India's ruling Hindu nationalists hit by election defeats in three states

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India's ruling Hindu nationalist party was last night setting up emergency meetings after its disastrous performance in state elections across the north of the country.

The Bharatiya Janata Party lost control of three states, including the most politically important one, Uttar Pradesh. Widely regarded as the Hindu heartland, Uttar Pradesh returned a hung verdict. The BJP's leaders must now decide whether the party can cobble together support for a state coalition government or resign itself to a spell in opposition.

The rival Congress party swept to victory in the newly created hill state of Uttaranchal and in the wealthy Punjab. Final results from rebellion-torn Manipur, on the Burmese border, are expected today.

Although these state assembly election results do not immediately threaten to topple the BJP-led government, they could seriously undermine the authority of the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, making his job of controlling a multi-party coalition all the more fraught.

Elections in Uttar Pradesh are widely seen as a litmus test of the national political mood. Who controls Uttar Pradesh, they say, controls Delhi. The BJP was hoping to extend its five-year tenure by appealing to nationalist sentiments already inflamed by India's tense stand-off with nuclear rival Pakistan.

Before the polling Mr Vajpayee and his party colleagues had been under increasing pressure to play the nationalist card. Some critics even accused him of cranking up the anti-Pakistani rhetoric to woo the more extreme elements among voters. Hindu hardliners have been increasingly frustrated by their government's refusal to wield real military muscle against Pakistan, after the attack on the Delhi parliament in December.

Though the Indian government accuses Pakistan of supporting an Islamic insurgency in the contested Himalayan state of Kashmir, it has so far bowed to international pressure not to launch an all-out assault on Pakistani territory.

"The BJP tried to make the most of national security and Pakistani-backed terrorism but, in the end, local issues defeated them in Uttar Pradesh," the Indian political commentator Inder Malhotra said. "Politics there are about caste, corruption and crime, and it was the BJP's record in government that people ultimately voted on, not the larger national question."

The BJP's drubbing in Uttar Pradesh is likely to add momentum to the campaign of the so-called "saffron brigade", Hindu zealots who want to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram on the site of a mosque destroyed 10 years ago in the northern city of Ayodhya.