Churches in India have hailed the defeat of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at a general election in the world's largest democracy.

Results showed that millions of India's poor rural people forsook Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Hindus-first message despite an economic boom and moved their support to the secularism of the India National Congress party, led by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Vajpayee conceded defeat on yesterday after campaigning on the slogan "India Shining." The party miscalculated support for its campaign, hoping to capitalize on the country's eight percent growth rate on the back of booming high-tech industries and rapid development.

Joseph D'Souza, President of the All India Christian Council, told the German evangelical news agency Idea, "In a surprise spontaneous move of public anger, the masses, the downtrodden, the poor, the Dalits and even the urban unemployed all joined together to throw out the BJP led alliance."

"This is a mandate to renew secular democracy in India," said the Rev. Ipe Joseph, general secretary of National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), a grouping of 29 Orthodox and Protestant Churches in India. Joseph told Ecumenical News International, "By ejecting the NDA government out of power, most of the voters have shown that they reject the [Hindu] fundamentalism."

The opposition Congress party looked set to win enough seats to secure a coalition government along with smaller parties including the Communists, who had assured their support for a stable and secular government.

The Rev. Donald De Souza, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI), said: "The election result shows beyond doubt that democracy is very much alive and deeply rooted in the secular ethos of the country." He told ENI that the Catholic Church "welcomes this verdict wholeheartedly and congratulates the voters for making clear their option for a secular government that will carry with them all sections of the society".

Indian voters were "intelligent and discerning", noted the national church council's general secretary, Joseph. He said they "rightly rejected the BJP bluff of 'India Shining' and 'Feel Good' campaign" in voting out the government that called the elections 10 months ahead of its five-year tenure in the hope of securing a stronger mandate.

Anand Sharma, spokesperson for the victorious Congress party, said in an interview at the Congress office that the "India Shining" campaign of the NDA "demonstrated their insensitivity to the struggling farmers, unemployed youth and the poor".

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"This alienated large sections of the society," said Sharma. "The people have now reposed their faith in our party and we will try to rise to their expectations."

Joseph said that the NCCI's "vote consciously" campaign urging Christian voters to exercise their votes against fundamentalist forces "did create an impact at least in Christian areas". In the run up to the election, all churches had issued "voter guidelines" asking the Christian electorate to vote for secular political parties committed to communal harmony.

This appeal by churches apparently came during a spurt of anti-minority violence and propaganda targeting Christians and Muslims during the tenure of the BJP-led coalition government.

Hindus account for about 81 percent of India's one billion people while 12 percent are Muslims, 2.3 percent (about 23 million) are Christians, and less than 2 percent are Sikhs.

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