
was taking the path of moderation. Atal Behari Vajpayee, its
parliamentary leader and prime minister, is a cultured pragmatist,
anxious to distance the party from its extremist associates
in its pursuit of respectability. Under his leadership the
BJP appeared on the whole to abide by Jawaharlal Nehru's secular
inheritance. Reassuring noises were made towards Muslim and
Christian minorities and religious violence was officially
condemned, partly to keep coalition partners, many representing
broader constituencies in the south and in West Bengal, on
side. The discipline of government seemed to be working its
December the regional BJP government in Gujarat, led by Narendra
Modi, was re-elected with an increased majority after running
an overtly anti-Muslim campaign. The manipulation of religious
violence to get the Hindu vote out is not new to Indian elections
- indeed it is as old as Indian democracy itself. The first
elections under the partial democracy introduced by the British
in the 1920s witnessed exactly this kind of electioneering.
But until the recent Gujarati poll, elections in independent
India had been relatively free of it. The situation has changed
for three reasons.
the BJP had suffered a run of poor provincial election results,
and its regional leaders were searching for a way to buck
the "incumbency effect". In India, incumbent governments
tend to get thrown out by the electorate because of their
incompetence and/or corruption. But Mr Modi's victory showed
that by manipulating religious intolerance, even incompetent
governments can secure re-election. By any measure, Gujarat
has had poor government. The once thriving economy is faltering,
officials have been accused of corruption following the Bhuj
earthquake of 2000 and Mr Modi himself has been under investigation
for alleged complicity in the pogrom of 2002.
and more important contributor to the recent re-radicalisation
of Indian politics is terrorism - the impact of September
11 2001 and the occupation of the Indian parliament by Islamists
in December 2001. Islamist attacks have strengthened the hand
of Hindu extremists, who hold Muslims to blame for India's
problems. Radical nationalist groups are now difficult to
exclude from the corridors of power and there is even talk
that Mr Modi may succeed the ailing Mr Vajpayee as BJP leader.
Hindus are again pressing for a resolution of the highly contentious
Ayodhya issue, demanding that a Hindu temple be built on the
site of the mosque destroyed by Hindu activists in 1992. And
it will be difficult for Mr Vajpayee to resist them, whatever
the decision of the Supreme Court, due on Thursday. If he
gives way to the radicals, violence is bound to ensue.
factor is the growth of overseas fundraising for radical nationalist
groups. The rise of the Hindu right in the late 1970s owed
much to the political frustrations of India's newly rich farmers.
But the movement is increasingly financed and influenced by
India's wealthy diaspora. They see the war on terrorism as
an opportunity to align India with the US. Much of the money
raised abroad has been funnelled into the "education"
of poor tribal and low-caste groups, hitherto immune to the
Hindu nationalist message. The BJP is also targeting the south
with some success.
is likely to survive in India but politics will take an increasingly
ugly form. The erosion of secular values suggests that, far
from being tamed, Hindu nationalism is becoming stronger and
increasingly radical. That is something that, while India
and Pakistan maintain a nuclear stand-off in Kashmir, the
rest of the world can no longer afford to ignore.
is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University