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Separation of temple & state

International | INDIA: Rise of a secular-minded government in a Hindu-dominated country is good news for Christian and cultural minorities; might it be bad news for economic reforms that are fueling India's free-market resurgence?

Issue: "Memorial Day 2004," May 29, 2004

Hindu pride and prejudice, plot twists and tears, suicide threats and song: India's shock election had all the juicy trimmings of blockbuster from the country's bustling Bollywood film industry. The old independence-era Indian National Congress Party vaulted back to power after an eight-year interregnum, ousting a self-satisfied Bharatiya Janata Party led by Hindu nationalists. Few expected such a power-packed comeback.

Credit for the Congress' victory went to Sonia Gandhi, widow of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and heir by marriage to the first family dynasty. Italian-born and retiring, she avoided politics for eight years after her husband's death in 1991, until party officials begged her to resuscitate the party synonymous with her name. Before the election, she spoke to crowd after crowd in the damp summer heat.

So when she shockingly announced on May 18-five days after polls closed-that she would not be India's next prime minister, the party anguish was loud. Emotional Congress lawmakers resumed the begging, some with tears. Followers outside her home rallied in her support, burning effigies of Hindu nationalists who had vowed to boycott the inauguration of a "foreigner." One supporter threatened to commit suicide if she didn't take the job.

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"I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position that I am in today, I will follow my inner voice," she explained. "Today that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post." Mrs. Gandhi seemed immovable, at least as much as could be expected from an election that dished surprises at every corner. Most shell-shocked by the election season events, however, was incumbent Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who resigned on May 13, the day results were released.

Mr. Vajpayee had confidently campaigned with the slogan "India Shining," in reference to the economy's blistering 8 percent growth rate. Party officials and pundits banked on a high "feel-good factor" among millions of prospering middle- and upper-class Indians. Mr. Vajpayee's chutzpah rankled millions more who are still languishing on less than $1 per day. They stampeded polls to vote for the opposition, snatching defeat from the jaws of what pundits everywhere assumed would be another BJP victory. The BJP saw its share of seats in the 543-member lower house of parliament, or Lok Sabha, shrink from 182 to 138. Several of its crucial coalition-building allies also melted away, while Congress officials carefully gathered their own, gaining 217 seats altogether.

As it became clear that staggering pre-election miscalculations had fattened into large-scale defeat for BJP, Muslim and Christian minorities celebrated. A return to the Congress, with its bedrock principle that India's government must be secular, is a relief after Mr. Vajpayee's Hindu nationalists.

The BJP's drubbing didn't come as a complete shock to India's Christians, however. Many were praying for the party's electoral loss. Renowned Christian thinker Vishal Mangalwadi told WORLD that the party's leaders are out of touch with the daily struggles of lower Hindu castes. "I didn't expect the BJP to win," he said. "I think the Indian elite just talk amongst themselves."

The healthy economy is also feeding resentment and jealousy against wealthy Indians among the poor, the seeds of a "civil war," Mr. Mangalwadi said. "The economic success is in fact one of the causes of the BJP's fall, and it could eventually grow into a much bigger revolt from the lower castes."

Two states-Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh-saw a voter revolt against unpopular parties the BJP had picked as election allies. Natives of Tamil Nadu resented their former chief minister, an old movie star known by the single name Jayalalitha, for her vengeful politics.

During her term, Jayalalitha oversaw the dubious arrests of two opposition leaders, though she later released them. In 2002 her government passed a law against forced conversions, aimed at limiting Christian evangelization. Last year, it arrested journalists from prominent daily newspaper The Hindu for "gross contempt" of the state assembly.

Congress capitalized in Tamil Nadu, as it did in discontented Andhra Pradesh. The agricultural state has seen 3,000 farmers commit suicide since 1997, desperate over long droughts, low crop prices, and indebtedness. The ousted chief minister, N. Chandrababu Naidu, largely ignored their plight.

He instead focused (successfully) on turning state capital Hyderabad into one of India's largest software and technology hubs, said Jerry Thomas of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in India. Like Jayalalitha, his style was more "dictator than a democratic leader," he said. In Mr. Naidu's place, Congress appointed a Christian chief minister.

Elsewhere, BJP strongholds weakened. In Gujarat, a haven for Hindu extremists, even the Congress was surprised that it won 12 of 26 seats. The state saw the country's worst communal violence in decades in 2002, when Hindus killed almost 2,000 Muslims in retaliation for some setting light to a passenger train that killed 58 Hindus. With few prosecutions for Hindu attackers, Muslim and Christian minorities wearied of the chief minister's "Hindu-ization" agenda.

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