Page last updated at 16:40 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 17:40 UK

Uncertain future for India's BJP

BJP supporters wearing LK Advani masks
Enthusiastic BJP supporters - but their backing for LK Advani was not enough

India's surprise general election result has come as a major setback for the country's main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. The BBC's Sanjoy Majumder, in Delhi, offers this assessment.

Five years ago, the BJP was left stunned after it was voted out of office, despite being the overwhelming pre-election favourite.

During the course of his campaign this time, the BJP's veteran leader and candidate for prime minister, LK Advani, told me that the party lost in 2004 because of "overconfidence".

This latest defeat has bruised the BJP, leaving it searching for answers about its identity and leadership.

What is hurting the BJP the most is its loss to the Congress in a number of states where the two were pitted in a straight fight, and where the BJP had hoped to benefit from its strong local leadership.

Except for the southern state of Karnataka, where the BJP trounced the Congress, the party fared poorly in its strongholds of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi.

Slipped badly

Little wonder that a senior party official, Arun Jaitley, described the BJP's performance as "below expectations".

LK Advani
At 81, LK Advani is keen to stand down as the opposition leader

More significantly, it has slipped badly in the political heartland state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends more MPs to parliament than any other.

This was the state where the BJP had built its political success on the back of its Hindu nationalist campaign to build a temple at the site of the disputed 16th Century Ayodhya mosque.

It was a movement that polarised the state along religious lines, and generated huge electoral dividends for the BJP.

Now the party is in fourth place in the state, while the Congress is on an upswing.

Under the leadership of the previous prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the BJP had tried to position itself as an old-style conservative party, right-of-centre on issues such as the economy or national security.

It's a position that Mr Advani also tried to push in these elections.

Despite attempts to play it down, the BJP is haunted by its Hindu nationalist past - and present.

Atal Behari Vajpayee
Atal Behari Vajpayee was right of centre on the economy and security

Nowhere is this more evident than in the eastern state of Orissa. After a wave of attacks on the Christian minority in the state last year, blamed on radical Hindu groups with ties to the BJP, the party's regional ally, the BJD, severed ties.

The BJD not only performed strongly in the parliamentary elections, it also swept back to power in Orissa, which held simultaneous local elections.

The BJP, in contrast, failed to win a single seat.

So what does this mean for the BJP's future?

In the running

For a start, it is facing a crisis of leadership.

LK Advani is keen to step down as leader of the opposition, as part of his eventual retirement from politics.

At 81, this was seen as his last chance at securing the top job, and it is surely the end of his political career.

He is being persuaded to stay on, however, mainly to prevent a succession battle.

At least four senior BJP politicians are in the running for his job, and there are fears that a public squabble for the position could damage the party further.

Some in the BJP want it to swing further to the right, shedding its attempt at moderation. They want it to return to its "core" Hindu nationalist agenda - including building the temple at Ayodhya, pushing for a common civil code between Hindus and Muslims, and taking a hard line on similar issues.

It's a position that could well be endorsed by the party's ideological fountainhead, the RSS, which is concerned that the BJP is losing its focus.

If that happens, the party leadership could well pass to Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat.

Nardendra Modi
Narendra Modi is is not popular with the BJP's allies

Mr Modi has a reputation of being a brilliant administrator and is credited with turning Gujarat into one of the country's most prosperous states. Because of that, he's greatly admired by India's business leaders.

But Mr Modi is also a controversial figure - it was on his watch that in 2002, Gujarat witnessed some of India's worst anti-Muslim riots. At least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed.

His administration was accused of doing little to prevent the violence, and the Supreme Court recently ordered an investigation into his alleged role during the riots.

Still second biggest

He is also completely unacceptable to the BJP's allies, without whom they would find it difficult to form a federal government.

So the party is likely to witness an internal struggle for control in the immediate future.

It can take heart from the fact that, although it has lost this election, the BJP is still India's second largest party.

It has 116 seats to Congress's 206. The next, by a long distance, is the regional Samajwadi Party, with 23 seats.

Now the BJP's leaders have to determine which way they want to take the party.

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Coalition Total
United Progressive Alliance 262
National Democratic Alliance 158
Third Front 76
Fourth Front 27
Other Parties 20

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