Fundamentalist Rebirth in India

April 06, 1995

India's Congress Party has long since lost its dominance over the nation's political landscape. The spearhead of India's independence movement and party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, Congress has twice been swept from power nationally. Once a monolith that dwarfed all competition, it is now broken into factions which identify as much with personalities as principles. So the loss of a couple of state elections, even in key areas, doesn't cause any shock waves.

But the nature of the victors should.

After decades of prattling about creating a socialist pattern for Indian society, the ruling faction of the Congress party has in recent years unshackled the economy from stultifying regulations. An increasingly prosperous urban middle class has discovered the joys of consumerism, and industrialists have been able to expand and join forces with foreign investors. That record should have stood Congress well in two of its most industrialized states, Maharashtra and neighboring Gujarat. Instead it was routed there, as it was in two other major states last winter.

Victors in the recent voting were right-wing parties that preach nationalism but display a distinctly fascist visage. The so-called Indian People's Union fell temporarily from favor two years ago after leading a rabble-rousing campaign to demolish a Muslim mosque built on the ancient site of a Hindu temple. In Maharashtra the party teamed up with Shiv Sena, a collection of thugs reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan that was largely responsible for a week-long massacre of Muslims in Bombay in 1993. Surprisingly, Maharashtra's Muslims deserted the Congress party, despite its secular history.

The resurgence of the fundamentalist People's Union and the legitimization of Shiv Sena demonstrate that India's increasingly sophisticated electorate is dissatisfied with Congress' economic reforms and the inflation that has accompanied them. Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao's lackluster leadership and his failure to cleanse Congress of corruption leave him vulnerable to political attack from inside and outside his party. With a year to go before national elections, he has little time for the fruits of his economic reforms to trickle down to enough voters to prevent an ugly turn to Hindu fundamentalism nationally.

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