Monday, May 10, 2004—My friend Gaspard calls to tell me he’s heading to the polling booth, and I ask if I can come along. I jump on my motorcycle and head toward Nellitope, a neighborhood in the South Indian town of Pondicherry.
The streets are quiet, free of the racing buses and weaving motorcycles that usually make this a life-threatening journey. The police presence is somewhat heavier than usual, and the walls are plastered with election posters. Other than that, it looks like a holiday. Everyone’s been given the day off to vote, and they’re dressed in their Sunday finery—the men in clean white shirts, the women in shimmering, gold-bordered saris.
People are clustered around improvised polling stations. You can see the lines snaking around movie theaters, government buildings, schools, and sometimes outside under the shade of a tree. Every booth has a group of representatives from the major parties. They’re supposed to be monitoring the voting, but, seated comfortably in their reclining chairs, they don’t look overly concerned about fraud or ballot rigging.
Today’s vote will settle the election, and I wrote yesterday that the nightmare scenario was a hung parliament—a situation in which no party is able to muster sufficient votes to form a stable government. But the friends I’m meeting today have a different nightmare. Gaspard and Parthasarathy are communists, and for them the worst possible outcome is one in which the BJP comes back to power.
Like their former comrades around the world, communists in India have been forced to shed much of their Marxist baggage over the last decade or so. They still talk about workers’ rights and capitalist exploitation; when they’ve had enough to drink, they sometimes even admit that they’re hoping for a revolution. But today Enemy No. 1, as Gaspard tells me when I pick him up outside the shuttered shop fronts of Pondicherry’s market street, is the “communal forces”—by which he means the BJP and the religious passions it has inflamed and ridden to power.
The most famous—or infamous—instance of the BJP’s “communal” inclinations occurred in 1992, when the party, then a marginal force, incited the destruction of a mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya. (Many Hindus believe that the mosque was built on the birthplace of the god Rama and want a Hindu temple to stand there instead.) The ensuing religious riots were the most violent since India’s independence in 1947, when the nation was partitioned in two. Thousands were killed and many more left homeless. But for the BJP, the entire episode was a political bonanza: In 1996, it assumed power in New Delhi for the first time, largely on the strength of the misadventure in Ayodhya.
Since then, the BJP has been trying to tone down its fundamentalist image. The decision to shelve its religious themes in favor of economic ones in this campaign is part of that strategy. For many Indians, though, the bitter taste of Ayodhya is impossible to wash away. Gaspard, for example, tells me that he’ll never trust the BJP and that it was the destruction of the mosque that convinced him to become a communist in the first place.
“Until Babri Masjid,” he says, referring to the mosque that was destroyed, “I was very religious, very pious. I didn’t understand the world. I just went from church to college, college to church. But when I saw that mosque come down, and when I saw how many thousands of people were killed in the name of religion, I decided to become a communist. I gave up my religion.”
Gaspard’s doubts about the BJP are by no means unusual. The carnage in 2002 in Gujarat, where more than 1,000 people were killed in religious riots while the state BJP government largely stood by, has only heightened distrust of the party’s association with fundamentalists. Many voters, though, aren’t quite as clear in their voting convictions. They may dislike the BJP’s religious agenda, but they also admire its economic performance, and they believe that the prime minister is a moderate who will steer his party away from fundamentalist elements. In a way, much of the Indian electorate is voting for the BJP with their fingers crossed.
It’s a real dilemma—a tussle between the promise of economic prosperity and the threat of growing intolerance and illiberalism—and it’s one I’ve struggled with myself. But for me the clinching factor is the fear I’ve seen recently in men like Abdul, the Muslim newspaper vendor I’ve been buying from for years and whose shop I stop by before heading to the polls with Gaspard.
Abdul tells me he’s relieved by the downward trend in the BJP’s poll numbers. He says the imams in his mosque have been speaking of the dangers of a BJP government, and they’ve been reminding the local Muslim community about Ayodhya and Gujarat (he adds that they’ve also been speaking about Iraq and George W. Bush). They’ve warned Muslims to stick together and vote as a group. “And they’ve also told us to pray five times a day to keep strong,” Abdul says.
I ask Abdul if that means he’ll be voting against the BJP. His answer is ambiguous; he doesn’t seem to want to tell me, and I leave it at that.
On the motorcycle, I tell Gaspard about my conversation with Abdul. He gets worked up. “They’re the No. 1 danger facing this country,” he says of the BJP. He says he and his fellow communists need to do more to get rid of the current government.
The beauty of democracy, of course, is that India’s communists don’t need to resort to armed revolution to effect a change of power. We get to Gaspard’s polling booth and he queues up—calmly and peacefully.
The poll station is in a government building, set in a courtyard. The courtyard is filled with trees and, save for the cawing of crows, it’s remarkably quiet. I sit on a root under a tree and watch the voters stand in line. No one is speaking, no one is jostling to the front of the queue. I’m impressed by how orderly it all is and by how seriously everyone seems to take their civic responsibility. When you think about it—when you consider that hundreds of millions voters have cast their votes, largely peacefully, over the past three weeks—the scene in this poll booth really is a moving sight. Whether or not the BJP comes back to power, the process is more significant than the outcome.