India's Hindu Nationalist BJP Party Reflects on Election Loss

Indian newspapers prominently display images of leaders of the victorious Congress party, which won 205 Parliament seats. Rival BJP won 116 seats.
Indian newspapers prominently display images of leaders of the victorious Congress party, which won 205 Parliament seats. Rival BJP won 116 seats. (By Mustafa Quraishi -- Associated Press)
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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 18, 2009

NEW DELHI, May 17 -- Stunned by its dismal showing in the national elections, India's opposition Hindu nationalist party held a series of informal meetings Sunday in which members assessed the causes of their trouncing and asked whether a more moderate tone would have served them better.

The results, announced this weekend, triggered an especially introspective debate among younger members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which won 116 seats compared with 205 for the governing Congress party.

"The enormity of the defeat is such that there will have to be a serious, honest and widespread introspection of every issue in the party," said Sudheendra Kulkarni, a campaign strategist for the BJP. "Nothing will be brushed under the carpet."

At the heart of the soul-searching is how the party responded to an anti-Muslim speech by a young member, Varun Gandhi, during the campaign. Gandhi, an estranged member of the dynasty that has dominated the Congress party, is alleged to have said in a campaign speech that he would cut off the hands of any Muslim who harmed a Hindu.

That landed Gandhi in prison for a few weeks, but the BJP stood solidly behind him even after India's Election Commission reprimanded him.

Now, members are questioning that stance.

"Many of us are now asking if we should have immediately distanced ourselves from Varun Gandhi. The episode hurt us," said a BJP member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We should have asked him to withdraw from his election at that time. Or let him run as an independent candidate."

Instead, the party said Gandhi was a victim of a political conspiracy. Despite debate about whether he had damaged the party nationally, Gandhi won his constituency and became the BJP's star campaigner in many other areas.

Some party members have questioned the number of campaign meetings addressed by one of its controversial leaders, Narendra Modi, who is accused of abetting sectarian violence that left more than 1,000 Muslims dead in the western state of Gujarat in 2002.

The BJP's share of the national vote has remained static since the 2004 election. Many political analysts have said the party's growth is limited because its aggressive Hindu ideology appeals only to certain pockets of the country.

"This is a very serious moment in the BJP's history. Its worldview is out of touch with the changing aspirations of new India. Its grammar and idiom is not shared by a majority of Indians," said Mahesh Rangarajan, an independent analyst in New Delhi. "In this election, the pluralistic impulse of Indians has re-coalesced. The BJP has to break out of the rigidity in their thinking."

The party's rise was swift, growing from two seats in the lower house of Parliament in 1984 to 138 seats in the 2004 national election. Its aggressive brand of Hindu nationalism has created deep divisions about the notion of secularism in this multi-religious nation of 1.2 billion people.

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