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Christians in India heaved sighs of relief after the surprise rout of a Hindu nationalist party in May national and state assembly elections in Orissa, the scene of anti-Christian violence that killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands last year.

A local centrist party, the Biju Janata Dal, took charge of the Orissa state government, soundly defeating the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by 109 to 7 assembly seats. A coalition led by the centrist Indian National Congress won a second term in the federal government; it defeated a BJP-led coalition in 2004.

"The election result is a statement against the persecution of non-Hindus," said Vijay Simha, a senior Indian journalist. "Since the vote went against right-wing parties, the result is a strong rejection of extremist religious programs."

John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, said the BJP was "defeated not by Christians or Muslims, but by secular Hindus." Over 80 percent of India's more than 1 billion people are Hindu. Christians make up just over 2 percent.

The BJP's defeat at the national level is expected to compel the party to decide whether to turn to moderation in its ideology or to more extremism in desperation.

"The BJP now faces a dilemma. … Its appeal based on Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] and divisiveness stands rejected by the electorate," said Prem Prakash of Asian News International. "The time has come for it to clearly define what kind of secularism it accepts or preaches."

The hopes of Christians abound. "I am hoping that the BJP will learn that it does not pay to persecute minorities, and that civilized Hindus are disgusted with divisive antics," said Dayal.



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