Storm in an Indian teacup: Democracy in India is again being written off, but James Manor thinks that moderation will be the victor when the dust settles

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The violence that has swept much of India since the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque on Sunday is deeply serious, but we need to keep it in perspective. The death toll thus far is much lower than in 1990, when the same dispute claimed more than a thousand lives, or in 1984, when Congress party toughs massacred thousands of Sikhs after the murder of Indira Gandhi while the Congress government stood by.

This time the security forces, which include a million paramilitaries and one of the world's largest armies, have been committed in strength to suppress the rioting. Despite the horrors of the last three days and those yet to come, the situation holds considerable promise for the forces of moderation.

This is not the first time that the Western media have over-reacted to violent events in India. When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991, we were told that India was about to disintegrate and its democracy was on the point of collapse. In reality that murder, ghastly as it was, opened the way to positive changes.

Rajiv Gandhi was an amiable incompetent as a political manager. As Prime Minister between 1984 and 1989, he performed an abrupt about-face on each major issue that confronted him, alienating interests on both side of every question. At times he, like his mother, also fomented conflict between the religious groups. Since his death, these things are no longer true. Narasimha Rao, the Prime Minister and Gandhi's successor as leader of the Congress party, has been far more consistent and adroit. He has rebuilt badly damaged political institutions and understandings among various interests by relentlessly reviving the Nehru-style bargaining that Indira and Rajiv Gandhi had abandoned.

The result has been 17 months of relative calm, in which the Prime Minister takes great pride. Given the Western media's appetite for the spectacular, this has meant that in the year and a half before Sunday, India had virtually disappeared from view. But as Mr Rao said in an interview earlier this year, 'It is splendid to be ignored because things are so quiet here.'

His pursuit of accommodation finally came to grief at Ayodhya. The Hindu nationalist leaders who had promised to restrain the forces gathered there were unable to deliver. The problem was then compounded by the failure of the New Delhi government to prepare for the possibility that the state government, which was in the hands of the Hindu religious party, would not prevent an attack on the mosque.

The Prime Minister must now crack down on the mobs, but if he survives the present turmoil, his skills as a conciliator will be more urgently required than ever. Even if he resigns, his party will survive in power and his successor will redouble efforts to deal evenhandedly with all religious groups. This is likely to bear fruit over the longer term.

Violence of this kind always produces a surge in popular support for extremist parties and polarisation between religious groups, but these things also subside dramatically after a few months. When they do, Indians have shown repeatedly that they are able to re-establish minimally civilised relations among social groups that had been at each other's throats. This is often impossible in many other parts of Asia and Africa.

There are two main reasons for this. First, Indians tend not to fix fiercely and permanently on religious identities as, for example, Sri Lankans have done. Over time, Indians shift their preoccupations with great fluidity from religious to caste, class, regional, sub-regional or other identities that are available to them - depending on short-term circumstances.

Second, there are a huge number of people in India with the inclination and the skills to re-establish political bargains and understandings after periods of strife. They can be found in most parties, in all regions and at every level in the political system.

The intense conflicts in the states of Kashmir and Punjab have so far been exceptions to this. But even there - especially in Punjab over recent months - some limited healing has occurred.

The prospects for rebuilding Hindu-Muslim understanding are improved by the fact that the main losers from the events of the last three days are the Hindu chauvinists. The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has lost its leader, Lal Krishna Advani, and its government in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, which could have been an important launching pad for an attempt to take power at the national level. The party badly needed a long spell in power in that state, in order to show that it could govern responsibly and to cultivate support from a wide array of interests.

The BJP has also lost much of the respectability that it had taken great pains to acquire. Even before Sunday, its claim to be cleaner and more mature than the other main parties had been called into question by corruption and factional squabbling in several of its state governments. Now its ability to control the more rabid Hindu extremists and to handle the religious issue responsibly has been utterly discredited.

They have little else to offer the voters. A recent attempt at a general strike to protest against Mr Rao's opening of the economy to market forces was an embarrassing failure.

Now they have probably thrown away the Ayodhya issue, the most powerful card that they had to play, long before the next national election, which need not be held until 1996.

After a few months, when the dust from this wretched episode settles, we may find that the main conflict in Indian politics has shifted leftward. The Congress government in New Delhi, and the Janata Dal and the Communists, which stand to its left, may be the principal players, locked in battle over Mr Rao's opening of the economy. That issue suits the left far better than it does the Hindu right.

It is too soon to be writing obituaries for democracy or religious tolerance in India.

The author is Professorial Fellow of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.

(Photograph omitted)