It's war, not a battle.

One of the most keenly watched and contested assembly elections in recent memory, the December 12 poll might well define the future of India, and the fate of its two largest political parties.

In February and March, massive Hindu-Muslim riots broke out, leaving at least 1,000 people dead. Thousands of others huddled into refugee camps. Today, Hindu and Muslim neighbours occupy different worlds.

For the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, much is at stake. It has lost almost every local election since 1998, though it won the 1998 and 1999 parliamentary elections. Gujarat is its last bastion.

Here, the party is portraying itself as the only protector of Hindus. Victory in Gujarat would boost the BJP's Hindutva plank like little else since the Babri Masjid was destroyed 10 years ago.

The Congress is taking the BJP head on, sans allies. Having won back key states from the BJP, it is a revived party. But in Gujarat, it takes on a BJP that has returned to its avatar of a hard-core Hindutva party. Muslims also revile the Congress for its inactivity during the riots. Hence, the party has chosen to use the politics of caste to counter the BJP's politics of religion. Winning Gujarat would give it a chance to strike where it matters most: in Parliament.

For the rest of India, Gujarat is poised on an edge: a BJP victory might lead to a revival of strident communalism. A Congress victory would show that caste still rules.

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