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Cricket wars

International | INDIAN ELECTIONS: Sweet victory over rival Pakistan in cricket-crazy India may bolster the ruling party's political hopes

Issue: "Why the long face, Fidel?," May 1, 2004

After five weeks of combat came sweet, smooth victory. India's beloved national cricket team won its Test series against Pakistan 2-1 on April 16, the first such tournament on their nuclear enemy's home soil in 14 years. Indians celebrated with firecrackers, drums, and dancing in the streets.

Sports-fan depression followed. "Is there life after cricket?" wailed one Times of India headline. (Not likely, said one man-not watching India play cricket was like losing air conditioning in the suffocating monsoon season.)

Managing polls in the world's largest democracy could be an athletic feat itself, but four days after the win, Indians swung their attention to another national competition: parliamentary elections. Over four days-April 20 and 26, and May 5 and 10-India's 675 million registered voters are scheduled to cast ballots.

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Planting the cricket tournament so close to the election was a political calculation for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). If India won, it would pad the good vibes millions already feel over the economy: Generous monsoon rains last year are fueling an 8 percent growth rate in the mostly agricultural subcontinent; interest rates are low; and the outsourcing industry is creating 500 jobs a day for a prospering middle class.

Relations have also thawed dramatically with Pakistan over the last few months. The two nuclear-armed countries have gone to war three times since 1947, the animosity largely arising over the disputed territory of Kashmir. In December 2001, five men believed to be Pakistani-backed Kashmiri militants attacked the Indian parliament. Tensions peaked as both sides massed troops along their border, imposed diplomatic sanctions, and cut air links between the two countries.

But last April Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called for talks with Pakistan, leading to a détente that culminated in the first official ceasefire between the two sides in decades. The two leaders will pursue formal, wide-ranging talks after India's election. No one should underestimate the power of cricket diplomacy. The warm welcome India's cricket team and fans received in Pakistan has pumped up goodwill for negotiating on life-and-death issues. Mr. Vajpayee said, "Cricket balls have taken the place of cannonballs" between the two sides.

Despite its successes, and a confident "India Shining" campaign slogan, a blanket BJP win is not guaranteed. The party already heads an unwieldy 22-member coalition in parliament, and will likely have to cobble together another one following this year's election. The old secular-socialist Congress Party, which ruled until the mid-1990s after independence, also has its own coalition that could snag more seats.

"A lot will depend on what happens at the state level," said Gautam Adhikari, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "The BJP is likely to retain dominance over the northwestern parts of the country, but I don't think it will be able to extend influence in other parts."

And then there's the BJP's Hindutva, or "Hindu-ness," ideology, which promotes conforming all of Indian culture and public policy to Hindu principles. The party itself is the political wing of the Sangh Parivar, a clearinghouse of Hindu extremist groups that view other religions as foreign invaders. Minority Muslims and Christians blame the BJP's links to hardliners for religious violence over the last five years.

The deadliest flare-up saw Hindus kill almost 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat state in 2002. The attackers were retaliating for Muslims' setting fire to a passenger train and killing 58 Hindus. Christians have also endured hundreds of attacks in the last five years, involving rapes, killings, torture, and destruction of church property. Two states, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, have also outlawed "forcible" conversions, laws Christians believe will be used to limit their churches and charities. With local officials delaying justice, Hindu extremists would likely view a BJP victory as a bright green light for more persecution.

Even with few prosecutions for state-level violence, Indians generally view Mr. Vajpayee himself as a moderate who has reined in the most radical elements of his party. But having to manage a fractious coalition has also forced the prime minister to compromise. "When you're in a coalition, you have to move to the center, it's just the nature of Indian politics," Mr. Adhikari said.

Until the final votes are counted May 13, the election picture remains too hazy for bold predictions. For now, the nation is waiting for one victory-India's over England, when the cricket wars resume in September.

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