New Delhi, India — Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s ruling Congress Party suffered a terrible defeat in Punjab state polls, but the election .gamble he called “the péople’s answer to brute force’’ was perhaps his greatest victory.
Gandhi scored a victory, political analysts say, because more than 6 million voters turned out last Wednesday.
“The Congress might have lost the electoral battle but it has won the war for India’s unity and integrity,” said Gandhi.
And, by losing the election, Gandhi succeeded in passing the difficult problems of India’s richest but most turbulent state to the Sikh Akali Dal party, a regional political group that poses no national threat.
When Gandhi took office last November he identified the problems of Sikhs and strife in Punjab state as his No. 1 priority, but few gave him a chance of resolving it.
The army’s “Operation Blue Star” against the Golden Temple: left 6,000 people dead, mostly Sikhs, and outraged India’s 15 million followers of the Sikh religion, a 2 percent minority in the largely Hindu country.
Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination triggered bloody anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi and throughout northern India, taking the lives of nearly 10,000 people and driving a wedge between the traditionally harmonious Hindu and Sikh communities.
Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother as prime minister, took his first fence mending steps in March when he released Sikh leaders arrested during Operation Blue Star, including Harchand Singh Longowal, leader of the Akali Dal.
On July 24, Gandhi and Longowal signed an agreement conceding a few of the demands of Sikhs for political, economic and religious autonomy in Punjab, where Sikhs are 62 percent majority.
“The accord was strongly opposed by Sikh radicals, who demand a separate and autonomous Punjab.
Gandhi quickly announced state elections to give Punjab a popular government after two years of direct federal rule.
Sikh leaders and major opposition parties pleaded unsuccessfully for Gandhi to postpone the election, accusing him of trying to bulldoze the Punjab pact while Sikh-Hindu feelings were not fully healed.
But Gandhi told Parliament the elections are “the people’s answer to brute force” and he refused to delay the poll, even after Longowal was assassinated Aug. 20.
The gamble paid off with 125,000 paramilitary and police providing the most elaborate security precautions in the history of Indian state elections.
An unprecedented 63 percent of Punjab’s 10.7 million voters turned out and handed the Akali Dal a landslide win against Gandhi’s Congress Party. Although one party worker was killed in. a clash, not one incident of violence was reported on Election Day.
“It was a vote against Operation Blue Star and what followed,” said Kushwant Singh, noted Sikh historian and Member of Parliament.
“The magnitude of the vote surprised me,” he said. “The Hindu untouchable groups (the lowest rung in the Hindu religion’s intricate caste structure) which normally vote for the Congress voted for the Akali Dal.”
Although Gandhi spent four days campaigning for his party in the state, some analysts say the Congress Party purposely fielded weak and unknown candidates, expecting to lose.
The Akali Dal also fielded 20 non-Sikh candidates Hindus and Moslems for the first time and promised to include them in the new state government.
The acrimony that normally marks an Indian election campaign failed to materialize as both the Akali Dal and Gandhi’s party appealed for Hindu-Sikh unity and support of the Punjab accord in Longowal’s memory.
“The brave and patriotic people of Punjab” have dealt ‘separatism and terrorism’ a mighty blow,” Gandhi said. “They have blessed the accord. Democracy has won. Nonviolence has won. Mother India has.