The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won a massive re-election landslide Sunday in the Indian state of Gujarat, where more than 2,000 people died in communal violence this March. Although the win was expected, the margin of victory—126 of the assembly’s 182 seats—and the rout of the opposition Congress Party, which took only 51 seats, were described as “stupendous” by India’s Hindu.
Most papers attacked the BJP for running a campaign based on hate. Britain’s Guardian said the race centered on the hot-button topic of Muslim terrorism in Pakistan and within Gujarat: “Officials hinted that the state’s Muslim minority, who account for 9% of the population, should consider leaving India for Pakistan. The strategy was shameful, disturbing, and fascist. But it worked brilliantly.” The Financial Times concurred, declaring the campaign, which sought to “exploit the communal antagonism that disfigured the state earlier this year,” “despicable.” The Hindu concluded that the BJP’s strategy of “retaining political power through deliberate and aggressive communal polarisation … has indeed paid off and this is borne out particularly by the fact that the region hit most by the communal rights has returned a sizable number of its candidates.” Meanwhile, the Deccan Herald said the result “shows the decay in the state of the secular tradition both in politics and business, which had a conspicuous presence during India’s epic struggle for freedom.”
Several papers wondered if the result represented a widespread movement away from secularism and tolerance. Calcutta’s Telegraph noted that “if Gujarat signals a trend, a long continuing rightward shift in Indian politics, which has become more enduring with each election, a greater acceptability of a political leadership which no decent society ought to tolerate, then this election will be classed as amongst those which changed India forever.” With elections scheduled in 10 states next year and a general election slated for 2004, the BJP will be pressured to shift rightward. The Financial Times said the party must reject that strategy: “[I]t is vital for [Prime Minister Atal Bihari] Vajpayee to rebuff the extremists and reassert the values of tolerance and secularism in national government. If he fails to do so, the BJP’s coalition partners should pull the rug from under Mr Vajpayee’s feet and bring the government down.”