The Rise of the Hindu Right

By Overdorf, Jason | Newsweek International, December 1, 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Rise of the Hindu Right

Overdorf, Jason, Newsweek International

Byline: Jason Overdorf

Upcoming elections in India could help usher an even more nationalist BJP back into power.

It's election season in India, and that's bad news for the hapless Congress party. Six states go to the polls in the coming month, in what some experts are calling a bellwether for next year's general election. And though the races are too close to call, some pundits say Congress is likely to fare poorly. But that's not the worst of it. The slack in four of the contests may be taken up by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)--a Hindu nationalist organization that's surging in strength in a new, more aggressive form. In an especially worrisome twist, police say they recently uncovered possible links between BJP-associated Hindu nationalist organizations and suspected Hindu terrorists--a first for a mainstream Indian party.

The BJP's renewed appeal can be explained, at least in part, by timing. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is not known for his political acumen, Congress has lost the last eight state elections in a row. Now the worldwide financial crisis has sent inflation spiraling and slowed growth, further damaging the government's chances. The BJP hopes to capitalize on the bad economic conditions when voters head to the polls in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan this month. While nothing's guaranteed, many observers expect Congress to get trounced. "Their machine is in tatters," says Mahesh Rangarajan, a Delhi University political analyst.

While that's bad for Congress, it wouldn't necessarily be a problem for India--but for two things. First, the state elections could well forecast the fate of the Congress-led ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), in next nationwide poll, which must take place before May 2009. (The UPA's own rural-development minister recently said the state votes represented a "mini general election.") And second, the BJP has taken a nastier turn since it last led the country in 2004.

To get a sense of the shift, consider the BJP's candidate for prime minister this time around. Lal Krishna Advani is an aging rabble-rouser who in the mid-1990s helped gather a huge Hindu mob that tore down the 16th-century Babri Mosque, leading to riots that killed more than 2,000 people (Advani was later cleared of criminal charges). He is far more radical than his predecessor, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who served as prime minister from 1998 to 2004. And Advani's heir apparent is Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi--who has been denied entry to the United States for his alleged role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat that killed more than 1,000. Not long after the riots, Modi warned a crowd that Muslims were trying to erode India's Hindu majority by having many children. "We have to teach a lesson to those who are increasing the population at an alarming rate," he said.

Then there's the alleged terror link. Since Oct. 24, the state of Maharashtra's Anti-Terrorism Squad has arrested 10 Hindu nationalists--including a lieutenant colonel in Army intelligence, a prominent Hindu spiritual leader and a former party worker from the BJP's student wing--for suspected involvement in a 2006 attack previously blamed on Muslim extremists. The case has yet to come to trial and the suspects maintain they are innocent. But the news, if true, would mark the first known terrorist bombing in India's history involving Hindu extremists--rather than Muslim radicals, separatists or Maoist revolutionaries--and the story has shocked the country.

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