Capitalizing on communal and anti-Muslim passions, hard-line Hindu nationalists won an overwhelming victory today in a state election seen as a potential bellwether of India's future as a secular, pluralistic nation.
Candidates of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the western state of Gujarat, which was the locus of fierce rioting earlier this year, won 125 of 182 seats in the state legislature. That was an increase from the 117 seats it took in the last election, in 1998, according to results tallied today from Thursday's voting. The secular Congress Party came in a distant second with 52 seats.
The decisive victory by the BJP, which also heads India's national governing coalition, appeared to vindicate an electoral strategy that played heavily on Hindu fears and anger toward Gujarat's Muslim minority in the aftermath of last spring's riots. More than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed then.
The BJP's victory also raised fears among secular-minded Indians and religious minorities that the party will adopt a similar approach in other state elections and in national elections scheduled for 2004. That, some worry, could threaten the tolerant multi-religious state envisioned by the founders of modern India, including Mohandas Gandhi, Gujarat's most famous native son.
"It's definitely going to spell danger for the rest of the country," said the Rev. Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit priest who runs a human rights group in Gujarat's commercial capital, Ahmadabad.
Some analysts cautioned, however, that the BJP's winning formula in Gujarat could prove less effective in other settings. They note, for example, that a large share of Gujarat's population lives in cities, which traditionally have been more hospitable to the BJP's core ideology of Hindutva -- literally, "Hindu-ness" -- than the rural villages where most Indians live. They also note Gujarat's relative dearth of regional and caste-based parties that in other states have siphoned support from the BJP.
For those reasons, said Mahesh Rangarajan, an independent political analyst in New Delhi, the appeal of the BJP's ideology "may not be a winning card elsewhere, but it will still be a card."
At the very least, political observers said, the BJP's strong showing will increase pressure on Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who has cast himself as a moderate, to adopt a more nationalistic tone, particularly in his dealings with Pakistan. The BJP has lost several state elections in recent years and had been looking to Gujarat as a laboratory for rebuilding its political fortunes at the national level.
In conceding defeat today, the head of the Congress Party in Gujarat, Shankersingh Vaghela, described the BJP win as a victory for Hindutva. "People are supreme in democracy, and they have chosen to go with the communal lines of the BJP," he said in Ahmadabad.
The outcome was a victory for Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, a swaggering, charismatic figure who has emerged as a leading spokesman of the BJP's right wing. Modi derived much of his campaign platform from last spring's riots, which began when a Muslim mob torched a train carrying Hindu activists in the town of Godhra, killing 59 people and igniting India's worst communal violence in a decade.
In the riots that followed the train attack, Hindu mobs slaughtered Muslims throughout the state, burning some of them alive; thousands of Muslims have yet to return to their homes. Last month, echoing findings by Human Rights Watch and other independent monitors, a citizens panel that included several retired Supreme Court judges charged that the anti-Muslim rioters had acted "with the deliberate connivance and support" of Modi's government.
While Modi has denied that accusation, he and other BJP candidates have done their best to capitalize on the Godhra attack, suggesting that the anti-Muslim reaction was understandable and perhaps even justified.
Modi and others have suggested that the loyalties of Indian Muslims may reside more comfortably in Pakistan, which was founded as an explicitly Muslim state and is locked in a bitter standoff with India over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. India's population of more than a billion includes about 820 million Hindus and 130 million Muslims.
"There's been an atmosphere that if you don't vote for the BJP, all hell will break loose; you'll have terrorism, your temples will be attacked," said Rangarajan. He said the BJP's message can be distilled this way: "In order to be Indian you have to be Hindu -- and if not, you'll have to prove your loyalty."