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WWII dealt a deathblow to colonialism and the myth of European superiority and Indian independence became inevitable. Within India, however, the large Muslim minority began to realize that an independent India would be Hindu-dominated. Local elections began to reveal an alarming growth of communalism, with the Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, speaking for the overwhelming majority of Muslims, and the Congress Party, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, representing the Hindu population. Jinnah's egotistical bid for power over a separate Muslim nation proved to be the biggest stumbling block to Britain granting independence.

Faced with a political stand-off and rising tension, the viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, reluctantly decided to divide the country and set a rapid timetable for independence. Unfortunately, the two overwhelmingly Muslim regions were on opposite sides of the country - meaning the new Muslim nation of Pakistan would have an eastern and western half divided by a hostile India. When the dividing line was announced, the greatest exodus in human history took place as Muslims moved to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs relocated to India. Much of the migration was accompanied by acts of barbaric violence. By the time the chaos had run its course, over 10 million people had changed sides and even the most conservative estimates calculated that 250,000 people had been slaughtered. The final stages of Independence had one last tragedy to be played out. On 30 January 1948, Gandhi, deeply disheartened by Partition and the subsequent bloodshed, was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic.

Following the trauma of Partition, India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru championed a secular constitution, socialist central planning and a strict policy of nonalignment. Although India maintained generally cordial relations with its former colonizer and elected to join the Commonwealth, it actually moved towards the former USSR - partly because of conflicts with China and partly because of US support for arch-enemy Pakistan, which was particularly hostile to India because of its claim on Muslim-dominated Kashmir. There were clashes with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, one over the Kashmir issue and the other over Eastern Pakistan/Bangladesh.

India's next prime minister of stature was Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi, who was elected in 1966. She is still held in high esteem, but is remembered by some for meddling with India's democratic foundations by declaring a state of emergency in 1975. Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 as a reprisal for her ill-considered decision to use the Indian Army to flush out armed Sikh radicals from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Gandhis' dynastic grip on Indian politics continued when her son, Rajiv, an Indian Airlines pilot with no interest in politics, was swept into power.

Rajiv brought new and pragmatic policies to the country. Foreign investment and the use of modern technology were encouraged, import restrictions were eased and many new industries were set up. These measures certainly projected India into the 1990s and woke the country from its partially self-induced isolationism, but they did little to stimulate India's mammoth rural sector. Rajiv suffered a similar fate to his mother when he was assassinated on an election tour of Tamil Nadu by a supporter of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers. India has had three leaders since Rajiv Gandhi, each of whom have shown a determination to continue dragging India kicking and screaming into the world's global economy.

The dangers of communalism in India were clearly displayed during the Ayodhya fracas in 1992, when a Hindu mob stormed and destroyed a mosque they believed had been built on the site of Rama's birth. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been keen to exploit such opportunities. Corruption in the Congress party has hampered supporters of a secular, tolerant India from offering a creditable political alternative. The BJP was excluded from power by an unlikely coalition of smaller parties, known as the United Front (but dubbed the 13 losers), who had the backing of Congress. In November 1997, Congress withdrew that support, the Lok Sabha was dissolved and elections were called for February 1998.

The elections were won by a coalition led by the BJP and Atal Bihari Vajpayee became Prime Minister for the second time. Despite the dangers of playing communalist politics, the BJP's traditionalist Hindu stance has attracted voters concerned about retaining traditional values during the sudden onslaught of modern global influences. When you see Baywatch dubbed into Hindi and beamed into India by satellite, you'll understand what they're concerned about. It was assumed that the more extreme policies of the BJP would be mellowed by their reliance on a broad range of coalition partners. This assumption proved false when they followed through on a promise to make India a nuclear weapons power only weeks after the election. Despite international outrage, the nuclear tests were met with widespread jubilation in India and caused a groundswell of support for the BJP.

But proving the adage that a week is a long time in politics, by April 1999 Vajpayee had lost majority support in parliament and was forced into a vote of confidence which he proceeded to lose by one critical vote. There was widespread expectations that Sonia Ghandi, Rajiv Ghandi's widow, would revive the Ghandi political dynasty by leading the Congress Party to victory after its three years in the political wilderness. But in the factional way of India's parliament she was unable to secure a coalition with majority seats and India was forced to the election polls for the third time in as many years.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was returned to government but with a significant decrease in support, forcing the BJP to rely more heavily on its allies. The victory was not so much won by Vajpayee and BJP as lost by the opposing parties and their inability to control the fractured monster that is Indian politics. The world is holding its breathe to see what action Vajpayee will take, if any, over the bloodless coup in Pakistan that occurred only days after India's election. His strong-man stance against Pakistan in the past may well have accounted for the popular vote and he may be tempted into a bit of arm wrestling to prove his leadership credentials.



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