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Religion and politics: An explosive mix?

By Mark Tully

Gujarat's newly elected chief minister, Narendra Modi, says his win was a 'slap in the face for pseudo-secularists'
Gujarat's newly elected chief minister, Narendra Modi, says his win was a 'slap in the face for pseudo-secularists'

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Special report: India's religious strife 

(CNN) -- On Sunday India's right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory in the election to the Assembly of the western state of Gujarat.

The BJP campaign has been widely criticized for bringing religion into politics and promoting enmity towards Muslims.

There are fears that the BJP, which heads the coalition government in Delhi, will now concentrate on its Hindu nationalist agenda in other states due to go to the polls next year and that religion will become the major issue in Indian politics.

Narendra Modi, the BJP's Chief Minister of Gujarat, described his victory as "a slap in the face for pseudo-secularists".

The tenor of his aggressive campaign against opponents of the BJP's Hindu nationalist agenda -- known as Hindutva -- and those who criticized his handling of anti-Muslim riots in which more than one thousand people died led the The Hindu, one of the most respected Indian dailies, to describe his victory as "the harvest of hatred."

Modi, the paper said, was "aggressively pursuing an agenda of ... communalism, and stereotyping Muslims as anti-national."

This was a victory for Hindu Nationalism and even the Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishan Advani, who has been a staunch supporter of Modi, admitted he was surprised by its extent.

Advani was the architect of the BJP's recovery from its disastrous 1984 defeat by Rajiv Gandhi when the party scored just two seats.

Winning plans

BJP supporters celebrate their party's victory
BJP supporters celebrate their party's victory

The centerpiece of that revival was the campaign to pull down the mosque in Ayodhya, said to stand on the birthplace of the Hindu God Rama, and replace it with a temple.

But even when Hindus did succeed in pulling down the mosque in 1992 in defiance of the government and the courts, the electoral dividends were disappointing.

The next year the BJP lost the assembly election in Ayodhya's own state of Uttar Pradesh where they had been in power.

Advani always realized that much of the BJP's advance since 1984 should be attributed to the vacuum created by the Congress party's decline.

Before Gujarat Advani had accepted that concentrating on Hindutva alone could not win elections

Instead the party's agenda had to be wider, and campaigning much less strident than Modi's.

Surprisingly Advani may now have mixed feelings about Modi's victory.

The Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has acknowledged that Advani is the party boss by allowing him to become so prominent in the government.

Risk of revolt

After months of violence and more than a thousand dead, voting was held amid tight security
After months of violence and more than a thousand dead, voting was held amid tight security

So Advani will now have to resist the pressure from the more extreme elements in his party to

pursue the Hindutva agenda at the national level.

If he does not, some of his coalition partners might revolt placing the central government at risk of collapse.

Being a very shrewd politician he might also still have doubts about the meaning of the Gujarat victory.

This election was exceptional in many ways.

Gujarat has a history of Hindu-Muslim enmity and feelings between Hindus and Muslims were polarized by the riots earlier this year.

During the election campaign there was an attack on a temple in Gujarat which authorities say was carried out by Pakistani-trained terrorists. That was grist to Modi's mill.

He ended his campaign saying a defeat for him would a cause for celebration in Pakistan.

The more extreme organizations promoting Hindu nationalism, such as the VHP or World Hindu Council and the Bajrang Dal, have for a long time targeted Gujarat, actively spreading their message particularly in rural areas.

The Congress party, the only opposition in Gujarat, has for more than 10 years now been in decline in Gujarat.

Pivotal poll?

Many Muslims in Gujarat live in fear of attack
Many Muslims in Gujarat live in fear of attack

I have seen many so called turning- points in India's recent history like Ayodhya, the defeat of Indira Gandhi after the emergency, the anti Sikh riots following Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, the first stable BJP coalition in Delhi, which India has absorbed without any fundamental change in its secular democracy.

So I am reluctant to agree with those who are saying the Gujarat elections are pivotal. But then I may have been lulled into a false sense of security.

The appeal to Hindus to vote on religious lines was blatant in this election, religion was openly mixed with politics, and putting that genie back in the bottle isn't going to be easy.

There was no sense of shame in the BJP campaign about the riots earlier this year and the BJP has fared particularly well in areas where Muslims and their properties were attacked.

The sister organizations of the BJP which provoke enmity towards Muslims have provided the storm-troopers for this victory and will now want their reward.

If the BJP does decide to make Hindutva the major issue in other states Congress will have to find a more effective counter argument than merely mouthing secularism.

Nevertheless the BJP has a history of swinging from Hindutva when it is in electoral difficulties, as it has been recently, to an agenda with a wider appeal when it wants to promote itself as a national party.

Next year the BJP is scheduled to have five straight fights with the Congress in state elections.

During those campaigns the party will have to be thinking of the image it is projecting for the general election due at the latest the year after next.

So the BJP might want to shake off the hard line image it has acquired in Gujarat, but there will be powerful forces within the party arguing that Hindutva's time has come at last.

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