Hindu party wins Gujarat election

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Hindu nationalists won a crucial test of political support yesterday with a resounding victory in a state election, fought in the shadow of anti-Muslim riots that left more than 1,000 people dead in 2002.

The vote in Gujarat, in western India, was also a personal victory for Narendra Modi, arguably India's most divisive politician, who was re-elected to the state's top job.

Throughout the often bitter campaign, Modi cast the election as a referendum on his rule a tenure best known for the riots, which began after a mysterious train fire killed 59 Hindu pilgrims. Many in India say Modi stood idly by as Hindu mobs butchered Muslims, who were blamed for the fire. The United States has since refused to renew his visa because of the riots.

"This vote is a positive vote to bring back the government," he told thousands of supporters yesterday. "All the negative propaganda used in the campaign has been rejected by the people.."

With persistent talk of early elections, analysts had predicted a close race between Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, India's main opposition party, and the Congress party, which heads the federal government.

Some in Congress had even hoped to pull off an upset and unseat the BJP. Instead, the BJP won 117 seats in the 182-seat state assembly in elections held in two phases earlier this month, according results announced Sunday by the election commission. Congress won 62 seats, and independents took 3.

It was a key fight for the BJP in one of its last remaining strongholds. The party governed India from 1998 until 2004, but its national leadership is now in disarray and Hindu nationalism no longer has the ideological draw it had in the 1990s. Voters these days are more concerned with benefiting from India's economic boom, which has left wide swaths of the country behind.

BJP leaders in New Delhi, the capital, celebrated the victory, even though Modi's continued dominance in Gujarat makes it harder for the party to sell itself as an organization that can cut across religious and ideological fault lines in India and govern nationally.

"It is a big victory for the BJP and an indicator of how things are going to shape up in future," said senior BJP official M. Venkaiah.