India Votes for Secularism

Article excerpt

At sunset May 13, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee conceded defeat in parliamentary elections that saw his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP, which had led the ruling National Democratic Alliance, suffer massive and unexpected losses.

India, the world's largest democracy, voted decisively for secularism, not religious fundamentalism. India's 670 million voters also voted for basic needs--roti-kapda-makaan (food, clothing and housing)--over economic liberalism. Indian voters handed the "Secular Front" (now renamed "United Progressive Alliance") led by the Congress Party a landslide electoral victory and dashed the Hindu right's hopes of winning another term as a parliamentary majority.

The gains of the Secular Front are remarkable. Congress--the party of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru--and its allies won 216 seats in the 539-seats Lok Sabha (parliament).

These elections were historic. In election campaigns nationwide, contentious issues were raised, foremost among which was secularism versus religious fundamentalism. Secularism and people's power won the day.

Religious fanaticism gained ground in the 1990s when the BJP became a major player in Indian politics. During the campaign, the BJP routinely pushed communal issues that had earlier led to bloodshed. A highly sensitive issue is the construction of a Hindu mandir (temple) over the Babri masjid (mosque) that was destroyed in Ayodhya in 1992 at the instigation of BJP leaders such as L.K. Advani, the deputy prime minister under Vajpayee.

BJP leaders promised to construct a temple over the ruins of the mosque. Indians, however, seem tired of the mandir issue and prefer peace.

The Ayodhya issue polarized Hindus and Muslims, and ultimately led to the 2002 "Gujarat carnage," communal violence in western India that saw hundreds of people burned, raped and murdered.

Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, reaped rich dividends in state elections in late 2002 by creating fear and factions among citizens. Hoping to capitalize on the communal divide in national elections, too, the BJP commissioned Modi to campaign in more than 50 rallies. His vituperative speeches hardly influenced voters. The Congress Party met with substantial successes in Gujarat, where it secured 12 out of 24 seats, a marked improvement over previous performances.

In these elections many parties either parted company with the BJP because of its fundamentalist stand or joined hands with Congress to support secularism. Of the former, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of south India's Tamil Nadu led its Democratic People's Alliance as a Congress ally and won all its 35 contests routing the alliance formed by the BJP and the party of the imperious Jayalalithaa, the state chief minister and southern power broker. …