NEW DELHI — THE Hindu right launched a new bid for votes yesterday in the election interrupted by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Leftist and centrist politicians are trying to bury differences and stop the fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the poll that began May 20 and is rescheduled for June 12 and 15.
In a move to co-opt the floundering Congress (I) Party, the BJP has usurped Gandhi's pledge of stable government and twinned it with its long-standing challenge to India's secular legacy. (Congress Party names leader, Page 3.)
Lal Krishan Advani, the powerful guru of the country's emergent religious right, says he's pleased the election is becoming a referendum on his vision of India as a Hindu state.
"Before, the debate was pro-Congress and anti-Congress," says the savvy leader, who couches the provocative in soft-spoken phrases. "Now let the country be polarized between my viewpoint and my antagonists'. It's a debate. Let it go on."
But some analysts say the BJP, whose orchestrated campaign involving a disputed shrine led to hundreds of deaths last fall, is on the defensive.
In the stunned aftermath of Gandhi's murder, Advani was widely criticized for urging his party members to resume campaigning with a "killer instinct."
Former Prime Minister V. P. Singh and other left-leaning politicians are playing down attacks on the Congress and targeting the BJP.
In an editorial yesterday, the Times of India said that "the BJP is getting more and more politically isolated. Indeed, a new consensus is emerging across the entire political center and left, which is opposed to the sectarian politics and combative campaigning tactics of the BJP."
For many in this country of more than 800 million people, the BJP remains an ominous threat. India is predominantly Hindu, but since independence it has followed a creed that all religions should be treated equally.
In recent years, the BJP has fanned Hindu revivalism, simmering tensions between Hindus and the large Muslim minority, concerns about separatist violence, and frustration with a political system stymied by infighting and corruption. The party has been transformed in five years from a political backwater into a commanding force in the 544-seat Indian Parliament.
Among many Indians dismayed by the rise and fall of three governments in two years, the BJP enjoys a reputation as an uncorrupted, disciplined organization promising a fresh approach to governing this tumultuous democracy.
"There is a growing feeling in India that this old-fashioned secularism is bankrupt," says Bharat Wariavwalla, a New Delhi political analyst. "There are also many people who hold the Muslim community responsible for all the ills of India."
India has paid a high price during its debate on the secular vision articulated by its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi's grandfather and a Congress Party leader. Hundreds of people were killed in religious violence last fall, as the BJP spearheaded a campaign to lay the cornerstone for a new Hindu shrine at a site currently occupied by a mosque.
Fighting resumed between Hindus and Muslims when voting began May 20, the day before Gandhi was assassinated.
Now, Gandhi's murder is forcing the BJP to temper its rhetoric. The Hindu right has jettisoned campaign material that directly attacks Gandhi to minimize an expected sympathy vote.
Despite the Congress's desperate yet unsuccessful attempts to convince Gandhi's Italian-born widow, Sonia, to lead the party, Indian political analysts say sympathy votes for the party could still lead to a political stalemate and force a coalition government. The BJP could then wield its growing influence as the country's major opposition force.
Mr. Advani, whose views were shaped by his family's flight from Muslim Pakistan during the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, reflects a less shrill tone.
He blames last fall's violence on the predominantly Hindu police, rather than Muslims, and says he doesn't oppose Muslims, only government policies that give what he says are special privileges to minorities. Muslims and other ethnic and religious groups are allowed to live under their own legal codes and traditions.
Indeed, Advani says his invocation of Lord Rama, the revered warrior-king, refers to making India an "ideal kingdom," not a religious state. He likens himself to Mahatma Gandhi, the father of Indian secularism. "All the things that were said about Gandhi and the Congress are now being said about me and the BJP," the leader says.
But Indian critics and Western analysts worry about BJP support for building nuclear weapons and for taking a tougher stance on insurrections in the Indian states of Kashmir, Punjab, and Assam. They point out that Advani and other leaders also have to answer to hard-liners within the party.
Advani says one of his top priorities will be Kashmir, the flashpoint of two of the three Indo-Pakistani wars. The BJP rhetoric has so alarmed Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that he met with BJP leaders after attending Gandhi's funeral in New Delhi last week. "The government's policy has been oscillating between the strong-arm approach and the kid-glove approach," Advani says. "These are threats to national unity."