- The Washington Times - Monday, December 16, 2002

AHMEDABAD, India The ruling Hindu nationalist party yesterday swept state elections in the western state of Gujarat a landslide seen as a challenge to the country's secular traditions.
The Bharatiya Janata Party won 126 seats, gaining control of two-thirds of the 182-seat assembly in Gujarat, where about 1,000 people died early this year in the worst Hindu-Muslim rioting in the state in a decade.
The BJP leader in Gujarat, Narendra Modi, retained his position as the state's chief minister and his assembly seat in the Maninagar district of Ahmedabad, the commercial capital. He has been criticized for saying that the Hindu revenge attacks against Muslims were understandable and for doing too little to stop the violence.
The people were killed in three months of violence that began in late February after a Muslim mob set fire to a train car in the town of Godhra, killing 60 Hindus.
Underscoring continued tension, victory parades after the announcement of the election results provoked clashes in two towns.
The BJP, led by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, 77, heads India's ruling 19-party national coalition. It has held power since 1998 and will face national elections by 2004.
The party lost four state elections this year. The win in Gujarat makes Mr. Modi, 52, a hero with the BJP's most hard-line wing and its Hindu nationalist allies.
One of those allies is the World Hindu Council, or the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which wants the world's largest democracy to become a Hindu nation a policy referred to as Hindutva, or "Hindu-ness" and drop its 55-year tradition of secular government.
"Now politics in India will be based on Hindutva," United News of India quoted council leader Praveen Togadia as saying.
Opposition parties said that they feared the win in Gujarat would prompt the BJP to play on religious differences to improve their chances in a series of upcoming elections votes in 10 states next year and the 2004 national election.
The opposition Congress party, which won 51 seats, accused the BJP of exploiting ill will against minority Muslims to garner support among the Hindu majority. "People have responded to the BJP's strident Hindu-nationalist campaign," said Shankersinh Vaghela, the Congress head in Gujarat.
"The BJP's victory is a setback for the cause of secular democracy," said D. Raja, leader of the Communist Party of India.
Mr. Vajpayee said that the Congress party was "harping on communalism," while the BJP was "trying not to." He told party workers yesterday that the voters had "given us a chance to change the map of Gujarat, to make it the base for preparing for elections in other states."
Mr. Modi, 52, attended a rally last week at which local BJP officials said that Muslims who make up 13 percent of India's population were traitors and should go to Pakistan. But he called for reconciliation yesterday.
"For the sake of God, for the sake of Allah, stop dividing Gujarat," he said.
BJP supporters celebrated the victory by exploding firecrackers at party headquarters in Ahmedabad, shouting, "Long live the BJP."
But the festivities were marred when rival mobs hurled stones at each other before police dispersed them with tear gas in parts of the city.
Police also used tear gas and imposed a curfew in Vadodara, 80 miles southeast of Ahmedabad, saying that Muslims threw bricks at a BJP parade and that Muslim-owned shops were burned down.

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