Hindu nationalist scores a big victory in Gujarat election

NEW DELHI: He has been likened to the Emperor Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned. He has been denied entry into the United States for violations of religious freedom, yet praised as a business-friendly politician who has allowed private industry to flourish in his state.

On Sunday, voters re-elected Narendra Modi, arguably India’s most incendiary politician, as the chief minister of western Gujarat state. His victory, by a wide margin, was a stunning defeat for the country’s governing Congress Party and signaled that Modi and his charismatic, often pugnacious, brand of Hindu supremacist politics will be a force to be reckoned with in the future.

Gujarat State is considered a test case for national politics because it is viewed as a laboratory for radical Hindu politics in contemporary India.

Modi, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, is accused of sanctioning or at least taking no steps to stop Hindu mobs from massacring at least 1,000 of their Muslim neighbors in February 2002, after a mysterious fire engulfed a train carrying members of a Hindu nationalist organization, killing 59 people on board. Ten months later, voters in Gujarat returned Modi to power.

In elections held earlier this month, Modi’s BJP captured 117 of the 182-member state legislature, falling just short of a two-thirds majority; the Congress Party, which leads the coalition that governs the nation, trailed with 59 seats, while 6 seats went to other parties. The results were announced Sunday by the Election Commission of India.

Political analysts said Modi’s unexpectedly wide margin of victory reduced the likelihood that the Congress Party would call early national elections before its five-year term expires in mid-2009. Congress leaders said Sunday that they were disappointed in the election result but played down the importance of the state race for national politics.

Critics of Modi, 57, expressed frustration that he has been returned to office yet again. “This is the dark side to democracy,” said Yogendra Yadav, a political scientist and pollster.

However, as Yadav noted after election results poured in Sunday, the Modi victory was not necessarily a referendum on the violence in 2002. The BJP swept both districts that were affected and unaffected by the riots, as well as rural and urban districts across the state.

Here in the Indian capital, BJP leaders celebrated Modi’s win, even as his rise undoubtedly makes it tougher for the party, the main national opposition, to cast itself as a moderate, centrist organization capable of representing all Indians.

Arun Jaitley, a senior BJP politician, called Modi “a great asset to the party.” The party president, Rajnath Singh, described Gujarat as a “model state.” A bachelor and teetotaler who began his career as a full-time volunteer with the hard-line Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Modi managed to buck a powerful tradition of anti-incumbency in this country.

Despite several high-profile defections from his state party and the enmity of some Hindu nationalist groups that had backed him in the past, he turned the election into a stark referendum on himself. In one of the leitmotifs of his campaign, his supporters donned grinning Modi masks.

In an apparent bid to render himself as a candidate with broad appeal, Modi cast himself as an avatar of economic development, rather than Hindu supremacy, by emphasizing his record on water and electricity projects, for example.

Similarly, his rivals in the Congress Party seemed to tiptoe around the memory of the 2002 religious violence, apparently wary of alienating their own Hindu supporters, choosing instead to hammer Modi’s economic record. The Congress also joined forces with BJP defectors, including those accused of complicity in the 2002 violence; the tactic yielded virtually no benefits at the polls.

Only at the tail end of the campaign did the rhetoric heat up, with the Congress Party chief, Sonia Gandhi, label Modi’s government “merchants of death.” Modi responded that such name-calling was “Italian mud” that would make him stronger, in a reference to Gandhi’s Italian background, which Hindu hard-liners have deemed unsuitable for an Indian political leader.

Modi, for his part, has invoked issues that play to Gujarat’s religious divide, including a provocative speech that seemed to justify the high-profile police killing of a Muslim man named Sohrabuddin Sheikh. The Election Commission on Saturday rapped both Modi and Gandhi on the knuckles for violating a “moral code” of campaigning.

Violence has not been the exclusive purview of BJP-led governments. As the columnist Tavleen Singh pointed out Sunday in the Indian Express, 3,000 minority Sikhs were butchered here in the capital in 1984, during Congress Party rule, after then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

On Sunday morning, Juzar Bandukwala, a Gujarati Muslim and retired physics professor, watched the election results with his friend, a Catholic priest. He said he felt his spirits sink. “We both felt very let down,” Bandukwala said by telephone from the city of Baroda.

He said he fully expected Modi to win, but not by such a wide margin. He did not think it would make life any better for his fellow Muslims in Gujarat, who he said were already “second-class citizens in this state.”

“It has been a big letdown,” said Bandukwala, who was awarded the Indira Gandhi National Integration Award in November. “I thought he would just barely make it and he would be, in the process, weakened. That did not happen.”

Despite his popularity in Gujarat, Modi’s refusal to apologize for the 2002 riots taints his image outside the state. India’s supreme court has labeled him a “modern-day Nero” – a reference to the legend of the tyrannical Roman emperor fiddling while Rome burned. The United States has denied Modi entry into the country accusing him of “severe violations of religious freedom.”

Source: International Herlad Tribune

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Posted in Politics

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