Hindu nationalists 'win' Gujarat poll

Controversial Hindu nationalist party leader Narendra Modi swept back to power in India’s religiously divided Gujarat state on Sunday in what was called a national victory over the rival Congress party.

The Congress loss in the Hindu nationalist bastion, though widely expected, was its fourth setback in regional polls this year for the party which governs nationally and raised questions about its federal poll prospects in 2009.

Vote counting following a two-phase election earlier this month showed Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead in about 117 districts, giving it a clear majority in the 182-seat legislature, according to partial information on the website of India’s Election Commission and television forecasts.

The Congress Party is expected to take about 60 seats, and conceded three hours into the counting.

A senior BJP leader said the win was a turning point for his party, which lost federal power in 2004.

“State assembly elections are quite frequent in our country but rarely does the people’s verdict in a particular state become a ‘turning point’ for national politics,” said Lal Krishna Advani, the party’s prospective prime ministerial candidate.

The results must still be confirmed by the Election Commission, but television news channels showed BJP workers waving flags outside party offices, dancing and setting off firecrackers from the morning.

“This is a victory for the BJP and Modi’s record on development,” BJP party chief Rajnath Singh told reporters shortly after Congress conceded.

Modi ran on a development platform in Gujarat, one of India’s most affluent states and the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi.

Modi however is better known in India as a controversial figure who has been frequently accused of encouraging sectarian riots in 2002 that saw at least 2 000 Muslims hacked or burned to death.

The violence erupted after 59 Hindu pilgrims died in a train fire first blamed on a Muslim mob, but which an inquiry later concluded was accidental.

Human rights activists were aghast at the electoral verdict.

“I would concede that he has better organisational abilities and some connect to the people,” a grim-looking Teesta Setalvad, an advocate for the riot victims, told the CNN-IBN channel.

“But I would not concede that he stands for constitutional government and the rule of democracy. I personally see a very troubled time ahead because of the kind of politics he represents.”

Some political analysts have predicted a Modi win might be a harbinger of a resurgence of the party’s brand of Hindu nationalism, which hit a popularity peak in the 1990s before declining.

“He virtually repeats his 2002 win. After a long time we are seeing a pro-incumbency win,” Chandan Mitra, editor of the pro-BJP Pioneer newspaper, said on the CNN-IBN news channel.

In spite of his popularity in Gujarat, the BJP has long kept Modi from campaigning alongside its candidates in other states, perhaps fearing his fiery brand of Hinduism might backfire elsewhere.

That might now change.

“Even those who fear the kind of politics he embodies concede that he has become larger than Gujarat,” Tavleen Singh wrote in an Indian Express column on Sunday speculating on the meaning of a Modi victory.

“No other chief minister is as recognisable outside his own state.” - AFP

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