The Rise and Fall of the BJP; in Little More Than 20 Years, the Hindu Right Had Gone from Being on the Fringe of Indian Politics to One of the Nation's Most Powerful Parties. How Were They Finally Defeated?

By Srinivas, Shefali | Colorlines Magazine, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

The Rise and Fall of the BJP; in Little More Than 20 Years, the Hindu Right Had Gone from Being on the Fringe of Indian Politics to One of the Nation's Most Powerful Parties. How Were They Finally Defeated?


Srinivas, Shefali, Colorlines Magazine


Human rights activist Teesta Setalvad counts May 13, 2004 as one of the happiest days of her life. It was the day that the Indian National Congress scored a resounding victory in the Parliamentary elections, defeating the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its governing coalition.

The revival of the Congress party is the comeback story of the decade. The BJP's rapid ascendancy throughout the 1990s, with its politics of Hindu supremacy had caught India's progressives unaware. From the demolition of the Babri Mosque by Hindu mobs in 1992 to organized attacks on Christian missionaries and the Muslim community--the growth of the BJP had been accompanied by some of the worst human rights violations that India had ever seen. These politics of hate culminated in the Gujarat massacres of 2002. India had not seen riots on this scale for nearly a decade, since the aftermath of Babri Mosque. But unlike the 1992 riots, the Gujarat riots were covered live on 24-hour-television news channels. Though the national press stepped up its criticism, the BJP still won assembly elections in Gujarat six months later, much to the dismay of activists like Setalvad who had been working to rehabilitate victims of the riots.

"The decade stretching from the fall of the Babri Masjid in 1992 to the post-Godhra victory of the BJP in December 2002 has been a period of progressive regression in India's profile as a secular society and state," says Rajeev Dhavan, a Supreme Court lawyer in India.

In 2003, using tax money, the BJP blitzed the media with its multimillion-dollar "India Shining" ad campaign in preparation for the Parliamentary elections. BJP leaders took credit for the economic growth rate, the software industry and even the Indian cricket team's victory over Pakistan. They launched a campaign against the foreign origins of the Congress party's Italian-born president, Sonia Gandhi. Even the early exit polls were tipped in favor of the Hindu nationalists. Therefore, its defeat came as a complete surprise to political pundits.

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"The results were marvelous because they show that despite all the hype and propaganda and the massive domination established over the media by the BJP, a large part of the Indian electorate still thinks for itself and tries to learn from its own experience," says activist and academic Jairus Banaji.

The election results were also an indicator of the deepening disparity between India's elite, who were reaping the benefits of the BJP's "reforms," and the majority of India's rural and urban poor to whom the slogan "India Shining" sounded like a bad joke. Analysts across the board agreed that the BJP lost because it had failed to balance economic growth with social equity.

"There is almost no government in the country that has ill-treated its farmers and not paid the price, that has hurt agriculture and not been punished. India has never seen so many farmers' suicides as in the past six to eight years," says P. Sainath, an award-winning journalist who has written extensively about India's poorest states. In his analysis of the elections, Sainath said the Indian electorate had also rejected the BJP's politics of divisiveness and intolerance. "Even in Gujarat, the Congress party seems to have made its gains in the areas worst hit by the bloodshed of 2002. It suggests that many Hindus, too, have counted the costs of the past few years."

In a press conference following the elections, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee admitted that not dismissing Narendra Modi as chief minister of Gujarat after the riots was a big mistake. "The impact of the Gujarat riots was felt nationwide. This was unexpected and hurt us badly," Vajpayee said.

Vajpayee has remained the moderate face of the BJP since it assumed power in 1998. But his deputy, L K Advani, often referred to as the architect of the BJP's meteoric rise to power, pushes the Hindutva hard line. …

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