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NEW DELHI — India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has now begun to play a tune which is embarrassingly jarring to its much-touted Hindutva (“Hinduness”) policy.

The BJP — which traces its lineage from the rabid Hindu nationalist (some call it fanatical) Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — may only be seeing ground realities and acting accordingly. In a world that is fast shrinking into a global village, nay a hamlet, and where politics is often dictated by the economics of market forces, the BJP increasingly finds itself disobeying its mother party, the RSS.

The BJP has a ready excuse to make: it cites the compulsions of heading a large number of coalition partners — which do not profess the Hindutva ideology — as a reason for being out of synch with the RSS-orchestrated symphony.

On the other hand, the BJP can demonstrate, most candidly, its basic belief in the RSS line through blatant examples. As, for instance, when India’s Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, underlined some time ago his saffron (the color of Hinduism) credentials by asserting that the construction of a Ram temple on the disputed Ayodhya site in northern India) — where the Babri Mosque was demolished some nine years ago by Hindu (read RSS and allied) zealots — “was a matter of national sentiments.”

Earlier, Vajpayee had said that he would always remain “an RSS cadet first . . . a BJP member later. ”

However, these pronouncements seem to be aberrations when viewed in the context of the recent developments in the BJP’s economic and foreign policies.

Some weeks ago, the government threw open the country to a flood of imports. The “quantitative restrictions” provision was removed, mostly on consumer items and agricultural products.

Shape out or ship out

The union minister for commerce and industry, Murasoli Maran, asked Indian industry to “either shape up or ship out as it will have to compete with international players. . . .” Citing China as an example of growth — spurred on by its liberal market schemes — Maran posed a question, “If China can do it, why not India?”

In fact, economists agreeing with this aver that any further protection for industry will make it utterly incapable of sticking it out in a fiercely competitive field. India will then have to content itself with a low level of subsistence economy.

The RSS is certainly not pleased with the current steps to open up markets and foreign direct investments. The RSS chief, K.S. Sudershan, has been openly criticizing the moves, even describing the government as “antinationalist.”

Although, the BJP and the RSS share a Siamese-twin-kind of relationship, one now finds a certain weakening in this bond. The BJP has grown into a mammoth organization, and many of its members are not connected with the RSS. They do not enjoy dual membership, as some, particularly the older lot, in the BJP do.

These members who are outside the RSS “stranglehold” have managed to steer the BJP into more logical and rational waters, thus infusing the party with a greater degree of respectability.

Apart from economics, this shift, admittedly still in its most nascent stages, has had its echo in India’s foreign policy, especially that toward Islamic nations.

This is almost exciting, given New Delhi’s 50-year-old bickering and war with Islamabad over Kashmir, and also BJP’s own discomfort with the country’s Muslims.

Vajpayee’s recent visit to Iran, and India’s foreign minister, Jaswant Singh’s trip to Saudi Arabia (the first by a foreign minister after India’s independence in 1947) highlight a well-defined strategy to woo the most conservative segments of West Asia.

What is most interesting here is that this ought to come from a government that is widely viewed as Hindu nationalist. If this marks a happy change from a conservative ideological approach to a more pragmatic one, one should also not forget that India is overcoming its reluctance to deal with those who might not be ready to mouth words like anticolonialism and anti-imperialism.

Getting friendly

Until this week, New Delhi felt at ease rubbing shoulders with those who stood on the platform of nonalignment. Singh’s journey to Riyadh confirms a determined effort to get friendly with the Islamic states — despite the tension with Pakistan and despite the BJP’s fear of being dubbed by the RSS “pro-America, and hence pro-West.”

New Delhi knows that if it has to exist in a multipolar world, a Pakistan should not be allowed to come in the way of building bridges with other Muslim powers. This will certainly win New Delhi friends whose hold over Islamabad is beyond doubt.

Besides, in times like these when religious fundamentalism is rearing its ugly head in all corners of the Earth, India can by forging a common link with pan-Islamic forces check destructive regimes like Afghanistan’s Taliban (whose role in Kashmir is well documented).

Perhaps, they can be taught political moderation and religious tolerance.

All this, of course, can continue and progress provided the BJP remains steadfast on its path of reason and rationality without letting bodies like the RSS to mar a process that holds out the promise of propelling India to great heights.

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