India: Back to Its Future?

Travelers to India are often amazed at its diversity, from snowy Kashmir to steamy Madras, from high-tech Bombay to illiterate villages in Bihar. Its government officially recognizes 19 languages. In ancient days, India was a matrix of kingdoms reflecting such complexity.

But starting with the British Raj and through most of its 52 years of independence, India was largely ruled by a single hand. Since 1947, that's usually been someone of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty who also headed the Congress Party. It was an unnatural royalty in the world's largest democracy.

But now, a national election has given majority rule to a newly formed, grand coalition known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). This could signal a historic break with the past. India could be returning to its pre-British roots, offering a more stable future for itself.

The NDA is a wide ethnic and political quilt of 24 parties, even though it's led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), known for hard-line Hindu nationalism.

Such a coalition would be unstable in the West. But for many Indians, it could hark back to the traditional order of the ancient Hindu Mandali - a ring of great and small kings with the state in the middle. Power is shared and regional sovereignty honored, but under a broad unity.

And this coalition, including new partners from India's south and east, can serve to suppress the militancy of the BJP, led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Seven years ago, his party's radical followers demolished a Muslim mosque in Ayodhya in an attempt to build a Hindu temple. It ignited violence across the country. The BJP government also carried out nuclear tests last year, vaulting India into the global nuclear club.

The BJP has already learned that its economic nationalism and protectionist trade policies won't bring prosperity to India. It will likely continue to open the economy, a move the Congress Party started in 1991.

And as India opens to the world and sheds its British-influenced past, let's hope this diverse coalition can unleash the country's natural dynamism.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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