After 50 Years, India Prepares to Bury the Raj

Article excerpt

FROM LUCKNOW to Ayodhya the road runs straight and narrow for 75 miles. Lucknow is the parliamentary seat of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Indian government's voice of maturity and moderation. Ayodhya is the disputed religious site where seven years ago Mr Vajpayee's party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), achieved world- wide notoriety when its supporters scaled the roof of a large mosque standing on a sacred Hindu site, and demolished it, sparking murderous Hindu/ Muslim violence across the country.

Tomorrow, in the last phase of India's staggered general election, both Lucknow and Faizabad, the constituency which contains Ayodhya, go to the polls. In both constituencies, the BJP, the party behind the destruction of the Babri Masjid Mosque is expected to win handsomely. Within a fortnight, if the latest forecasts are right, Mr Vajpayee will be back in Delhi at the head of a new BJP-led government.

It will be a personal triumph for Mr Vajpayee; the BJP's whole campaign has centred on him, and he is the only person who could hope to hold the huge, motley coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which the BJP heads, together. The NDA includes Tamils, Sikhs, Bengali populists, former hard-left trade unionists and Look East technocrats among its 24 parties, as well as hard- lined Hindus. Vajpayee is the only leader with whom all of them are happy. The outside world will be reassured too. Mr Vajpayee made a dubious start last year when India carried out a series of nuclear tests and declared itself a nuclear power. But the mountain war with Pakistan over Kargil in the summer suddenly brought out the statesman in him. Guided by his Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, he played both his military and diplomatic cards adroitly, confounding Pakistani hopes of internationalising Kashmir, and as a result looks like becoming the first individual who is not a member of the Nehru- Gandhi family to determine single-handedly the outcome of an Indian election.

This has been a weird election. The function of an election campaign in most democracies is to bring issues out into the open. Here, this time around, both main parties have been busy burying them. Congress, which under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi (though not necessarily because of it) looks set to do better than last time, has worked hard to fudge the question of whether Mrs Gandhi would become prime minister if it won, and whether Congress would join a coalition. …