The mainstream Sikh religious party, the Akali Dal, was headed for a sweeping victory this morning in Wednesday's Punjab state elections -- a result widely seen as the best possible step toward ending years of violence between Sikhs and Hindus.
With returns nearly complete, the state Election Commission said the Akali Dal had captured at least 64 of the 115 state assembly seats, enough to form a government. The ruling Congress (I) Party of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, long dominant in Punjab politics, ran a distant second, with only 25 seats.
The tally promised that Punjab's new state government will be formed by the moderate Sikh leadership, which is publicly committed to last July's compromise agreement on Sikh political demands, signed by Gandhi and Harchand Singh Longowal, the Akali Dal leader who was assassinated by Sikh extremists last month. Analysts had seen such an Akali victory as a necessary first step toward implementing that accord and giving the Sikh community a stake in electoral politics as an alternative to extremism.
The Gandhi-Longowal agreement, which provided for greater Sikh religious and political autonomy in the state, came after three years of mounting terrorism and sectarian violence in which more than 2,000 persons were killed.
Among the victors were the political heirs of Longowal. Acting party president Surjit Singh Barnala and Balwant Singh, an architect of the July accord, both won assembly seats in their districts.
Barnala, a favorite to be chosen as the state's chief minister, is also seen as the Akali leader most amenable to continued dialogue with Gandhi's central government.
The Congress (I) Party made no formal concession statement. Congress officials repeated the position set by Gandhi during the campaign: that victory was less important than holding the election.
It was essentially a two-way battle between the Congress (I) and Akali Dal, with other parties contesting only a few seats. Results for 13 seats in the national Parliament remained incomplete, but also showed Akali candidates leading.
Political analysts interviewed on television referred to the Akali victory as a landslide. The editor of the Times of India, Inder Malhotra, said the size of the victory suggested a strong crossover vote for the Sikh party from Hindu voters, something unprecedented in Punjab politics.
The Akali Dal made an effort in the campaign to break out of its mold as a purely Sikh party, naming a number of Hindu candidates.
The relatively good turnout of about 60 percent and the strong Akali showing were widely interpreted as a rebuff to Sikh extremists, including terrorists, who oppose the Akali-government accord. A militant faction of the Sikh party, the United Akali Dal led by 83-year-old Baba Joginder Singh, had called for a boycott of the elections, and Sikh terrorists had killed 14 persons during the campaign.
Still, there were signs of continued opposition. The widow of Beant Singh, a Sikh bodyguard who assassinated Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi last October, captured 31 percent of the vote in narrowly losing her bid for an assembly seat.