Indian Vote Defeats Old Politics

One-pole politics falls, but the Hindu-nationalist opposition fails to fill the gap

INDIAN voters have rebuffed the country's three major political parties in state elections across northern India. The results presage deepening political instability in India, as the ruling Congress Party continues to lose its popular appeal with no clear-cut successor rising to take its place.

The elections, which were staggered through November, were the most significant electoral exercise since Hindu-nationalist mobs, led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, destroyed a mosque in central India last Dec. 6.

The BJP had hoped religious issues would clinch these elections and propel it forward as the successor to the Congress. But the BJP suffered the most surprising defeat of this election. The party did far worse than anyone expected, including its senior leaders. The Janata Dal, which ran the government in 1990, also won a negligible number of seats.

The elections were for assemblies in four Indian states and in the capital, New Delhi. The Congress won control of the Himachal Pradesh assembly and is expected to win in Madhya Pradesh, where counting was expected to be completed today. The BJP won in New Delhi. In both Uttar Pradesh - the most populous Indian state - and Rajasthan, the BJP failed to get majorities. A further assembly election will take place in Mizoram state today.

The BJP is a Hindu nationalist political party that has enjoyed skyrocketing popularity in the past decade by championing the rights of Hindus, who comprise 83 percent of India's 844 million population. It is best known for its crusade to replace the Babri mosque at Ayodhya with a Hindu temple. Pro-Hindu groups claimed the mosque occupied the site of a former temple honoring the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.

From winning two seats in parliament in 1984, the BJP now has 119 (out of a total of 545) and is intent on coming to power soon. The next general election must be held by mid-1996.

Analysts considered the destruction of the Babri mosque a defining moment in Indian political history: the first incident in which a major Indian political party directly attacked a minority group, India's 96 million Muslims. It was seen as a harbinger of rising Hindu nationalism - whipped up by the BJP in an attempt to gain political power.

Many are concerned that the party's success would be the death knell of the liberal, secular governance that India has had since it gained independence from Britain in 1947. That secular governance is widely credited with keeping this vast land together.

The elections were the BJP's chance to prove their popularity and to vindicate their stand on the mosque. The assemblies in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh had all been controlled by the BJP until the mosque was destroyed. The government briefly banned two Hindu organizations allied with the BJP and dissolved the assemblies.

In this month's elections, the BJP asked voters in those states to return them to power on the strength of their past record and their religious stand. The voters in three states refused. Although the BJP won the most seats in Rajasthan, it is unclear if it will be able to lead a coalition government there.

``Their one-plank agenda obviously didn't find favor with the voters,'' says Tejbir Singh, editor of the scholarly monthly journal, Seminar.

The BJP's dilemma is that its pro-Hindu message has obvious popular appeal but, if exaggerated, can frighten mainstream voters away. Its leaders have purposely kept their vision of a Hindu India vague. But that leaves the party with little to campaign on. During the recent campaign, candidates harped on the mosque issue, and it failed them.

``In every other way, the BJP simply resembles the other political parties,'' Mr. Singh says. ``People were really interested in having their problems solved. The BJP just ducked the issues.''

The party's failure in Uttar Pradesh was a major setback and an unusual one. Uttar Pradesh, the home of the demolished mosque, until last year was a BJP stronghold.

In this campaign, the party was challenged by a coalition led by a firebrand politician, Mulayam Singh Yadav, representing lower-caste Hindus. Mr. Yadav successfully switched the issue from that of Hindus versus minorities to upper castes versus lower, or, in the Indian context, Hindu haves versus Hindu have-nots.

``The backward castes and Harijans [untouchables] have come up in a big way in the whole north and northwest India, says Chandra Prakash Bhambri, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

``Hindu society is in great flux, which is reflected in two opposite assertions. One is through religion, which is being intensified by the BJP and is based on hatred of others,'' he says. ``The other is society asserting itself against the Brahminical caste system: People no longer accept the old social system. The BJP has been defeated in this election by that trend.''

The performance by the Congress shows its continuing deterioration. Without a drastic upturn in its fortunes or leadership, analysts say the party will have trouble competing with the BJP in a general election. From its position as the single pole in Indian political life, the Congress now is just another party of fluctuating fortunes.

``What we are witnessing is the final collapse of the Congress Party,'' Singh says. ``The BJP has been the main beneficiary. They are filling in that vacuum.''

Dr. Bhambri sees the Congress becoming increasingly irrelevant: ``The Harijans and other backward castes have emerged on the political horizon and constitute one of the two poles in Indian politics. But the BJP will continue to be the other pole.''

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