Hindu Nationalists Win Key Vote in India

Gujarat, India
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 24, 2007

NEW DELHI, Dec. 23 -- Hindu nationalists won a solid victory Sunday in a closely watched election in Gujarat, one of India's wealthiest and most restive states, further weakening the ruling Congress party ahead of national elections.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, won 117 of 182 seats in the state legislature, setting the stage for it to gain power in Parliament. The Congress party won 62 seats, with smaller parties taking the rest.

The BJP's controversial leader, Narendra Modi, campaigned on a pro-business platform that attracted middle-class Hindus. But as the state's chief minister, Modi had angered the state's Muslims, who along with human rights groups accuse him of complicity in 2002 sectarian riots that left more than 1,000 Muslims dead.

"It is a great victory for him, it is a remarkable victory," Abhishek Manu Singhvi, spokesman for the Congress party, conceded on national television.

It was the fourth consecutive loss in local elections for the Congress party, a political dynasty that dates to Mohandas K. Gandhi and the country's independence in 1947.

Congress party members played down the defeat, saying that the BJP benefited from simmering hostilities between the state's Hindu majority and Muslims, who make up 9 percent of Gujarat's 50 million people.

"The victory is certainly limited to Gujarat, and a certain kind of divisive politics has worked there," Singhvi said.

The Congress party, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has been weakened by internal squabbling with its coalition partners over a recent civilian nuclear deal with the United States, according to analysts.

Many in India's communist bloc, a former Congress party ally, have criticized Singh's agreement for damaging India's sovereignty by putting its nuclear program under international scrutiny.

"The Congress party tried their level best," Modi said in an interview Friday. "But I know they will see where the voters' hearts are in Gujarat, and that is with the BJP. I will win big."

Modi won a landslide victory in the 2002 election after the riots by tapping into tensions between Hindus and Muslims, analysts said.

Then, his biggest gains were in towns and villages where violence had led to weeks of rioting after 59 Hindu pilgrims were burned to death in the town of Godhra.

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