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India's new rulers enter with a whiff of fascism

The BJP nationalists' victory has made little stir, writes Peter Popham. But the world may soon have reason to take notice
INDIA'S new government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was sworn in at the presidential palace in Delhi last Thursday. The world received the news calmly.

True, the BJP was untested in government - its only previous stint, in 1996, had lasted less than a fortnight; and 14 years ago, when it had only two seats in parliament, it was considered an extreme nationalist body. But diplomats assured their governments that there was little to fear. A bit of stable, purposeful government might do India a power of good. Tony Blair was among the first to offer the new Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, his congratulations.

But imagine you are reading this a week from now, and the Indian Cabinet has invoked article 352 of the constitution, declaring a state of emergency. Freedom of expression and of travel have been suspended. Articles 22 and 23, protecting citizens against arrest and forced labour, have been put in abeyance; freedom of religion and protection of minorities have been removed. Using article 353, the government has begun making laws by decree. The world awakes to find, 50 years after India's independence, that the world's biggest democracy is turning into a dictatorship.

This scenario was advanced recently by Abheek Barman, a columnist in Delhi's Economic Times. The Nazis' rise to power in Germany had been just as rapid as the BJP's in India, he pointed out, and in the election of March 1933, after which Hitler scrapped the constitution and assumed dictatorial powers, the National Socialists had gained less than 44 per cent of the vote. A fragile minority government with an extremist programme had converted itself into a position of strength and permanence by the simplest, most brutal means. What was to stop India from going down the same road?

No one in Delhi believes this is going to happen. The government, propped up by 21 partners, is probably far too weak to attempt anything so drastic. In any case, people say, that's not the way India does things: Indira Gandhi's Emergency in the mid-1970s was a nasty flash in the pan. Besides, India is not engulfed by the sort of crisis that swallowed the Weimar Republic. India's situation is, as usual, in the old formulation, "disastrous but not serious".

But reassuring words like this should not blind one to the fact that, with the arrival of a nationalist government, India is entering uncharted, ominous waters.

The BJP is not a party like other parties. It is the political wing of a paramilitary organisation founded 73 years ago called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (Association of National Volunteers) or RSS, which on its website (www.rss.org) describes itself as "the Fountainhead of National Renaissance."

The RSS is temptingly easy to dismiss as a joke. This is mainly because, kitted out in long baggy khaki shorts and wielding bamboo swagger sticks, they look less like Nazis than overgrown boy scouts. More precisely they look like colonial policemen, an effect enhanced by the balding, silvery pates and neat moustaches of senior RSS figures such as LK Advani, Minister of Home Affairs in the new government.

But the RSS takes itself very seriously. Its growth during the last decades of British rule was an attempt to do for the Hindus what Mussolini and Hitler were doing for Italy and Germany: evoke a vanished golden age of national strength and purity; create solidarity by identifying and stigmatising national enemies; and lay the basis for a takeover of the state by creating a corps of dedicated, paramilitary zealots.

"There was a time when our country was free and prosperous and had attained commanding heights in every walk of life," the RSS's website declares. "And yet it found itself defeated and disgraced at the hands of a handful of foreign invaders. The lesson was clear as daylight. Several grave defects had crept into our national being, and corroded our internal strength."

The abiding obsession has been "the Muslim Problem": what to do about the 11 per cent of India's population who owed allegiance not to Lord Rama but to Mecca. Madhav Gowalkar, the early RSS leader still known simply as "guru", took Hitler's attitude to his own "semitic" problem as his inspiration. "To keep up the purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by the purging of its semitic race, the Jews," he wrote in We, or Our Nationhood Defined.

"National pride at its highest has been manifested there. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures having differences going to the root to be assimilated ... The non-Hindu people in Hindustan [India] must... learn to revere the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but the glorification of the Hindu nation ... they must cease to be foreigners or may stay in the country only subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving nothing."

We, or Our Nationhood Defined. became an embarrassment after the Nazis' defeat, and has long been out of print. The core beliefs of the RSS, however, have been consistent down the years. Muslims and other minorities are still the obsession. The mostresonant item in the BJP's programme, dropped from the National Agenda on the insistence of its allies, remains the building of a grandiose Hindu temple in Ayodhya, the imagined birthplace of Lord Rama, on the site of the mosque destroyed by Hindu fanatics in December 1992. If the BJP-led government does nothing to advance the project, the ranks will become mutinous.

More worrying are the sort of activities that have already started happening on the periphery. The RSS website speaks of "the catastrophic implications of [religious] conversion and the resultant swelling of the non-Hindu population"; activists have intimidated Christian missionaries and converts, seeking to bully converted tribespeople into renouncing their faith. Earlier this month, a four-day prayer meeting in Gujarat had to be abandoned on the first day after Hindu activists set a car alight and pelted worshippers with stones.

Bullying of this sort will become more common now the BJP is ensconced at the centre. Courts will wink at "patriotic" infringements. An increasingly BJP-friendly media will hold its nose and look the other way. And India, rightly renowned for its diversity and tolerance, will become a little meaner, a little crueller. And that's the best we can expect.