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India Tightens Security Ahead of Crucial Gujarat Election

There is tight security across India's western Gujarat State, where Thursday elections will choose a new state government. The elections are seen as crucial for the Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads the federal coalition and now controls Gujarat state.

Thousands of police and paramilitary troops have been deployed across Gujarat, where voters will choose between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the main opposition Congress Party.

The elections take place several months after religious violence swept the state, claiming the lives of more than 1,000 people. The riots erupted after 58 Hindu activists on a train were killed in a fire started by a Muslim mob. The issue of religious violence dominated the election campaign of the Bharatiya-Janata Party.

The state's chief minister and prominent BJP leader, Narendra Modi, pledges to crack down on terrorism and focus on security, if re-elected. He projects himself as a strong Hindu leader who will protect the state's Hindu majority from Muslim militants. His critics accuse him of campaigning on a platform of Hindu revivalism - seeking to divide Gujarat's population along religious lines.

Congress Party leaders urged voters to shun what they called Mr. Modi's hard-line Hindu politics. The party has also promised to concentrate on boosting the economy of Gujarat, one of the country's most prosperous states.

Independent political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says both religious and economic issues are likely to play a key role in the elections. "In the immediate aftermath of the Godhra [site of train attack] atrocity and the equally macabre riots that followed, there was a very determined attempt to make this a patriotism test in terms of polarizing the population," he said. "But as the campaign has worn on, it's been clear that has not been the only issue. And, the usual questions of governance, economy, law and order, water, power and schools - all those have come back. We'll know very soon whether the electorate in Gujarat values one or the other."

Several pre-election surveys indicate that the BJP will come back to power - but with a reduced majority in the state that is considered its bastion. Political analysts say the election results in Gujarat will be critical in deciding the political fortunes of the BJP. Earlier in the year, the party suffered a string of humiliating losses in key state elections, and it is now in power in only four of India's 28 states. On the other hand, its main rival - the Congress Party - controls 15 states.

A victory in Gujarat could give the BJP a much needed boost. But failure to perform well could undermine the party's leadership of the federal coalition.