Hardline Hindus close to poll victory in India

SONIA GANDHI'S epic 30,000-mile campaign has saved her party, Congress, from disappearing down the electoral plughole, but the Hindu nationalist BJP and its allies have established themselves as the pre- eminent force in Indian politics.

That is the tentative conclusion being drawn 12 hours after counting began yesterday morning in India's gargantuan general election.

On present trends the BJP will, as in the election of 1996, emerge as the largest party but without an overall majority. In 1996, it formed the government but fell 13 days later for want of coalition partners.

This time it has struck unprincipled but clever deals with some regional parties, and has manifested a new determination which means it is certain to fight harder to hang on to power. It is therefore safe to predict that Atal Behari Vajpayee, the BJP's 72-year-old member for Lucknow, who led the country during those 13 days in 1996, will be sworn in for a second term as prime minister in the next couple of days.

If the BJP either defies predictions and wins outright or succeeds in putting together a stable coalition government, the election of 1998 will turn out to have been a watershed. Hindu nationalists have been around for a century, and the BJP has been an increasingly formidable political force since the 1980s.

If they can now form a stable government they will have a chance to demonstrate that they have the discipline and coherence to replace Congress as India's natural party of government.

As "secularism" was one of the most important pillars of independent India, the Hindutva, or "cultural nationalism", of the BJP has always been anathema to the Indian establishment, threatening to split the nation into mutually antagonistic tribes. That fear remains.

As one BJP enthusiast put it artlessly yesterday: "It's time the real Indians were given an advantage over the foreigners here" - meaning not only 150 million Muslims but large and ancient minorities of Sikhs, Parsis and Christians, too.

The high-water mark of rampant "cultural nationalism" was in 1992, when BJP leaders were keenly involved in the demolition of a mosque at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh which stood on a sacred Hindu site.

Since then, however, and especially in the present campaign, they have moderated their language and aims, striking alliances with Sikhs, Tamils and old-fashioned Socialists. Their primary constituency has been disaffected, high-caste Hindus, particularly Brahmins, in the countryside, and small shopkeepers and other members of the lower middle class in the cities.

But as their claim to power grows in plausibility, more and more liberals and upper middle class voters have been tempted to give them a chance.

Five years of a stable BJP government, it is argued, could hardly be worse than the chronic instability of the past nine years, which have seen only one government complete its five-year term.

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