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For its half-century of faith in parliamentary democracy, India deserves many things from its friends. It deserves the respect and help of other democracies and the affection of foreigners seized by the great adventure of Indian freedom. But one thing India does not deserve is the sort of condescension it is getting in the West now that the recent elections have exposed dangers to its nationhood.

In my reporting years in India, I learned that friendships with Indians can last for a lifetime, sometimes on into the children's lives. But the essential credential for friendship is that the foreigner does not regard Indians or their country with condescension or anything smelling of it.Indians have exquisite noses for foreign condescensions:

The snickering amusement that infects foreign writing about India. India as exoticism and mystery; it is neither for Indians, just home. Foreign films that are supposed to be about India but really are about the British raj.

Now they are getting the variety of condescension that gives them an acute shiver of distaste - the big brother pat on the head, there, there. We are told in one commentary after another that India and its friends should not worry, India always muddles through, and the elections were free, weren't they?

Of course, but that does not make the danger any less hideous to contemplate - that Indian civil society could again become Indian civil war.

The enemies of Indian freedom from the right call themselves nationalists. But what they preach would destroy the kind of nation that achieved democratic independence. These people are Hindu-first and Hindu-only.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, head of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has until May 30 to win a vote of confidence in Parliament as prime minister. He tells the world how moderate his nationalists will be in power. He lies. He and his party cannot long survive except in the extremist sewer in which they dwell.

The real power among those waiting for Vajpayee to take over lies not with cuddly moderates but killers and pro-Nazis - the kind of people who slaughtered Muslims over a religious dispute in 1993 and then threatened Hindus who would not fall into obedient line. I met some of them in 1993, when I went to India to try to find out why neighbors kill each other. The "nationalists" I met were about as moderate as the SS.

If Vajpayee fails, his party will remain strong in opposition. Congress will try to form a coalition, with leftist parties. Among them will be the Communists, led by a Bengali who charms foreigners, except those who care about his lifetime devotion to Stalin.

The defeat of Congress after so long in office is no disaster by itself. And neither the nationalist party nor the Communists won enough seats to form a government alone.

How did this come about? One important reason was that decades of experience with politics and a larger population increase shifted voting power to the lower castes from the upper. They are resentful that growth in income and opportunity has not come near matching their increase in numbers and political influence. Properly, they blame the Congress Party, in power so long.

Second: Congress Party leadership, or lack thereof. There was no Mahatma Gandhi, no Jawaharlal Nehru, nothing much but mediocrity. Dead wood was cut, an Indian politician writes me, but no saplings planted.

Free elections anywhere are part of democratic life. But nowhere are they a guarantee that the enemies of freedom may not benefit from them. For any democracy, listening intently to the danger signals can prevent them from becoming a dirge.