India's general election 1998 has been intensely presidential, but in the strangest way. In one corner stands the broad, pugnacious figure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalists, routinely and with some justice labelled "fascists" by their opponents. In the other, representing Congress, the party that has ruled India for 45 of the past 50 years, is Sonia Gandhi. But only one of the two - Mr Vajpayee - is standing for election. Sonia is merely storming around the country, drumming up support.
So overpowering is the Gandhi family's charisma, so enfeebled the Congress party, that only a month after announcing her decision to get involved, Sonia is unquestionably the most powerful person in the party. If her campaigning brings results, she could be brought into parliament and even made prime minister without delay. But for now she remains a holographic adversary: insubstantial, impossible to grapple. She has yet to grant a single interview during the campaign.
This leaves Mr Vajpayee, the man who in opinion polls is routinely cited by half or more of those asked as India's best next prime minister, "the man India awaits," as his party's slogan puts it The BJP has conducted a one-man campaign because Mr Vajpayee is adjudged the one figure who can broaden its appeal sufficiently to win power. According to this pitch he is a practically Churchillian figure: in his oratory, his gravitas, his long, stubborn years in the political wilderness, his adherence to principle while all around his opponents are selling themselves down the river.
At 72 he certainly looks a bit Churchillian, with his lowering brow and rock-like profile. And he has a convincing sort of hinterland, too: where Churchill had his bricklaying and watercolours, Mr Vajpayee has published numerous volumes of patriotic verse. And although the rest of his party may be hampered by inexperience, Mr Vajpayee was a foreign minister in the coalition government of the late 1970s and prime minister (for all of 13 days) in 1996.
None of this image-building can fully mask the disquieting facts about the man and his party. Mr Vajpayee has been a consistent Hindu nationalist since the 1940s. He was in at the birth of the first Hindu nationalist party in 1951, and has been in the forefront of nationalist politics ever since. Nehru's Congress party doggedly held to the view that India's ethnic and religious diversity demanded a scrupulously secular brand of politics if the nation was not to break up. Secularism was the one principle that united all the other main national parties. Mr Vajpayee's party's championing of the primacy of Hindus and Hinduism was as deeply unacceptable as Fascism in postwar Italy or neo-Nazism in northern Europe today.
In December 1992, goaded by Mr Vajpayee's hardline number two, LK Advani, mobs took to the streets of Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh and demolished the Babri Masjid mosque, with the justification that a Hindu temple had stood on the site before. In Bombay, Muslims exploded bombs in retaliation; Hindu mobs loyal to the BJP's extremist ally, Shiv Sena, ripped the trousers off suspected Muslims in the streets of the city and set fire to some who lacked foreskins. It was the most terrifying social convulsion India had seen for years.
It is this extremely recent history that the BJP has been working overtime to make the voting public, and especially Muslims, forget. On their side is the fact that the Indian public is plainly fed up with the instability of the years of the waning Congress. This is India's second general election in less than two years, and exhaustion is in the air.
India's democracy has been criticised for being fixated on the ritual of elections, to the exclusion of interest in what happens afterwards. If that is true, it is undergoing a self-inflicted course of aversion therapy. The problem is that what happened after the election of 1996 was such a hopeless fudge. The BJP won the largest number of seats and formed the government, but had no allies (the party was described as "untouchable") and was brought down 13 days later by a no-confidence motion.
Since then, India has been ruled by a coalition of squabbling smaller parties, laughably known as the United Front, supported by the red dwarf, the dying star, of Indian politics, Congress. The structure was hopelessly unstable. After two more lame duck prime ministers, Congress finally pulled the plug in December.
The gloom hanging over Indian politics stems from the apprehension that this time round the result may be just as inconclusive, and in the same sort of way. The opposition has been exploiting this fear: vote BJP, they urge, or vote for another election. Vote for this respectable, pan-Indian, national figure of Vajpayee, or for a rabble of nonentities.
Up to the end of the year this strategy was proceeding smoothly, with Congress losing numerous important defectors to the BJP. Then on 27 December Sonia Gandhi declared her intention to campaign, and all the BJP's careful calculations have been thrown into disarray.
Mrs Gandhi has proved a difficult figure to fight. Apart from her political inexperience, her most obvious disability is that she is not Indian. Only Bal Thackeray, the sinister leader of the extreme Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party, has had the guts or vulgarity to assault her foreignness head on, threatening to make it impossible for her to become prime minister, lampooning her speech ("She cannot even pronounce her husband's name!") and saying, "If we must be ruled by foreigners, let's invite the British back - at least they had 150 years' experience."
Mr Vajpayee, growing more statesmanlike by the day, might think such thoughts but would not utter them. The smiling, Churchillian gentleman will maintain his dignity all the way to the prime minister's official residence. But if his party wins, it will be Bal Thackeray and his like who will benefit. And India's minorities will tremble.Reuse content