Religious bigotry is poisoning Indian democracy

By Maria Misra

Financial Times, March 3 2003 original

Democracy 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.

Certainly, 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 moderating magic.

But last 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.

First, 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.

A second 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.

Radical 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.

The third 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.

Democracy 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.

The writer is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University