How world's biggest democracy gave up one-party rule

The Saffron Wave
November 5, 1999

The results of the recent general elections for the lower house of the Indian federal parliament show that the "saffron wave" of Hindu nationalism (so called after the traditional colour worn by Hindus), is swelling still. In a house of 543 MPs, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), together with its alliance partners, has won 301 seats, and its leader Atal Behari Vajpayee has been reappointed prime minister.

From 1947, when India became independent, right up to 1996, Congress Party governments ruled India except for two brief periods, 1977-79 and 1989-91. Meanwhile, the BJP, which won only two seats in the general elections of 1984, got 86 seats in 1989, 119 in 1991, 182 in 1998 and this year, by standing down in 200 constituencies in favour of its allies, helped to boost its alliance's tally to a comfortable majority, though its own number of seats remained 182. On the other hand, the Congress and its allies secured only 134 seats - the Congress itself winning 112, its worst performance in any general election since independence. What has brought about this massive reversal over 50 years?

It is well to remember that the Congress Party was once dubbed a Hindu party by the British and the Muslim League; its foremost leader Mahatma Gandhi was saluted by Jinnah, the leader of Pakistan, as "a great Hindu leader" - not as an Indian leader. Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister until 1964, used western precepts to tackle India's Hindu-Muslim communalism. Nehru's formula was socialism and secularism: socialism to provide a common ideological platform for Muslims and Hindus to work together politically, and secularism to separate religion from politics. But Nehru's secularism was not even-handed, as the temptation to garner Muslim votes grew. For example, when bigamy was made illegal in India in 1955, the Muslims were exempted, raising Hindu fears of a disproportionate rise in the Muslim population. Nehru failed to create a secular society.

Indira Gandhi, who followed her father as prime minister, had little time for ideology. Her success in helping Bangladesh to break away from Pakistan in 1971 lent credence to a policy of strength backed by force. And by centralising all powers in her own hands, she destroyed the Congress Party structure. Both policies assisted the growth of the "saffron wave".

The Shah Bano case in 1985 was another turning point. People were aghast that Rajiv Gandhi, a modern mind, who succeeded his mother as prime minister in 1984, should amend the constitution to overturn a Supreme Court judgment granting alimony to a Muslim divorcee, in order to please some Muslim politicians. Corruption also discredited Rajiv Gandhi's Congress.

Then in 1992, the destruction of a mosque in Ayodhya in the Ganges valley raised fears that the BJP and other nationalists were encouraging Hindus to abandon tolerance in their quest for self-assertion. But many people blamed the Muslims. Their argument was that because the structure was disused and unimportant to the Muslim minority, whereas the spot held overwhelming significance for the Hindu majority (who believed that Ram, the popular avatar of mythology, had been born there), the Muslims should have vacated the spot and agreed to a mosque being built next door by Hindu onations.

Taking account of all the above events, Thomas Blom Hansen's deeply researched book attempts to answer how and why the "saffron wave" swelled in the 1980s and 90s. Unfortunately, it is rather heavy reading, with too many references to authorities in the political and social sciences, ethnography and so on, and the author's own conclusions are expressed too tentatively to satisfy this reader.

Hansen does not sufficiently bring out the similarities between the Congress and BJP policies, and hence the undue importance of personal leadership in Indian electoral triumphs. Both parties' economic and foreign policies are the same, and the nuclear weapons that the BJP government tested in May 1998 were developed by successive Congress governments; it was Indira Gandhi who carried out the first test in 1974.

There is also insufficient attention paid to the effect on Indian opinion of the worldwide rise in Islamic fundamentalism, of Pakistan's decades-old proxy war in the Kashmir valley, of its constant attempts to subvert Indian Muslims and other minorities, and of China's growing power adjacent to India. One reason the Congress has just lost is that people did not feel confident that Sonia Gandhi, born an Italian, could defend India's integrity.

Hansen writes in detail about the political effects of the work done by the BJP's affiliated organisations, the most important of which, the RSS, has branches in most villages.

Of equal importance, I feel, have been television networks, "Bollywood" films and generally greater mobility, all of which are spreading Hindi (the language spoken by the largest number), common mores and a common sense of "Indian-ness" at every level of society.

But Hansen is right to say that though the "saffron wave" draws strength from India's pre-Mughal past, it is not a religious phenomenon and its anti-Muslim edge is political not religious: its basic thrust is to consolidate and strengthen India, rather than to proselytise. I also agree that the new wave has been helped by an increased political awakening among the masses. As prosperity grows in developing societies, particularly in an old and large one such as India's, people become more aware of their country's place in the sun. Furthermore, it makes sense to conclude, as Hansen does, that the BJP's strident nationalism may not prove too dangerous, because of India's diversity and divisions. The fact that the BJP has had to enter into a broad alliance to gain power supports this assessment.

Above all, the success of the "saffron wave" will be judged by its capacity to mobilise Indians for a much better economic performance.

Narendra Singh served in the Indian Foreign Service from 1948 to 1985.

The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India

Author - Thomas Blom Hansen
ISBN - 0 691 00670 9 and 00671 7
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £45.00 and £10.95
Pages - 293

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