Indian voters deal setback to Hindu nationalism

After Thursday's loss for the pro-Hindu BJP, activists are urging the party to sharpen its hard-line message.

For India's former ruling party, the BJP, the vote-counting was barely over before the finger-pointing began.

Just hours after the Bharatiya Janata Party lost power last Thursday to the left-leaning Congress Party, BJP leaders came under harsh criticism, most of it coming from the Hindu nationalist party's staunchest supporters. The focus of their attacks was the BJP's 79-year-old popular prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who they claimed diluted the BJP's core values.

Over the past five years, the BJP under Mr. Vajpayee's leadership won plaudits, both in India and abroad, for speeding up the pace of economic reform and cutting back on India's stifling government bureaucracy and regulations. But by focusing on economics, at the expense of social issues - such as rewriting the Constitution to reflect Hindu values, and removing special privileges for minorities - the BJP has angered a half-dozen social organizations that make up its core base of support. Now, these activists want their party back.

"The BJP has deviated from the path of Lord Ram [a Hindu god] and adopted that of Ravana [the mythical demon that Ram slew]," said Praveen Togadia, leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a militant Hindu social organization that supports the BJP. "Hindus have taught the BJP a lesson."

To many observers, however, the lesson of the election was that economic disparities could no longer be trumped by appeals to Hindu unity. In fact, in a sign that Hindu nationalism may be on the wane, voters seemed fatigued with identity politics. The BJP fared poorly in regions most affected by the violent controversies surrounding Hindu nationalists' struggle to unite their brethren around a sense that India is first and foremost a Hindu nation.

For nearly a century, India's Hindu hard-liners have played a persuasive but marginal role in Indian politics. During British colonial days, some Hindu social groups were created to counter the influence of aggressive Christian missionaries.

Unlike the Congress Party nationalists like Mahatma Gandhi, who worked to create an egalitarian Indian society that respected all of India's diverse cultures, Hindu nationalists worked to create a common Hindu identity and culture as a way to bind the polyglot, multiethnic nation together. Their goal was to bolster the Hindu majority and to confront enemis, both external (the British) and internal (minorities such as the Muslims).

The Hindu right showed their contempt for Mr. Gandhi from the outset. Gandhi's assassin was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a quasi-military group that makes up the largest of the pro-Hindu social organizations. Early RSS thinkers like M.S. Golwalkar found inspiration in curious places, such as Adolf Hitler's Germany, which was also promoting the purity of a national culture.

"To keep up the purity of the Race (sic) and its culture, Germany shocked the world by purging the country of the semitic Races - the Jews," wrote Mr. Golwalkar. "Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan (sic) to learn and profit by."

Although some Hindu right activists disavow these statements, the BJP- controlled government in the state of Gujarat has put favorable references to Hitler into school textbooks.

In recent years, the Hindu right have focused their energies on creating a single temple that could compete with the Muslim's Jama Masjid in New Delhi. They found their focus on the birthplace of the mythical Hindu god Ram. Ram was seen as an ideal Hindu hero, a well-behaved god who revered his parents, honored his wife, and fought hard against injustices. Even better, Ram appealed to upper and lower castes, northerners and southerners.

There was only one problem. Ram's birthplace, presumed to be in the town of Ayodhya, had been desecrated in the 1500s by the Mughal invader Babur, who built a mosque allegedly on top. In 1991, a mob of Hindu fanatics, urged on by prominent leaders from the BJP and RSS, tore down the mosque and urged construction of a Ram temple in its place. Riots broke out around the country, killing several thousands; but in 1999, the Hindu nationalists won nationwide elections and formed their first government.

While BJP moderates like Prime Minister Vajpayee distanced themselves from the Ayodhya dispute, many Hindu traditionalists and BJP senior statesmen defend the destruction of the Babri Mosque. For them, the historic structure built by Babur was an insult to Hindus.

"When they built a dome on top of a half-destroyed temple, it was like a rape to our eyes," says B.P. Singhal, a senior BJP parliamentarian in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha. "Now I ask you, after 500 years, when the Muslim invader is gone, should not that rape stop?"

This is a question that the Indian court system has been addressing for nearly 15 years now, with no resolution in sight.

But if the elections are a gauge of public opinion, it seems that resolving the Ayodhya dispute was not foremost in their minds. The BJP parliamentarian in Ayodhya was voted out of office. The BJP also lost seats in the temple towns of Kashi and Mathura, where activists have also pledged to tear down mosques.

The BJP also did badly in the state of Gujarat, ruled by the BJP hard-liner Narendra Modi, where Hindu rioters killed nearly 1,000 Muslims after a Muslim mob attacked and burned a rail car full of Hindus in the town of Godhra in February 2002. For political watchers, it's a sign that Hindu voters have rejected extremism.

"The Hindus with their feet voted the BJP out in Gujarat," says Saeed Naqvi, a senior political analyst in New Delhi. For most voters, economic matters rather than social ones, were the most important question of this election, and not enough of the vast majority of poor Indians felt the effects of the BJP's pro-business, economic policies. "There is a fundamental sanity, a certain balance in the Hindu mind that rejects this sort of extremism. And in the very areas where the riots took place, the Hindu voters voted the BJP out."

Even so, Naqvi says the BJP is far from dead. In fact, in these same national elections, the BJP has made its first inroads into the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka, putting it on a path to becoming a truly national party for the first time.

"India needs a saffron party," adds Mr. Naqvi. (Saffron is the color of Hindu nationalism.) "There is something in this question of Indian identity that is a useful question. How do you keep it all together?"

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