Gurus and Governors

NEW DELHI – The ongoing general election in India has brought to prominence not only the usual cast of political aspirants, campaign managers, publicists, and vote-brokers, but also an array of astrologers, numerologists, and pandits. Candidates have been flocking to such soothsayers in large numbers, seeking advice on everything from the precise minute to file their nomination forms to the appropriate alignment of the doors of their campaign offices.

Indians, after all, manage to live in that rare combination of modernity and superstition that defines them as a breed apart. Where else in the world is so much made of an individual’s astrological chart, that mysterious celestial database that determines one’s life opportunities, marital prospects, and willingness to take on certain risks? I once wrote that an Indian without a horoscope is like an American without a credit card. That observation shows no sign of losing its validity in the twenty-first century.

It is a truth that seems particularly entrenched in Indian politics. As a believing Hindu, I make no claims to pure rationalism myself. But I am bemused when a minister’s swearing-in ceremony is delayed because an astrologer told him that the time was not auspicious to take the oath, or when a candidate’s election papers are filed at the last possible minute to avoid the malign influences of the stars at other times of the day. Both are frequent occurrences in Indian political life.

It is not just a question of taking the oath of office at a time determined by an astrologer; the stars also decide when a minister moves into his office and begins his work. Many ministers do not report to work for days after being sworn in; files pend while the planets realign themselves more favorably. Superstition can also influence the selection of the minister’s office, housing, and furniture, guided (if not actually directed) by gurus and pandits on the basis of time-honored, if scientifically unproven, principles.