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 21st 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.
My favorite story of this type involves a chief minister who refused to move into his official residence because a pandit claimed that it was not built according to the correct spiritual principles of vaastu (India’s version of feng shui), and that he would not fare well in it. The bungalow was reconstructed accordingly, at great public expense, with new doorways and windows realigned to satisfy the pundit. At last, the chief minister moved in, only to lose his job ― and his new home ― the next day in an unexpected political crisis.
Why do otherwise intelligent, educated people put themselves in thrall to superstition? I am all in favor of the innate human desire to propitiate the heavens. I am even prepared to entertain the notion that the cosmos might be sending us signals in every planetary alignment. But what makes us so credulous as to believe that soothsayers understand the code?
Not long ago, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, the former actress Jayalalitha, decided to add an extra “a” to the end of her name because a numerologist told her that the new spelling would be beneficial to her turbulent political career. She promptly went on to win an election in her state, lost the next one, and now is back in power again.
I suppose it is entirely possible that “Jayalalithaa” has attained political successes that might have eluded a mere “Jayalalitha.” But on what possible basis can it be argued that the addition of a superfluous vowel made all the difference? One can scarcely believe that the heavens dispense their favors according to the number of vowels in mortals’ names.
But many Indians are firm believers, as the increasingly eccentric spellings of film titles and movie stars’ names confirm. One of India’s finest actors, Irfan Khan, suddenly re-baptized himself Irrfan, a change that many swear prefigured the transformation of his career.
New Delhi’s political circles are rife with gossip about a former prime minister who was guided daily by a godman, and a former finance minister whose decisions were influenced by astrology (though tempered, it seems, by a former cabinet secretary who passed himself off as an amateur astrologer). The leader of Bihar state’s Rashtriya Janata Dal party, Laloo Prasad Yadav, reportedly filled his swimming pool with mud and garbage because a pandit told him it would stop the “leak” of defecting members.
Most Indian politicians wear rings with stones tailored to specific planetary conjunctions that are providential for them, or designed to ward off malefic influences from planets unfavorably situated on their birth charts. Many swear it works for them; others take the agnostic view that one has nothing to lose by indulging such beliefs, except the price of the ring ― a sort of Hindu version of Pascal’s famous wager.
It turns out, however, that Indian politicians are not the only ones vulnerable to seduction by the Indian “miracle mafia.” Former Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh reveals in a recent memoir that no less a personage than Margaret Thatcher was fascinated by an Indian godman, Chandraswami, whom she received in her office shortly after becoming Conservative Party leader.
The godman impressed Thatcher enough with his mind-reading skills that she visited him again ― wearing, on his instructions, a red dress and sporting a religious talisman he had given her. At this second encounter, Chandraswami accurately prophesied that she would become prime minister within four years and serve for nine, 11, or 13 years (she served for 11).
There was one crucial difference from her Indian counterparts, though. When Singh, meeting Thatcher soon after she had become prime minister, whispered, “Our man was proved right,” her reaction surprised him. “For a moment, she seemed flustered,” he recalled. “Then, she took me aside and said: ‘High Commissioner, we don’t talk about these matters.’” Indians do: We may be superstitious, but we are not hypocritical.
By Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor is India’s minister of state for human resource development. His most recent book is “Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.” ― Ed.