India's Hindu Party Reflects on Election Drubbing

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.

The only time the party ruled for a full five-year term nationally was from 1999 to 2004, when it put forward the avuncular and moderate Atal Bihari Vajpayee to lead a coalition government.

This year, the party chose its 81-year-old leader, L.K. Advani, as its candidate for prime minister.

Advani's career mirrors much of the party's present dilemma. In 1990, he climbed aboard a Toyota truck remodeled to look like a chariot and rode across the country to mobilize Hindus. That campaign culminated in a watershed event in contemporary Indian politics: demolition of a 16th-century mosque in 1992 by zealots who demanded the construction of a Hindu temple at the site.

In the past 10 years, Advani has tried to refashion himself as a moderate, which left many of the party's core voters dissatisfied. One member said that the BJP lost because Advani was "neither fully center nor totally right."

After the results were announced Saturday, Advani offered to resign as the party's leader in the lower house of Parliament, fueling speculation that a generational shift in the party may be imminent.

But analysts say a younger generation of BJP leaders is unlikely to break free of the Hindu political ideology.

"Our ideology remains the core and constant foundation of our identity. That is not a variable that can be changed with every election outcome," said Ram Madhav, a senior member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the umbrella organization that controls the BJP and other Hindu revivalist groups. "There will always be a genuine place for a conservative, right-wing alternative in Indian politics."

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