How Fundamentalists Win Elections - The Indian Example

Mehul Kamdar

In 1980, India, as a nation was at a most unusual point in it’s history. It had struggled with a most difficult situation during the Emergency declared by the Indira Gandhi government in the 1970s to elect a combination of socialists and Gandhians to find that this arrangement was, to them, even less satisfactory than the near fascism of the previous one. The 20 point programme and propaganda monstrosities like “From Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi” a film that was all but made compulsory viewing for the country all seemed to forgotten as people struggled with the memory of three years of constant bickering by the Janata government and a near complete lack of governance. All of a sudden, the Congress seemed a viable alternative again and Indira Gandhi was completely forgiven her anti democratic sins and brought back to power. It is said that a leopard does not change it’s spots and, back in power, Mrs Gandhi began working hard to concentrate her hold on politics, presumably worried that she just might lose it again. The decisions that she took cost her her life and those of thousands of Indians and later those of her son’s as well as he only followed in her footsteps. They also heralded the rise of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party to power and ensured that Hindu fundamentalism became a part of the Indian political scenario, probably for the first time ever, in Indian history.

During Indira Gandhi’s second term in office, a situation began to emerge that would see the rise of Sikh fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism in almost simultaneous succession. A dangerous situation began to emerge in the state of Punjab where a Sikh fundamentalist leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale began killing Hindus in an attempt at securing independence for a Sikh state that would be called Khalistan from India. Simultaneous murmurs began to grow in the northern state of Kashmir and that would grow into a second religious dispute in due course. But, most importantly, the seed was sown for a marginal Hindu party with just two members of Parliament to come to power altering the course of Indian history nearly forever.

The Congress had had it’s own tryst with Hindu fundamentalism under Indira Gandhi and more notably under her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency when he had conducted the mass sterilisation of Muslim youth under the “Family Planning Programme.” When population control measures had been introduced on a voluntary basis some years earlier. Hindu fundamentalists has protested that these implied a “waste of Hindu semen” as it was hinted that Muslims and Christians would not follow small family or contraceptive recommendations. Apparently, Sanjay Gandhi’s forced sterilisation of Muslims was his way (and indirectly that of the establishment, as the Gandhis were the establishment) in redressing this. The situation in the Punjab during the 1980s would see this support for Hindu fundamentalism in the Congress rise as the party’s strategists conveyed to the leadership the message that since Hindus were the largest religion numerically in India, a party that enjoyed their support would never lose power. To a Congress that had been beaten despite holding near total control over everything in the country during the Emergency years, this was an intriguing prospect.

True to her reputation for playing with fire, Indira Gandhi allowed the problem in Punjab to fester until she sent the army in and kill the Bhindranwale and tried positioning herself in the media as the leader who had saved India from being fragmented, and, even more saved Hindus from militant Sikhs. She did not live long to see herself as the saviour that she intended projecting herself as - in 1984, she was assassinated by two of her own bodyguards, both Sikhs. The then Sikh President of India, an Indira Gandhi “rubber stamp” as he had been called by the media, Giani Zail Singh, did not waste any time in calling her son, Rajiv Gandhi to become Prime Minister after her. Congress party men went on the rampage in the streets of the country killing thousands of Sikhs while the media reminded the world of Zail Singh’s praise for the woman who made him President - he had remarked that he would gladly work as a sweeper on the streets of Delhi if she asked him to, an allusion to how high he held her for the honour of being made President.

Rajiv Gandhi would win the next elections hands down but his mother’s insecurity would haunt him throughout his second and only full term even with a brute majority of 400 Members of Parliament out of 500 plus. He would allow the telecast of the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both of which were extensively rewritten to give a political message that the original epics never had. The dialogues were used to promote a political agenda that would get ever more shrill and specific with the third and final television epic of this period, Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s “Chanakya.” This serial, ostensibly about the author of the ancient treatise “Arthashastra” on government, was filled with references to the then political scenario in India and veiled hints about foreign influences destroying India. The Greek invaders of Alexander and Menander’s time were compared to the “western” influence of cable television and arguments were made against democracy itself, telling audiences that rulers had some kind of divine right to rule.

If a parallel could be drawn between this propaganda and propaganda from the past, there was a striking resemblance to the political situation as well as the propaganda of the Nazis in post World War I Germany. The revival of Rama as an avenging god who went about slaughtering his enemies, in stark contrast to the Valmiki Ramayana which portrayed him as a gentle and kind man who was driven to war because of his wife’s abduction was a parallel to the Nazis’ revival of the ancient pagan god Wotan. The recreation of Chanakya as an ancient genius was a parallel to the Nazis’ reinvention of the charlatan Paracelsus as a Germanic hero. Amid all of this, in an attempt at outdoing Dwivedi and his saffron clad co-idealists in their championing militant Hindusim, Rajiv Gandhi would make two mistakes which would not just cost him and thousands of others their lives, they would ensure that the BJP became a force that would rule India until 2004 when it was very narrowly voted out of power.

The Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, an ancient mosque had been claimed by Hindus as the site of the birth of Rama for some time. Fearing a breakdown of law and order, the British had closed the site to both Hindus and Muslims and it had remained under lock and key in a town where several other temples claimed to be Rama’s birthplace as well. While a vast majority of Hindus had either forgotten or ignored this place as had Muslims, Rajiv Gandhi would open it to allow the Hindus permission to worship inside and give an agenda to the BJP on a platter. Buoyed by the success of the Ramayana teleserial, the BJP would embark on a campaign to recover what they claimed were places of worship that the Muslims had seized from the Hindus in history. Rajiv Gandhi’s ineptitude would go further as he would side with a viciously Hindu fundamentalist LTTE in Sri Lanka in it’s battle for freedom from the Buddhist state. He would arm them, train them and support them in their war against the Sri Lankan armed forces until international pressure required that he pull back, following which he would send the Indian army into Sri Lanka to fight them. In the meantime a massive corruption scandal removed him from office and the BJP managed to seize power in association with the left of centre Janata Dal. This National Front government as it was called lasted barely two years and the subsequent elections saw the Congress won after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber. The elections also saw the left parties eliminated and the BJP emerge as the only real opposition to the Congress.

Now would come the series of Rath Yatras or chariot processions by the BJP’s number two man, L K Advani. One of the few non Brahmins in the party and a militantly anti-Muslim who had lost his properties in Pakistan during the Partition of India, he would take up the job of galvanizing the largely indifferent Hindu population into action to create a movement that led to the destruction of the structure of the mosque on Dec 6th 1992. Subsequent riots would see thousands of Hindus and Muslims killed all over the country and the repercussions were felt in neighboring Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Though the BJP did not win the immediate elections, it had found a means to achieving power and in 1997 it would come to rule India at the head of an 18 party coalition that would last briefly until reelection in 1999 would bring it to power until 2004. During it’s rise, the BJP had presided over the destruction of the Babri Masjid, after achieving power it would see the destruction of dozens of churches in the states of Orissa and Gujarat. It would see allies like the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra openly call for supporting the LTTE in it’s fascist campaign to rid Sri Lanka of not only Sinhala politicians but also of moderate Tamils who opposed it’s ideology. Even in it’s electoral defeat, it would see it’s own tally of seats remain almost intact while it’s allies fell like ninepins. A fringe party with only two Parliamentarians had come to stay on the Indian scene as one of the two most powerful parties in the land.

The situation in India in the late 1980s and 90s is very similar to most of the rest of the world today where we see, on the one hand, a militant Islamic revival which has caused the deaths of thousands of people in different parts of the world. Moderate Muslims have seen themselves sidelined in many countries and countries that have moderate Islamic beliefs like Egypt and Jordan find themselves fighting bloody battles to keep groups like the Islamic Brotherhood at bay even while other countries that have secular constitutions but Muslim majorities like Algeria and Turkey find their very existence threatened by religious fundamentalism. It was believed by many in India that Indira Gandhi allowed the Sikh fundamentalists to become powerful because she was worried that in the Punjab the communists were working to organise the farm labourers since she believed that a religious fundamentalist would be the best force to fight an anti-religion communist government. The west supported mujaheddin groups like Gulbuddin Helmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami and independent Muslim groups who would later join the Taliban and Al Qaeda to fight the former USSR and the world saw the horrors of 9/11. The rise in Islamic fundamentalism has been paralleled in a rise in Christian fundamentalism in the USA, the country that suffered from the attack of 9/11 and previous attacks on it’s embassies, ships and citizens in different parts of the world. There are as open calls in the USA to make the system more “Christian” as there have been in India by the BJP and it’s VHP, Bajrang Dal and RSS allies to make it more “Hindu.” Israel, a major flashpoint, has seen a militant Jewish government fighting militant Palestinians who have chosen to abandon their more moderate leaders and embrace violently fundamentalist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jehad. The danger of an intolerant world where the major religions fight each other after being hijacked by fundamentalists looms large before us like an India magnified several times and made infinitely more dangerous. For, in the various militancies and mini wars that have been fought in India since the 1980s about 200,000 people have been killed. In today’s world where rogue scientists like Pakistan’s A Q Khan supply nuclear technology and weapons components to their co-religionists on ideological grounds, the dangers that face the rest of the world are much greater.