At the time the government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was clear and confident in its defiance of world opinion, and was rewarded at home by a wave of popular support. But now India is again courting the role of global leper after a series of violent attacks on members of the country's Christian minority by extreme right-wing Hindu groups.
Christians make up 2.5 per cent of the population, according to the 1991 census, a small minority but a figure that amounts to over 23 million people. There were more than 120 violent anti-Christian incidents during 1998, and in a sudden increase since Christmas Day, 30 churches have been attacked or destroyed.
This new outrage to world opinion is no part of official Indian government policy yet, as the expressions of international concern mount, Mr Vajpayee seems powerless to say anything either to halt the attacks or to appease his international critics.
The reason is the attacks are being carried out by political allies of Mr Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Recently Mr Vajpayee was given a tour of the Dangs, the poverty-stricken tribal region of South Gujarat, where the recent violence has been concentrated. But the value of the tour as an expression of concern was debased when it emerged that his local guide was one of the alleged ringleaders of the attacks, currently out of prison on bail. At the end of the tour he played into the hands of the extremists by calling for a "national debate" on the question of people converting from one religion to another. One of the perennial charges of the Hindu nationalists is that Christians engage in forcible conversions - at gunpoint according to one of their national leaders.
It was after the latest spate of violence in Gujarat that the international community began speaking up about the issue. In the past fortnight, Dutch, Luxembourg and German ministers have condemned the attacks. The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, raised the matter this week with Mr Vajpayee's secretary when the latter visited London.
When India exploded nuclear devices, its purpose was plain: to turn itself into a world power and gain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. What the Hindu nationalists hope to achieve by beating up impoverished tribal Christians and vandalising their places of worship is less obvious.
The most pregnant theory, which has yet to make it into the respectable newspapers but is already the mainstay of cocktail party talk in the capital, is that the real target of the attacks is Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party. It is not absolutely certain that Mrs Gandhi is a practising Catholic; at the Mass held during the funeral service for Mother Teresa in 1997, she was seen to refrain from taking the sacrament. But her mother regularly attends Mass at the Vatican's chapel when in Delhi, and there is no doubt that Sonia, an Italian by birth, is descended from solidly Christian stock.
Mrs Gandhi's most obvious weakness is that she is a foreigner. She has done everything in her power to play down this inconvenient fact, always wearing a sari, making speeches in broken Hindi and proclaiming undying devotion to her adopted country.
For the mass of unsophisticated Indians, the mere fact that she entered the Gandhi family by marriage is good enough. But if, as the theory goes, the attacks on Christians finally goad her into emotionally identifying herself with this weak, "alien" minority, perhaps even simple Hindu supporters will begin to peel away in distaste. Another view is that Mr Vajpayee cannot condemn the attacks on Christians because the Hindu thugs in Gujarat are helping to shore up his power.
Political power throughout India, but especially in poorer areas, depends on what areknown as "vote banks". In a modern extension of the feudal system, poor communities vote en masse for that party or candidate who most persuasively patronises or tyrannises them.
Burning down churches is the first step in this power play. The next is what the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, the World Hindu Council) refers to as "awakening" or "homecoming" - the reconversion of Christians to Hinduism.
The third theory (and none of these theories excludes the others) is that the real purpose of the attacks on Christians is to keep the poor poor. This line was spelt out last month by the international executive president of the VHP, Ashok Singhal. According to Mr Singhal, the awarding of the Nobel Prize to the Indian economist Amartya Sen was part of "a Christian conspiracy to propagate their religion and wipe out Hinduism from this country".
Mr Singhal's reasoning goes like this. Professor Sen asserts that literacy and education are essential for India's development. It is Christian missions that are setting up schools in deprived areas, and enabling the poor to escape from illiteracy. By giving increased currency to Professor Sen's idea, the Nobel committee is enabling the missions to magnify their influence.
Mr Singhal seems blind to the obvious implication of his remark: that the way of Hinduism is the way of continuing mass illiteracy and grinding poverty. "The poor have to be kept illiterate," a perceptive writer called Walter Fernandes wrote in The Times of India last week, "lest they become aware of their oppression and demand liberation from bondage."
The best way to do that is to burn down their churches and chase them back into the Hindu fold. And Mr Vajpayee, the respectable face of Hindu nationalism, has nothing at all to say against it.Reuse content