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Hawk spreads its wings

14 Feb 2002


India's BJP is displaying an alarming affinity with Ariel Sharon's doctrine of military might

Randeep Ramesh
Friday February 15, 2002
The Guardian

This week will see the biggest test of Democracy since George Bush managed to lose the popular vote and win the White House. The fourth largest electorate in the world - bigger than Brazil, Indonesia or Russia - is going to the polls and looks as if it might stem the tide of Hindu nationalism in India. After the best part of a decade, voters in state elections are likely to toss out the Bharatiya Janata party from its north India powerbases in Uttar Pradesh, Uttranchal and remove its allies in the Punjab.

The more hardline elements of the BJP and its affiliates, who emphasise Hindu rites rather than human rights, have exposed the limitations of the party's electoral franchise. The BJP's priorities have shown scant regard for the masses: it favours the few not the many. While undoubted economic gains have seen a fizzy entrepreneurialism emerge, India's impoverished citizens, who make up a third of the world's poor, have seen little progress. The interests of the higher castes have come to dominate parliamentary debate - where corporate deregulation, not social development is paramount. The media is dominated by consumerist concerns, and the legal system is often subverted, leaving the law as a tool for the rich to harass the poor.

Most frightening is the BJP's foreign policy, which is heavily influenced by the superpower aspirations of the country's elite. As Nobel prizewinning economist Professor Amartya Sen and his Delhi-based colleague Dr Jean Dreze note in their forthcoming book, India: Development And Participation: "The fact that the government spends about three times as much on 'defence' as on healthcare is not unrelated to the lobbying powers of the military establishment."

Last month the BJP stoked nationalist fires by testing its new nuclear-capable ballistic missile, called Agni after the Hindu god of fire. The test came as Pakistan and India massed on the border - where they still stand glaring at each other. This excessive display of force is an embodiment of a dangerous new development in Indian political thought: that India's BJP should wear the mailed glove of Israel's Likud party.

Delhi's historic support for the Palestinians (Yasser Arafat endorsed the notion that Kashmir belonged to India) meant that diplomatic links with Israel were only established after the peace process started in 1992. But Delhi has managed to edge closer towards Israel while making the moral case for the Palestinians - and its engagement has seen Tel Aviv seal a $1bn deal to supply Phalcon airborne command and control planes to India. The two countries have also been moving in similar political and economic directions. The rising populist tide has lifted rightwing parties and in economic terms, India and Israel have seen technology become their most celebrated exports.

But it is Likud's doctrine of military might that resonates with the hawks in Delhi. The BJP's political narrative is that India is under constant threat and that national security concerns must come first. If it sounds familiar, it is because the BJP have merely borrowed the formulation from Ariel Sharon.

Theocrats would like to see India play Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, to Israel's Samson. So the BJP is indulging in coercive diplomacy to deal with Pakistan. The BJP high command say India's 1.2m troops will not be withdrawn until cross-border terrorism is stopped and Islamabad hands over alleged terrorists and bombers wanted by Indian police.

The BJP's manoeuvring is not without risk. The rise of China would mean a militarised India would become more of a servant than client state of America. There is also the Indian diaspora to consider. There about 2m Indians working in Saudi Arabia alone, remitting more than $4bn a year, and Delhi cannot afford to antagonise economic partners in the Middle East with anti-Muslim rhetoric.

This will not stop a waning BJP, which will persist with its strategy until the country's next general election due in 2004. Hindu nationalism marginalised Congress, the party that once dominated India, by tarring attempts to use political equality to close the gap between rich and poor as pandering to minorities. But the BJP may find its biggest political threat comes from across the snowy uplands of Kashmir's border in Pakistan. President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military dictator, is racing to build a Democracy in a couple of years that could claim a moral equivalence with India. National polls will take place in October and the general has won admiration from the west for moving the country far from the mosque and a little distance from the military.

The former army chief will remain president but will hand over some power to elected representatives. What should worry India is what the world thinks when its gaze next rests upon Kashmir, probably later this year when elections take place on the Indian side. What will we then see but a general talking peace and elected politicians speaking of war?

ยท India: Development And Participation, by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze (OUP).


The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia was formed in 1993 to combat rising religious intolerance in South Asia and to campaign for peace and justice in the region. We are committed to working towards a just, non-violent resolution of the crisis we are currently living through. If you are interested in joining us in this work, please call 617-983-3934 or e-mail

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