Indian voters check advance of Hindu right

MADHYA PRADESH, India's largest state, had long been regarded as an unassailable fortress of right-wing Hindu nationalists. As state assembly elections approached, one member of the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Kailash Joshi, boasted that he would win a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the maximum number of electoral victories in a row.

But when the votes were tallied yesterday, Mr Joshi was on his way to a severe drubbing by an 'unknown' candidate from the ruling Congress party. It was the same pattern across the state, with the BJP trailing far behind the Congress party of the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao. Out of 305 results declared in the 320-seat assembly last night, Congress had won 170, compared with only 56 in 1990.

The defeat in Madhya Pradesh followed other crucial losses for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous Indian state, and in the mountainous Himachal Pradesh. While the Hindu nationalists are assured control over the assembly in the capital, New Delhi, in Rajasthan neither the BJP nor Congress has a majority. Both parties claimed they could rule with the support of independents.

The crushing losses for the BJP, led by Lal Krishna Advani, in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are the first big setback in the extraordinary rise of the right-wing party. A fringe group in 1988, it became the leading parliamentary opposition party three years later, all by espousing Hindu extremism and anti-Muslim sentiment.

Arjun Singh, a Congress cabinet minister, said that in Madhya Pradesh, voters had 'taken a decisive step in checkmating the communal and fascist forces'. The right-wing party was blamed for backing Hindu zealots who destroyed a mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, a year ago. Communal riots followed across northern India, and the Prime Minister dismissed four state governments run by the BJP.

The poor showing by the BJP was ascribed to its failure to convince poor rural Indians that it was capable of lessening their many economic burdens and correcting the social injustices they face.