In modernising India insecure politicians still look to the stars
LETTER FROM INDIA:INDIAN "GODMEN" and astrologers are dusting their cosmic calendars and honing their star-reading skills to help local politicians determine their moves.
Last week, they dominated the swearing-in of Hindu nationalist leader BS Yeddyurappa as chief minister of southern Karnataka state, an event timed at precisely 1.52pm on Friday in accordance with the stars.
The entire day Yeddyurappa did not take a single move not orchestrated by his band of soothsayers. He dressed in a white-silk "panche" or sarong and a white half-sleeved shirt and recited a special family mantra "cleared" by his head astrologer.
And on instructions of the same astrologer, the 66-year old right-wing politician secreted a silver Gandaberunda - an Indian mythological bird with two heads believed to possess magnificent strength - in his pocket as he signed on as state chief minister in the provincial capital Bangalore, India's technology hub synonymous with software development, an activity far from soothsaying.
In India's prevailing political uncertainty and with several state legislature elections scheduled over the next few months, followed by national polls in early 2009, thousands of politicians neither eat, travel nor hold meetings unless their "celestial minders" declare the moment propitious.
"The greater the uncertainty, the greater our need as guides into the unknown," said an astrologer who has ably "guided" senior MPs through the Byzantine maze of Indian politics and elections. The politicians' dependence increases in inverse proportion to their station, he added.
There are few Indian politicians, irrespective of their political affiliations, who do not have a string of astrologers, palmists, numerologists or occultists on their payroll, dominating every public and private move.
Whether they believe everything their astrologers tell them is another matter. But, as one senior MP who declined to be named said, there was no "celestial" advice that he would forgo. It just might work, he said.
Astrology and palmistry are something all Indians grow up with. Most Indians have horoscopes - an elaborate grouping of Sanskrit symbols and diagrams - prepared on the basis of date, place and exact time of birth aided by ancient logarithmic charts detailing star movement. The heliographs on these pieces of paper dominate their existence and a large number of people do little without consulting them, especially when it comes to weddings, travel and seeking employment.
But this phenomenon is particularly true of Indian politicians especially since the mid-1990s with the complexities of coalition politics triggering greater insecurities.
And though Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, ridiculed astrologers, succeeding premiers, including his daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv, have been among their most willing clients.
Mrs Gandhi popularised soothsayers in political circles a year after she was voted out of office in 1977 for imposing an emergency when her political survival was threatened.
She turned to them for succour and many politicians believed they were responsible for her return to power in 1980. Several of her supporters claim Mrs Gandhi was assassinated four years later by her Sikh bodyguards because she did not take the precautions recommended by her astrologers.
Her Cambridge University-educated son Rajiv, cynically dismissive of astrologers before joining politics, travelled across the country visiting influential "godmen" when up for re-election in 1989.
One of the sadhus or holy men he visited lived in a tree and blessed Rajiv Gandhi, assuring him of success by placing his feet on his head. Ironically, Gandhi's party was voted out of office a few months later.
At present some 200 "senior" astrologers are patronised by federal politicians in New Delhi, but a majority remain charlatans who pick up titbits of information and promote themselves as "extra-terrestrial" political informants. A few were "plants" by intelligence agencies or more often by rival politicians wanting to know their opponents' strategies and ambitions.
But ultimately the majority ended up enjoying power and influence depending, of course, on the success of their patrons. Until, of course, the stars over which none of us really have any control decree otherwise.
Like his precedessors, neighbouring Nepal's recently dethroned King Gyanendra took important decisions only after consulting his battery of astrologers who, sadly, were unable to predict his downfall.
But not willing to say die, Nepal's leading astrologers predict that the doomed monarchy will eventually survive.
"According to star signs, when the king's grandson turns 13, circumstances can put him on the throne of his grandfather," says Swami Dhruv, an Indian who has made Nepal his home and has been a practising astrologer for eight years. The king's grandson Hridayendra, once third in line to the throne, turns six in July and according to the astrologer would have a chance to become a teen king in 2015.
Dhruv says while bad luck would dog King Gyanendra till 2010, people would forgive him after that, though he would never reclaim the omnipotence he once enjoyed.