Four years ago, the Hindu-dominated, right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was dismissed from government by an Indian electorate that saw through its glossy "India Shining' campaign propaganda. The BJP's loss was the compound effect of many of its failings, but the most glaring offense was its alleged involvement in the violent Hindu-Muslim clashes that erupted in the western state of Gujarat. For over four months, the state burned and people were killed on the grounds of their religious faith. In official records you would find that 1,044 people died as a result of the communal violence. Read the reports compiled by NGOs and human rights groups and you'd find that the figure was closer to 2,000.
The Mumbai attacks heighten the threat to the Indian secular state which is already battling internal threats to minority groups. It is easy to sell situations like this to the man on the street as an attack that threatens his community. The terror in Mumbai has struck during a year in which six Indian states are going to the polls. These are crucial elections for both main parties in India since the one that makes a stronger showing is likely to be on firm footing to make gains in the General Elections scheduled for May 2009. The BJP will probably leverage this climate of fear and uncertainty to make electoral gains. For the ruling Indian National Congress, the communal card will come in handy as a tool to paper over serious lapses in intelligence and national security during its watch.
The BJP has managed to maintain a strong anti-terror image with its constituency by riding on religious rhetoric and convincing its supporters that the party will protect their interests and ensure their safety. This, despite its lamentable record of not just the horrors of Gujarat in 2002, but other incidents that go further back, such as the mishandling of the 1999 Kandahar hijacking incident, and most infamously, the BJP-led demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992.
The Congress never had a hope of making light work of these state elections. A nervous economy and terror-struck populace was going to need serious convincing if some states were to be retained/won. The Mumbai terror attacks have made the Congress' work many times more difficult as it has struck fear in the hearts of the people and has reminded them of the indefensible performance by the party and the government it leads in the task of protecting Indians from terrorism.
The Indian government's security failures are in no small part due to the vote bank politics that plagues the Indian political scenario and which has left the Congress Party with a weak and unconvincing stance against any form of extremism. In a country where 80% of the population is Hindu, the Congress cannot alienate too large a chunk of that demographic. On the other hand, Muslims are India's largest minority, forming 15% of the population, and with the BJP's image and rhetoric being what it is, the Congress and its allies bank on the fact that they have this vote almost all to themselves. It's an unenviable position to be in and the Congress-led government has itself to blame for failing to rise above this kind of politics and to take on the fundamentalists more aggressively, irrespective of their background.
In schools across the country, students are taught of the famous tactic used by British colonialists to maintain their control over India - Divide and Rule. The English found many fault lines running through India's social, political and economic systems and it made considerable use of them to prevent the sort of unity that a visionary leader like Mahatma Gandhi was able to bring about.
Today, India's political parties seem to be using many of the same fault lines used by the British to wrench open India's multi-cultural society and win votes. It's clear to many watching that these latest terror attacks in Mumbai will deliver some much needed electoral gains to the BJP in the state elections. The fear amongst liberal Indians (be they pro or anti-Congress) is that come 2009, the BJP will be in position to put together (probably another coalition) government at the centre. That may just be the beginning of a dangerous path towards the de-secularization of a country whose stance on religious tolerance has been one of its most praiseworthy and noble traits.
In the face all this political divisiveness, Indians are not completely powerless. The national electorate has shown time and again that it is wise to the Machiavellian tactics of Indian politicians. The man on the street has smarts that compensate to a great extent for the desperation of poverty and illiteracy. The middle class has caught the attention of the world with its educational qualifications and ability to make a success of itself. Now is the time for Indians to switch on the self-awareness and compassionate humanity that Mahatma Gandhi taught. As Indian politicians practice Divide and Rule in their own land, Indians have to dig deep within themselves to engage a spirit of tolerance that isn't just the teaching of each individual religion, but is in fact quite simply, the ethos of India.