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Sunday, 15 December, 2002, 20:48 GMT
Gujarat: BJP's 'testing ground'
Deputy PM LK Advani (left) and BJP President Venkaiah Naidu at presser in Delhi
Party leaders are delighted at their new mandate


The BJP's landslide victory in the Gujarat state elections comes as a massive boost to the party.

The victory in one of the party's traditional stronghold stems a flow of recent electoral defeats.
The Congress has often appeared to be a B-team of the BJP

Ajay Umath, Editor, Gujarat Samachar

But the result also signals a move to the right for the party, with hardliners now firmly in control.

More state elections are due in India next year, which will give the BJP more time to test its hardline stance ahead of general elections slated for 2004.

Spreading its wings

Gujarat has always been a strong support base for the BJP and is often described as a testing ground for its Hindu nationalist agenda.

With Muslims making up less than 10% of the state's population, the party has worked hard to unite the Hindu vote in its favour.

In the past, the Congress has benefited by splitting the Hindu votes by appealing to disadvantaged groups in the state as a bloc- Muslims, lower caste Hindus and tribal communities.

The BJP and hardline Hindu groups allied to it have managed to break that hold.

For the first time since independence, the BJP has won massive support in areas dominated by tribals or indigenous peoples.

These were areas which had been badly hit by religious riots earlier this year, pitting the tribals and lower caste Hindus against the Muslims.

And earlier, it was here that hardline Hindu groups took out a campaign against Christian organisations, who they blamed for forcibly proselytising the tribals.

Tactical errors

Many observers also say the Congress erred by letting the BJP set the agenda.

"The Congress has often appeared to be a B-team of the BJP," says Ajay Umath, editor of the Gujarati language Gujarat Samachar newspaper.

The Congress campaign was led by a former BJP politician, Shankarsingh Vaghela.

"Throughout the elections, the Congress played down its secular credentials and instead tried to steal the BJP's Hindu agenda. And it failed," says Mr Umath.

The party is also said to have suffered because in many constituencies it chose to nominate relatives of senior leaders over more deserving candidates.

Hardline agenda

The BJP's victory also strengthens the position of its state leader, Narendra Modi.

Mr Modi was picked to head the party in Gujarat to arrest its apparent political decline in the state about a year ago.

He was accused by many of playing a partisan role during the Hindu-Muslim riots earlier this year.

The controversial chief minister single-handedly led his party's campaign in the state, becoming the rallying point for pro- and anti-BJP supporters.

National-level BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and deputy premier LK Advani played a limited role during the campaign.

The charismatic Mr Modi is now firmly established as a mass leader in his own right and could well harbour ambitions of taking on a larger role in national politics.

Observers also say that his hardline politics may be replayed by the BJP in coming state and national elections.

Limited appeal

But critics argue that the Gujarat model cannot easily be replicated elsewhere.

"You cannot juxtapose Gujarat onto the rest of India," says political analyst Devendra Yadav.

Gujarat has always been seen to be more inclined towards a Hindu nationalist agenda.

And Muslims as well as other disadvantaged groups are politically far more influential in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, India's political heartland.

It is also not clear if the Gujarat result could damage the standing of the prime minister in his own party, something that has often been suggested.

Mr Vajpayee is seen as a moderating influence in the party and many hawkish BJP members have suggested that there is little space for his politics in their eyes.

But he is also the BJP politician with the widest appeal outside the party, something that is crucial in holding together the unwieldy coalition government in Delhi.

That makes it quite unlikely that he would have to give way to someone else anytime soon.

Gujarat conflict in-depth

Key vote

Tense state

Background

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See also:

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