Elections rein in Hindu extremism

Observations on India

India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has just won elections in three important states and it has done so without playing its usual Hindu nationalist, or Hindutva, card. Instead of relying on anti-Muslim sentiments, it defeated Congress, India's main opposition party - which is stuck in a time warp under its dynastic leader, Sonia Gandhi - with development-oriented slogans of "bijli, sadak, pani" (electricity, roads and water).

What the campaigns in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh suggest is that the BJP is donning the mantle of a party of stable government. Since it came to power nationally in 1998, it has faced the same sort of challenge as the Labour Party in Britain: to show that it can govern responsibly without being diverted by its extremist factions. The BJP's equivalent of Labour's wildcat strikes and trade union domination of the 1970s is the sort of Hindu nationalism and communalism that was seen in Gujarat's riots last year and in the party's furiously anti-Muslim campaign during the state's assembly elections last December.

More than 2,000 people were killed in the Gujarat riots, and the state's hardline chief minister, Narendra Modi, wrapped sentiments against Pakistan, Islamic terrorism, Muslims and other minorities into a frightening Hindu nationalist electoral package. In these latest elections, however, Modi was allowed to speak on the hustings only if he replaced his rantings with sound development and good governance themes, which he duly did. Other senior figures also toned down their rhetoric, including the new Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Uma Bharati, a one-time nationalist rabble-rouser and a sanyasi (a Hindu who has renounced worldly things, apart from politics, which is seen as a religious duty) - although her swearing-in ceremony became a Hindutva festival, complete with chanting sadhus.

The BJP has realised that scary extremism is not a vote-winner in most parts of India. After 12 years of economic progress since liberalisation began in 1991, Indian voters are beginning to expect more of their usually corrupt politicians than negative slogans and unfulfilled promises. Congress state governments had failed to deliver the benefits they promised in the last elections five years ago - now the BJP has to prove it can do better.

The next electoral test of how far the BJP is prepared to dilute its militant Hindutva agenda will come in a general election due by the end of 2004. Atal Behari Vajpayee, the moderate BJP prime minister, will try to keep the development theme on track, but his hardliners are bound to return to anti-Muslim themes in more backward constituencies where development is only a distant dream.

The BJP and its associates have not changed their ambitions for a Hindu India. But they have realised that if they are to pursue that agenda, they must first offer economic development and good governance.

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