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Thursday, September 2, 1999 Published at 10:27 GMT 11:27 UK

World: South Asia

Soothsayers offer heavenly help

By Rahul Bedi in Delhi

India's holy men and astrologers are dusting down their cosmic calendars and honing their star-reading skills to help politicians decide their fate in the fortcoming general election.

Indian Elections 99
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Scores of mendicants and yogis or religious men, known for delivering electoral successes, are busy organising the heavens for candidates from all parties trying desperately to win elections.

And in the prevailing political uncertainty, scores of MPs do not eat, travel or hold meetings unless their celestial minders declare the moment propitious.

Jayaram Jayalalitha, whose party's withdrawal from the coalition led to its downfall, reportedly locked herself up in her New Delhi hotel room in the suspense-filled days leading up to confidence vote in parliament - refusing to meet anyone as the moon was in its inauspicious eighth house.

After the moon moved on the following day, Jayalalitha reportedly performed a special prayer to propitiate a powerful female goddess before emerging from seclusion.

She then precisely timed handing over the letter to the president withdrawing her party's support to the government after 9 am - but before 10 am - once the inauspicious period had ended.

Unlucky number

Numerologists said the number 13 had been the undoing of prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's government as it sought the confidence vote after 13 months in office.

"Number 13 which in numerology totals up to four (1 plus 3) represents sadness," said numerologist Pramod Kumar Churamani.

Vajpayee had earlier headed a 13-day government in 1997.

Other astrologers, however, did not need inside knowledge of the cosmos to predict what analysts have been saying in newspapers for months: that India was in for turbulent times and general elections were not too far away.

Irrespective of their political affiliations, there are few Indian politicians 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.

A universal practice

Astrology and palmistry is something all Indians grow up with.

[ image: Charting star movements is common practice]
Charting star movements is common practice
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 old charts detailing star movement.

And although Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, ridiculed astrologers, succeeding premiers, including Nehru's 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 believe they were responsible for her return to power in 1980.

[ image: Indira Gandhi: First popularised political soothsayers]
Indira Gandhi: First popularised political soothsayers
Several of her supporters now claim Mrs Gandhi was assassinated four years later by her bodyguards because she did not take the necessary precautions recommended by her astrologer.

Her Cambridge-educated son Rajiv, cynically dismissive of astrologers before joining politics, travelled across the country visiting influential holy men when he was up for re-election in 1989.

But Mr Chandra Shekhar, the stop-gap prime minister who served just for three months in 1991 was perhaps India's only modern politician to publicly defend the practice of astrology.

Even Mr T N Seshan, India's highly-principled and mercurial Chief Election Commissioner, who presided for five years till 1996 over the entire electoral process, made no move without consulting the stars.

Earlier, whilst retiring as India's cabinet secretary, the country's senior-most civil servant in the late Eighties, he precisely timed the hand-over to the second in keeping with the stars.

Unfortunately, however, Mr Seshan's auspicious time differed from the one chosen by his successor, also a die-hard numerologist.

A lengthy debate between India's senior most civil servants followed, leading to a bureaucratic compromise by which the hand-over was extended by exactly 60 seconds.

Wielding power and influence

Today there are over 100 senior astrologers patronised by politicians in New Delhi, but a majority are charlatans who pick up titbits of information and promote themselves as extra-terrestrial political informants.

Some, however, are plants by intelligence agencies or more often by rival politicians wanting to know their opponents strategies and ambitions.

Ultimately, however, a handful end up enjoying great power and influence depending, of course, on the success of their patrons.

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