Partial by-election results show that the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the leading opposition party, suffered unexpected defeats in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, India's largest and most populous state. The Hindu nationalists face a close battle in the state of Madhya Pradesh, where vote-counting begins today.
The Congress party of the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, also fared poorly in these states and lost the Delhi assembly elections to the BJP. Several Congress rebels indirectly blamed Mr Rao for his party's poor performance. Mr Rao's lacklustre campaign style failed to lure crowds. Colonel Ram Singh, a cabinet minister, said: 'The very future of the party is at stake and all our workers are not only worried but demoralised.'
The BJP was expelled from four state assembly governments for its role in instigating 250,000 Hindu militants to destroy a Muslim shrine in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, in December last year, which the Hindus claimed was built on the birthplace of their god, Lord Ram.
Communal strife erupted across the country after the mosque's destruction and Mr Rao dismissed the BJP state assemblies.
The Hindu nationalists' failure to recapture power was blamed on the BJP's inability to sustain their wave of Hindu sentiment and anti-Muslim rancour. As one BJP member of parliament, Uma Bharati, explained: 'Everyone would touch the feet of a priest, but if he contested an election he would lose his deposit.'
Vijay Bhaskar Reddy, a senior Congress member, said: 'The people of Uttar Pradesh have taken the mature decision of throwing out fundamentalism once and for all.'
In Uttar Pradesh, which because of its 80 million voters is often the political trendsetter for the country, many Hindus voted not along communal lines but according to caste. Uttar Pradesh will probably be governed by a new coalition between the socialists and a party representing the untouchables, who are at the bottom of Hinduism's complex social hierarchy.
Although 40 per cent of all Indians belong to the lower castes, never before have they flexed their political muscle. Uttar Pradesh's large Muslim population also deserted the Congress party after the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque, and joined the socialist-untouchable coalition, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, a former chief minister.