India's Congress party avenges defeat in Gujarat

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 March, 2003, 12:00am

India's Congress party routed the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) yesterday in a state election, easing the pressure on the opposition's leader Sonia Gandhi.

'It's a most encouraging result. We are very happy,' said Mrs Gandhi, whose party was humiliated by the BJP in polls in December in Gujarat state.

Congress also looks set to take power in Meghalaya, one of three northeastern states which went to the polls last week. But in another, Nagaland, Congress ran second to a regional political alliance, while the BJP recorded its first electoral victories in the state. And in Tripura, the well-entrenched Communist Party of India (Marxist) proved too strong a match for Mrs Gandhi's party.

India's tribal northeastern states, with large Christian populations, are considered marginal to determining the country's main political trends. Himachal Pradesh, though a small province in the northwestern Himalayan foothills, is not. It is predominantly Hindu but both the main parties are well-entrenched there.

The BJP has ruled the state for the last five years, and the party's national leadership had made last week's election a high-priority contest, with both Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani campaigning in the state.

It had also brought in the new political icon of radical Hindus, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, to address election meetings in the state.

Under Mr Modi, the BJP ran a shrilly nationalist campaign in Gujarat, where a year ago at least 2,000 Muslims were killed in communal violence allegedly sponsored by the state government.

The elections in Himachal were seen as a test, albeit on a small scale, of whether the BJP's hardline Hindu agenda could be successfully replicated in other states.

Later this year the BJP and Congress will be contesting elections in four more important states - Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. National elections will be held next year.

The Congress saw its victory in Himachal as a sign that the Gujarat results were 'an aberration'. The party won 39 of the 65 assembly seats, with the BJP coming a poor second with 17 seats.

Congress' leader in the state, Anil Shastri, said: 'The BJP's bluff has been called and the ruling party has miserably failed to replicate Gujarat. The Himachal outcome is a lesson for the BJP that elections cannot always be won on emotive issues, and that what is needed is performance and good governance.'

BJP leader Madan Lal Khurana ascribed his party's defeat to 'organisational weaknesses'.

Though the result in Himachal will dampen the upsurge of radicalism within the BJP, only the bigger state polls later this year will indicate clearly which way India is headed politically.