Mumbai Attacks Give Boost to Hindu Right-Wing

As India's security and intelligence forces work in the coming days to find the identity of the terrorists who attacked the country's financial capital, Indians in several states across the country will head for the polls to choose members of their state assemblies. The states of Delhi and Mizoram hold elections on Saturday, Rajasthan in the northwest will vote on Dec. 4, and Jammu and Kashmir is holding an ongoing election through Dec. 24th. These states, together with Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, which also polled this month, account for over 180 million of the country's 1.1 billion population.

Because the latest assault on Mumbai may have heightened fears among voters over their own safety, the politics of a considerable swath of the country could lurch rapidly to the right—with big implications for the growing tensions between Hindus and Muslims. These local elections could set the stage for a similar shift in national elections to be held sometime before May 2009.

The recent violence is a boon to the right-wing Hindu dominated Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Even before the latest violence, a series of blasts across the country claiming at least 200 lives this year had already helped the BJP, which has flagged terrorism as an issue in the campaign. Even as the security forces battled the terrorists holed in Mumbai, the BJP had begun to use the opportunity to point to a weak government "soft" on terrorism. Frontpage newspaper adverts in Delhi on Friday, the day before the city goes to the polls, said the incident shows that the ruling Congress-led government is "unwilling and incapable" of dealing with terrorism. BJP leaders on the stump seized the opportunity. "There's an immediate reaction from people on the Mumbai siege, and the feedback has been very positive for the party," said a senior BJP member in Delhi to the Times of India. "Our challenge will be to convert this outrage into votes for the BJP."

The BJP was on a winning streak even before Mumbai was attacked. Since last year, it has come to power in some large states like Karnataka, Punjab and Gujarat and ousted the ruling Indian National Congress from Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The Congress party has already been reeling from a strong anti-incumbency feeling that has plagued Indian elections since 1990 and the global economic downslide; the Mumbai attacks might just be the last straw, say analysts. The Congress party will most likely lose the state-assembly elections and perhaps fall in national elections next year. The violence might also affect foreign investors' confidence in India and revenues from tourism, only adding to voters' woes against the ruling party.

The attacks could also strengthen the hand of the nation's Hindu majority at the expense of its 150 million Muslims. The BJP's candidate for prime minister, Lal Krishna Advani, was responsible for leading the Hindu activists that tore down the 16th century Babri Mosque in 1992, resulting in Hindu-Muslim riots across the country. Although Advani was later cleared of criminal charges, the BJP has tried to fashion itself as the champion of Hindus. If the men who terrorized Mumbai are linked to any sort of Islamist extremist outfit, as most media reports suggest, it will only strengthen the BJP. The Mumbai attacks might also divert attention away from the recent reports of possible links between BJP-associated Hindu nationalist organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and suspected Hindu terrorists—a first for a mainstream Indian party. The BJP has denounced a probe into these links, initiated by the ruling Congress party, as a political ploy to shift blame from the government's failure to curb militants. The latest terrorist attack gives the BJP's accusations further impetus.

In the aftermath of the attacks, few experts doubt that India needs to do much to increase its counterterrorism and intelligence capabilities. Now we can expect the passage of more populist measures, such as stronger anti-terror laws along the lines of the U.S. Patriot Act. The Congress-led government had repealed the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 2004, after allegations that officials were abusing their powers, but calls for such laws by the opposition will now become stronger.