Hawk spreads its wings
By Randeep Ramesh
This week will see the biggest test of democracy since
George Bush managed to lose the popular vote and win the White House. The
fourth largest electorate in the world - bigger than Brazil, Indonesia
or Russia - is going to the polls and looks as if it might stem the tide
of Hindu nationalism in India. After the best part of a decade, voters
in state elections are likely to toss out the Bharatiya Janata party from
its north India powerbases in Uttar Pradesh, Uttranchal and remove its
allies in the Punjab.
The more hardline elements of the BJP and its affiliates, who emphasise
Hindu rites rather than human rights, have exposed the limitations of the
party's electoral franchise. The BJP's priorities have shown scant regard
for the masses: it favours the few not the many. While undoubted economic
gains have seen a fizzy entrepreneurialism emerge, India's impoverished
citizens, who make up a third of the world's poor, have seen little progress.
The interests of the higher castes have come to dominate parliamentary
debate - where corporate deregulation, not social development is paramount.
The media is dominated by consumerist concerns, and the legal system is
often subverted, leaving the law as a tool for the rich to harass the poor.
Most frightening is the BJP's foreign policy, which is heavily influenced
by the superpower aspirations of the country's elite. As Nobel prizewinning
economist Professor Amartya Sen and his Delhi-based colleague Dr Jean Dreze
note in their forthcoming book, India: Development And Participation: "The
fact that the government spends about three times as much on 'defence'
as on healthcare is not unrelated to the lobbying powers of the military
Last month the BJP stoked nationalist fires by testing its new nuclear-capable
ballistic missile, called Agni after the Hindu god of fire. The test came
as Pakistan and India massed on the border - where they still stand glaring
at each other. This excessive display of force is an embodiment of a dangerous
new development in Indian political thought: that India's BJP should wear
the mailed glove of Israel's Likud party.
Delhi's historic support for the Palestinians (Yasser Arafat endorsed
the notion that Kashmir belonged to India) meant that diplomatic links
with Israel were only established after the peace process started in 1992.
But Delhi has managed to edge closer towards Israel while making the moral
case for the Palestinians - and its engagement has seen Tel Aviv seal a
$1bn deal to supply Phalcon airborne command and control planes to India.
The two countries have also been moving in similar political and economic
directions. The rising populist tide has lifted rightwing parties and in
economic terms, India and Israel have seen technology become their most
But it is Likud's doctrine of military might that resonates with the
hawks in Delhi. The BJP's political narrative is that India is under constant
threat and that national security concerns must come first. If it sounds
familiar, it is because the BJP have merely borrowed the formulation from
Theocrats would like to see India play Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction,
to Israel's Samson. So the BJP is indulging in coercive diplomacy to deal
with Pakistan. The BJP high command say India's 1.2m troops will not be
withdrawn until cross-border terrorism is stopped and Islamabad hands over
alleged terrorists and bombers wanted by Indian police.
The BJP's manoeuvring is not without risk. The rise of China would mean
a militarised India would become more of a servant than client state of
America. There is also the Indian diaspora to consider. There about 2m
Indians working in Saudi Arabia alone, remitting more than $4bn a year,
and Delhi cannot afford to antagonise economic partners in the Middle East
with anti-Muslim rhetoric.
This will not stop a waning BJP, which will persist with its strategy
until the country's next general election due in 2004. Hindu nationalism
marginalised Congress, the party that once dominated India, by tarring
attempts to use political equality to close the gap between rich and poor
as pandering to minorities.
But the BJP may find its biggest political threat comes from across
the snowy uplands of Kashmir's border in Pakistan. President Pervez Musharraf,
Pakistan's military dictator, is racing to build a democracy in a couple
of years that could claim a moral equivalence with India. National polls
will take place in October and the general has won admiration from the
west for moving the country far from the mosque and a little distance from
The former army chief will remain president but will hand over some
power to elected representatives. What should worry India is what the world
thinks when its gaze next rests upon Kashmir, probably later this year
when elections take place on the Indian side. What will we then see but
a general talking peace and elected politicians speaking of war? - The