India's general election was expected to tighten the grip of Hindu nationalists on the world's largest democracy and lead to escalating persecution of religious minorities. Instead, the results, announced in May, are being hailed with headlines reading "shock and awesome." Despite pre-election polls predicting a comfortable victory for the incumbents, the secularist Congress Party, long out of favor, clobbered the rightist ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee.

But Joseph D'Souza, , president of the All India Christian Council (AICC), says religious minorities aren't completely safe yet. He expects a backlash of anti-Christian persecution from Hindu militants in the BJP-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, and Gujarat

Still, he says, Christians can expect more justice at the national level. "We expect the new government to reign in the [rightist] forces," D'Souza said. "The Christians should stay alert and united to carry on God's work."

D'Souza said he was surprised by the "spontaneous move of public anger" exhibited in last month's elections. He said the BJP, which ran on a program of high-tech economic growth and better relations with Pakistan, overlooked the plight of India's oppressed Dalits, hundreds of suicides by impoverished farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka states, and the jailing of innocents under new antiterrorism laws. There have also been hundreds of attacks against Christians in the last six years, while the BJP looked the other way.

In February, for example, Hindu fanatics dragged six Christian women from their homes in an Orissa village. The women, including two 15-yearold girls, were beaten and had their heads forcibly shaved when they refused to convert to Hinduism.

"There is a sense of relief among Christians," D'Souza said. "We expect things to change now."

Hindu radicals, seeking to stoke their voting base, had announced plans to "reconvert" 400,000 tribal Christians to Hinduism. Representatives of the militant Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) say they will continue to organize such ceremonies, with or without government support. However, D'Souza said a national anticonversion law is dead. "The BJP would have little chance of pursuing it now," he said. Days after the election ended, the government of Tamil Nadu announced a rollback of the state's anti-conversion law (CT, November 2003, p. 34).

Christians around the nation were praying about the election, which the AICC labeled "make or break." Expressing "deep joy" over the victory of a secular government, Donald De Souza, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, said, "Obviously, the people have rejected curbs on religious freedom. The constitution gives enough religious freedom, and we don't ask for more. The minorities should be protected, and people should feel free."

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In another shock, on May 19, Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, a Roman Catholic born in Italy, announced that she would not become prime minister. Instead, she nominated Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, to become the country's first non-Hindu prime minister.

Related Elsewhere:

Other Christianity Today articles on the recent elections in India include:

India's Historic Elections and the Hand of God | Persecution will continue, but without as much implicit state support, says the president of the All India Christian Council. (May 14, 2004)
Indian Churches Hail the Defeat of Hindu-Nationalist Government | "Vote consciously" campaign urged Christian voters to elect secular political parties. (May 14, 2004)

Other articles on India include:

India Undaunted | Escalating repression can't seem to dampen the church's growth. (April 28, 2004)
The Immense Commission | Most postal areas still don't have any Christian workers living in them. (April 28, 2004)
Watch Those Web Postings | What Indians say American Christians should, and shouldn't, do to help. (April 28, 2004)
Blockbuster Evangelism | Millions have been converted after seeing films about Jesus, and Hindu radicals are responding with violence. (Nov. 26, 2003)
Hindu Leaders Crack Down on Conversions | Potential converts must ask permission (Oct. 13, 2003)
Weblog: Bogus Claims of Abuse Leveled Against Martyred Missionary (June 13, 2003)
Power in Punjab | Christians see churches—and opposition—grow among Sikhs. (June 18, 2003)
Fending off Hindutva | Indian Christians blast Nazi-like survey, "draconian" conversion law. (May 16, 2003)
Gujarat Religious Survey Troubles Indian Christians | Government of Indian state says it has been gathering statistics on the minority at the behest of federal officials. (March 14, 2003)
Machete Attack on American Alarms Local Christians | Hindu militants threaten to expel evangelists, stop conversions. (Feb. 18, 2003)
Indian Christians 'Living in Terror,' Rights Groups Report | Accusations against priest lead to intense conversion pressure in Rajasthan. (Nov. 6, 2002)
Indian State Bans Conversion | Christians say Tamil Nadu ordinance threatens relief work. (October 11, 2002)
Hounded, Beaten, Shot | What you can do to help persecuted Christians in India. (June 11, 2002)
The Fiery Rise of Hindu Fundamentalism | After a missionary and his two sons are martyred, Christians in India press for greater religious freedom (March 1, 1999)

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