Right-wing Hindus milk India's `miracle'

The Hindu gods may have stopped lapping up milk, but in India this so- called miracle has spilled over into politics, with the bizarre effect that parties have been split between believers and sceptics.

Nor is this a theological debate. It is politics in earnest. The "milk miracle", according to some commentators, may influence the general elections next year. Secularism is one of the cornerstones of Indian democracy but politicians are increasingly using religious fervour to stir up voters, not only pitting Hindus against Muslims, but turning the many Hindu castes, who comprise more than 70 per cent of the 900 million population, against each other.

The sceptics, who do not believe the gods developed a powerful craving for milk last Thursday, are led by the ruling Congress Party of the Prime Minister, PV Narasimha Rao. A respected Congress leader, Sitaram Kesri, dismissed the phenomenon as a "gimmick", an exercise in "superstition and disinformation".

It was a brave move. Millions of Indians were witnesses on Thursday, when Hindu idols everywhere seemed to quaff offerings of milk. These Hindus may take it amiss if Congress knocks their miracle.

The Congress leaders thought it wise to inject rationalism back into politics, reminding voters that it is people, not gods, who are elected to governments. But strategically they may have had no choice but to attempt to puncture the "miracle", because their main opponent in the mid-1996 elections is the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for whom the idols' thirst was indeed a bonanza.

Even more extremist Hindu parties, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), are claiming that the miracle was "a prophecy" that India should become a pure Hindu nation. Such talk scares the country's 120 million Muslims, as well as the many Sikhs and Christians.

The VHP president, Vishnu Hari Dalmia, said: "I think it was a divine miracle. Scientists who dismiss it are talking nonsense. Most of them are atheists and communists." Lal Krishnan Advani, the BJP leader, who could become India's next prime minister, claims he personally witnessed the elephant-headed Ganesh drinking milk. Mr Advani recounted: "People came to me who were themselves sceptical and whose perception and judgement I had no reason to disbelieve. I said, `Okay, I will do it also'."

Few Indians doubt that the current prime minister, who was in Central Asia when the miracle frenzy swept India, is any less of a good Hindu than Mr Advani. He is known to consult astrologers and has his own guru. The difference is that Mr Rao's Congress party does not want the general elections to become a Hindu crusade, with all the bloodletting that forebodes.

Religious fanaticism is a dangerous genie to free from the lamp, as past events have shown. The Hindu revivalists several years ago claimed, with little archeological basis, that the birthplace of Lord Ram was being hidden by a Moghul mosque. Not only did they whip up enough fanaticism for 250,000 Hindus to converge on the mosque and tear it down, but its destruction triggered off riots in which more than 2,000 were killed. Few secular politicians want the joyous event of the feeding of Ganesh to be disfigured into a war-cry for Hindu extremism.

A columnist, MJ Akbar, wrote acidly in the Asian Age, "I doubt if the good lords Shiva and Ganesh soaked up the offerings of their devotees in order to advertise an election campaign."