Hindu nationalists win landslide victory in Indian elections

India's Hindu nationalists scored a resounding victory today in a closely watched state election that was widely seen as a crucial test amid persistent talk of early national elections.

India's Hindu nationalists scored a resounding victory today in a closely watched state election that was widely seen as a crucial test amid persistent talk of early national elections.

The bitter campaign in Gujarat state - fought in the shadow of anti-Muslim riots that left more than 1,000 people dead in 2002 - had many predicting a close race between the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress party, which heads the federal government.

Some in Congress had even been hoping to unseat the BJP and its divisive Gujarat leader, Narendra Modi, whom many in India accuse of standing by idly while Hindu mobs attacked Muslim communities following a mysterious train fire that killed 59 Hindu pilgrims in 2002.

Instead, the BJP won 117 seats in the 182-seat state assembly during the voting, which was held in two phases earlier in December, said the election commission. Congress won 62 seats, and independents took 3 seats, it said.

For the BJP, which governed India from 1998 until 2004, it was a crucial fight in one of its last remaining strongholds. It has ruled Gujarat since 1990.

A loss, or even a poor showing, would have further weakened the party.

It is already contending with a national leadership in disarray and the fact that Hindu nationalism is no longer the ideological draw it was in the 1990s for voters - who these days are more likely to be concerned with seeing the benefits of India's economic boom. It has left wide swaths of the country behind.

"It is a big victory for the BJP and an indicator of how things are going to shape up in future," said senior BJP official M. Venkaiah.

At the moment, however, few consider the party a serious national threat to Congress.

But the Congress party's poor showing is likely to keep the party from calling a snap poll before the end of its term in 2009, and that could give the BJP time to get its house in order.

Though Congress leaders have said they plan to finish out their term, there has been persistent talk the party would opt for early elections because of communist political allies' fierce opposition to a landmark nuclear energy deal with the US.

As news of the state election results spread, throngs of BJP supporters took to the streets to celebrate, setting off fireworks and handing out sweets.

Speaking to thousands of people who gathered at BJP headquarters, Mr Modi said the win was a vindication of his policies and a reaction against the often vitriolic attacks he faced from Congress leaders during the campaign.

"This vote is a positive vote to bring back the government. All the negative propaganda used in the campaign has been rejected by the people," he said.

Congress, conceding defeat, called the vote "a great victory" for Mr Modi - even though the party picked up 10 BJP seats and one independent seat in the election.

Still, Congress played down the vote's national importance. "The victory is certainly limited to Gujarat and a certain kind of divisive politics has worked there," Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi told reporters.

While the election may have national bearing, the campaign was dominated by local issues. Mr Modi played up Gujarat's economic strength - the state reportedly attracted more than 25% of India's total foreign investment of US$69bn (€69bn) last year - and Congress, hoping to lure Muslim voters, repeatedly brought the debate back to the 2002 riots.

Congress leader Sonia Gandhi even called the Modi administration "peddlers of religion and death" during the campaign. The incident that earned her a censure from India's national election commission.

Mr Modi, too, was censured during the campaign for saying that an innocent Muslim shot by the police months earlier deserved to be killed because he was a terrorist.

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