It's election season in India, and that's bad news for the hapless Congress party. Six states go to the polls in the coming month, in what some experts are calling a bellwether for next year's general election. And though the races are too close to call, some pundits say Congress is likely to fare poorly. But that's not the worst of it. The slack in four of the contests may be taken up by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—a Hindu nationalist organization that's surging in strength in a new, more aggressive form. In an especially worrisome twist, police say they recently uncovered possible links between BJP-associated Hindu nationalist organizations and suspected Hindu terrorists—a first for a mainstream Indian party.
The BJP's renewed appeal can be explained, at least in part, by timing. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is not known for his political acumen, Congress has lost the last eight state elections in a row. Now the worldwide financial crisis has sent inflation spiraling and slowed growth, further damaging the government's chances. The BJP hopes to capitalize on the bad economic conditions when voters head to the polls in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan this month. While nothing's guaranteed, many observers expect Congress to get trounced. "Their machine is in tatters," says Mahesh Rangarajan, a Delhi University political analyst.
While that's bad for Congress, it wouldn't necessarily be a problem for India—but for two things. First, the state elections could well forecast the fate of the Congress-led ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), in next nationwide poll, which must take place before May 2009. (The UPA's own rural-development minister recently said the state votes represented a "mini general election.") And second, the BJP has taken a nastier turn since it last led the country in 2004.
To get a sense of the shift, consider the BJP's candidate for prime minister this time around. Lal Krishna Advani is an aging rabble-rouser who in the mid-1990s helped gather a huge Hindu mob that tore down the 16th-century Babri Mosque, leading to riots that killed more than 2,000 people (Advani was later cleared of criminal charges). He is far more radical than his predecessor, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who served as prime minister from 1998 to 2004. And Advani's heir apparent is Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi—who has been denied entry to the United States for his alleged role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat that killed more than 1,000. Not long after the riots, Modi warned a crowd that Muslims were trying to erode India's Hindu majority by having many children. "We have to teach a lesson to those who are increasing the population at an alarming rate," he said.
Then there's the alleged terror link. Since Oct. 24, the state of Maharashtra's Anti-Terrorism Squad has arrested 10 Hindu nationalists—including a lieutenant colonel in Army intelligence, a prominent Hindu spiritual leader and a former party worker from the BJP's student wing—for suspected involvement in a 2006 attack previously blamed on Muslim extremists. The case has yet to come to trial and the suspects maintain they are innocent. But the news, if true, would mark the first known terrorist bombing in India's history involving Hindu extremists—rather than Muslim radicals, separatists or Maoist revolutionaries—and the story has shocked the country. Rather than disown the suspects, however, BJP grandees have leapt to their defense. On Nov. 10, party president Rajnath Singh said that "whosoever believes in nationalism cannot be a terrorist," and on Nov. 12 he complained that "this government is targeting Hindu spiritual leaders without evidence … We find this investigation very suspicious."
The explanation for the BJP's rightward tilt lies with its increased reliance on its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). During the Vajpayee years and in the run-up to the 2004 national elections, the BJP generally tried to divorce itself from anti-Muslim vitriol and the RSS. But the debacle of that campaign—in which Congress won a stunning victory despite the consensus that the BJP had presided over an economic boom—gave nationalists the upper hand. The BJP's defeat reminded its leadership that it remains a cadre-based party united by its ideology, not a charismatic leader. And the bulk of those cadres come from the 4.5 million-member RSS. The RSS advocates a philosophy known as Hindutva and favors turning India into a Hindu state (the country's population is 80 percent Hindu) and designating religious minorities as second-class citizens. Without its nationalist ideology it wouldn't be clear what the BJP stood for. On most issues, the party's positions are actually very similar to Congress's (both parties advocate further economic reform and increased ties to the United States, for example).
The RSS is now suspected of connections to terrorism. Some of the current suspects belong to a heretofore-unknown group called the Abhinav Bharat, which is not officially linked to the RSS but espouses an identical Hindutva ideology. And the Anti-Terrorism Squad claims to have established links between the suspects and official RSS outfits. "You actually have for the first time evidence linking all kinds of front organizations of the [RSS family]," says political analyst Praful Bidwai. Since the '90s there have been several incidents of "accidental explosions at bomb-making operations run by [Hindu] fanatics," Bidwai says. "But this is the first time … the RSS has been linked to a conspiracy."
You might assume that such ties, unless repudiated, would hurt the RSS's popularity and the BJP's electoral chances in India, which is the world's largest democracy and a secular one at that. Unfortunately, that's not how things have transpired in the past. In fact, some of the BJP's prior electoral victories followed bouts of incendiary anti-Muslim hatred and actual violence. Vajpayee was first elected prime minister following the Babri Mosque riots, for example, and the mayhem in Gujarat in 2002 helped Modi win a thumping victory in that state, even though—or because—he was blamed for delaying police action to protect Muslims. Now, by casting the government's terror investigation as an anti-Hindu conspiracy, the BJP hopes to repeat this formula today and unite the faithful. "The various wings of the [RSS]—and it's a vast organization—will rally together," says Rangarajan.
If the electorate follows suit, it could lead to another big victory for the BJP—but a big step backward for India as a whole.