India election analysis: Hindu nationalism loses its appeal

by - 22nd May 2009

Supporters celebrating Congress' victoryThe results of India’s fifteenth parliamentary elections clearly show that divisive issues related to religion do not cut the ice with the voters any longer.

In the elections held in five rounds between April 16 and May 13, the Indian National Congress, popularly known as the Congress Party, and its allies under the aegis of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won 262 of the 543 parliamentary seats.

Having received the mandate, the new government of the UPA, which had showcased a progressive and secular agenda, was sworn in this evening (22 May) for its second five-year term. Manmohan Singh will continue as Prime Minister.

With the support of 315 Members of Parliament – 262 of the UPA and 43 from other parties extending support - the UPA has a comfortable majority.

On the other hand, the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a leading party of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that contested the general elections offering a mixed bag of development and Hindu nationalism, won only 160 seats. They will sit in opposition.

The mood in the BJP has been sombre since the results were announced on May 16.

Reports the DNA newspaper: ‘Office bearers have become a rare sight and senior leaders are spotted once in a blue moon. The media room has been lying locked for three days now. The sight is a far cry from the days before the election results when the party held daily media briefings.

The people of India rejected LK Advani, BJP's prime ministerial candidate‘But today, its half-a-dozen spokespersons are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps, the BJP feels that meeting the media would make things worse as the party is yet to recover from the shock of its electoral defeat... The leaders are evading not just the media and the people but even their own cadre.’

It’s not that BJP leaders did not know that their party’s image as a bunch of extremist and exclusivist ideologues was counter-productive. It’s the extent of the damage that this persona caused that has shocked them.

The results reveal that the BJP’s politics of communalism worked locally, but proved costly and counter-productive at the national level.

With the use of contentious communal issues, the BJP has made some of the central states of the country, also known as the Hindi (language) heartland, and a few states in the east and the west its strongholds.

The Hindu nationalist party did well in six states, most of which fall in this region and are infamous for persecuting minorities, mainly Muslims and Christians.

In Chattisgarh state, the BJP bagged ten seats, leaving only one for the Congress party. In Madhya Pradesh state, it won 16, and the Congress party only 12.
Similarly, in Himachal Pradesh state, the BJP got three of the four seats. In Jharkhand, it won eight, and the Congress party only one. In Gujarat, the BJP got 15, and the Congress party 11.

More recently, the BJP has gained clout also in the south Indian state of Karnataka, where the party had a fairly good showing with 19 of the 28 seats.

But in a country with 29 states, faring well in merely six is not enough.

The best example of the BJP’s mistake in using Hindu nationalism for electoral gains is the eastern state of Orissa, where it incited a spate of anti-Christian attacks last year.

In Orissa, elections were held for the 21 parliamentary seats and for the 147 state assembly seats simultaneously. And the BJP had a terrible showing in both.

Narendra Modi, an icon of Hindu nationalism, was BJP's star campaignerIn Kandhamal district, which bore the brunt of last year’s anti-Christian mayhem, the BJP won two of the three allotted assembly seats for the district. These were G Udayagiri and Balliguda constituencies, indicating how cut off from the rest of Orissa these deprived locations are.

Altogether, the BJP won just seven of the 147 Orissa state assembly seats. The local party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which had severed its 11-year-old ties with the BJP less than a month before the elections, got the people’s mandate with 109.

Moreover, the BJP failed to win a single one of the 21 parliamentary constituencies in Orissa as opposed to the BJD’s 14, and Congress Party’s six.

The violence in Kandhamal began after local BJP leaders falsely accused local Christians of killing their leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, assassinated by Maoists in August 2008.

More than 127 people died in horrific violence that destroyed 315 villages, 4,640 homes, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, besides rendering more than 50,000 homeless.

With the writing on the wall for Hindu nationalism as an election issue, the hope must be that when the BJP leaders recover from their shocking defeat, they will reflect on how real progress is achieved for the people of India.

And those who now govern might realize it is to their political advantage to invest in infrastructure for the remote BJP heartlands.