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BJP revives flagging fortunes

BJP's enthralling win in Gujarat polls has put the party in limelight and it is very much possible that the saffron party can claim a national victory over crisis-stricken Congress in the 2009 general elections.

india Updated: Jan 31, 2008 18:18 IST

A few months ago it was stuck in the doldrums, but now the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged from state poll wins smelling blood as a ruling coalition limps from crisis to crisis before a likely 2009 election.

The new mood was evident at a national meeting of the BJP national council this week as party cadres united behind the new prime ministerial candidate, LK Advani, a former hardliner who now cultivates a moderate image.

"The mood in the BJP is upbeat," one of the leading daily said in an editorial on Thursday. "The cadre is gung-ho."

Obstacles remain for Hindu nationalists to regain the power they lost in 2004, not least a fear among many voters that the BJP, with its concept of "Hindutva" that sees India as more of a Hindu than secular nation, will inflame religious tensions.

India will see a slew of state elections this year, rehearsals for a general election that is likely to pit Congress against the BJP over who can better manage a trillion-dollar economy growing at about nine per cent a year.

The BJP hopes to capitalise on signs that Congress' support may be weakening. While the economy has boomed, the government is perceived as having failed to include hundreds of millions of poor, shown little leadership and failed to push reforms.

Chief Minister Narendra Modi's victory in December in Gujarat -- one of India's most developed states but also one racked with Hindu-Muslim tensions -- has more than anything convinced the BJP that a national victory in now possible.

In speech after speech at the BJP meeting, one word -- "Gujarat" -- was heard over and over again.

"The BJP's victory has major nationwide significance," Advani told party followers, referring to the Gujarat win.

A BJP national win could push India to a more pro-market agenda after years under Congress in which economic reforms have stagnated.

The BJP rose to prominence in the early 1990s on the back of a Hindu-revivalist movement, and ruled India from 1998 to 2004, moderating its hardline rhetoric in a bid to expand its base.

But its 2004 loss to Congress sparked years of infighting. Opinion polls last year showed Congress winning a snap election.

The BJP has now resolved its leadership issue. At the same time Congress has landed in trouble, its confidence eroded after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh retreated from a nuclear deal with the United States due to opposition from his leftist allies.

Swapan Dasgupta, a BJP expert, said the party was going into battle behind Advani. "And they believe that the government's trajectory is going south."

A poster boy emerges

Gujarat has also provided the BJP with a poster boy, the controversial Modi. He is accused of inciting anti-Muslim violence, yet his charisma and fiery speeches appeared to have attracted rather than alienated many voters in the state.

But to win over national voters, he may first have to deal with his past. He is accused of turning a blind eye as chief minister when Hindu mobs killed hundreds of Muslims in 2002.

"He has not done it yet, but if Modi holds out an olive branch to middle-of-the road voters they will flock to him," said Surjit Bhalla, head of Oxus Research and Investments.

"He may be an in-your-face politician, but his development record in Gujarat is impressive."

It contrasts with Congress.

Sonia Gandhi, the Congress head, appeared overshadowed by Modi during the Gujarat election. Where Modi whipped up crowds, Gandhi's rallies were more lacklustre affairs.

After the election she was briefly hospitalised with an infection, amid reports she was exhausted from overwork.

The BJP smells a political vacuum has been created.

"We are basically about development, security and good governance. This was the main focus of our meeting," said BJP vice president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.

Much is focused on winning back middle-class voters. India is also redrawing constituency boundaries to better reflect a growing urban population -- a move that may benefit the BJP's traditional urban middle-class base.

But to win over national voters, he may first have to deal with his past. He is accused of turning a blind eye as chief minister when Hindu mobs killed hundreds of Muslims in 2002.

"He has not done it yet, but if Modi holds out an olive branch to middle-of-the road voters they will flock to him," said Surjit Bhalla, head of Oxus Research and Investments.

"He may be an in-your-face politician, but his development record in Gujarat is impressive."