A Key Vote in India

Voters in the Indian state of Gujarat are bracing themselves for crucial elections set to take place on Dec. 12. Earlier this year, the state was the scene of India's worst violence between Hindus and Muslims in a decade, and violence has already marred the campaign. The ballot is an important test for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is facing a stiff challenge from the opposition Congress Party. The BJP has lost a dozen state elections in recent months and only governs in four states. Congress now runs 14 states.

Losing Gujarat to Congress would be a major blow to the BJP. Such a defeat would further damage its chances of maintaining power at a national level when Indians go to the polls for general elections due by 2004. But some analysts worry that BJP campaign tactics may tilt the party too far to the right. To win voters in Gujarat, BJP Chief Minister Narenda Modi--a Hindu nationalist--is running a religious, pro-Hindu campaign, while his chief opponents in the Congress Party are stressing secularism. A BJP win in Gujarat could boost fundamentalists in the party and lead to further Hindu-Muslim tensions in India, analysts say. That could slow reform and discourage investment.

Indeed, businesspeople in Gujarat are dismayed at how much this year's violence has damaged the economy. Investment in Gujarat will be down some 10% this year, according to the Confederation of Indian Industry, while other Indian states will see investment surge an estimated 7%.

By Manjeet Kripalani in Bombay

Edited by Rose Brady

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