The streets of Ayodhya are strangely silent these days. Barbed wire and watch towers, arc lights and the constant patrols of armed police, make this sacred city look like a prison camp.
Believed by many Hindus to be the birthplace of one of their most revered gods, Ram, Ayodhya has been a city under siege ever since thousands of religious Hindu fanatics in December 1992 destroyed a centuries-old mosque they claimed was built on the ruins of the original Ram temple. The demand for the demolition of the Babri Mosque was the issue that catapulted the right-wing, pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party to second place in the last Indian election in 1991.
Now voting is under way in this year's national election that concludes May 7. The BJP is confident it will win an absolute majority. But charges against BJP President L.K. Advani and a number of senior party leaders in a multimillion-dollar bribery scandal, infighting at the state level, and the party's inability to shake off its fundamentalist credentials have tarred its image as a viable national force.
Nor is there any sign of the "Ram Wave" that in 1991 saw the BJP rise from 86 seats to 113 seats and its share of the overall vote nearly double to just over 20 percent.
Although the BJP has reiterated its demand to build a new Ram temple on the still-disputed site in Ayodhya, the issue has lost its appeal among many conservative Hindus, who condemned the violence that led to the demolition of the mosque.
This has not deterred the party's prime ministerial nominee, Atul Behari Vajpayee, from predicting that the party is well on its way to victory. "The opinion polls indicate that the BJP is nearing 190 seats as the campaign gains momentum, so we are confident of securing a clear majority...."
A former foreign minister and the leader of the opposition in the last parliament, Mr. Vajpayee represents the moderate face of the BJP, which has tried to broaden its appeal beyond the northern states where its support is mainly confined to upper-caste Hindus.
Although opinion polls are notoriously unreliable given India's huge electorate, most political analysts agree that the BJP is set to gain seats at the expense of the ruling Congress Party, which has suffered from a series of damaging defections and lackluster leadership.
"Short of a miraculous late swing in its favor, the Congress looks set to plummet to a historic all-time low both in terms of votes and seats," says Swapan Dasgupta, a political commentator in New Delhi.
The BJP's strategy was to concentrate on exploiting the nation's growing disenchantment with corruption and divisions within the Congress Party. But shorn of its anticorruption plank following the charging of its president, Mr. Advani, the BJP is now fighting a back-to-basics campaign centering on Hindutva, which the party's election manifesto defines as "cultural nationalism." Although the manifesto stops short of promoting Hindu nationalism, Hindutva appears to leave little room for religious or ethnic minorities in India's multicultural society.
The concept has been most strongly condemned by leaders of India's 120 million-strong Muslim community, who point to the BJP's stand on Ayodhya and the fact that it has not fielded a single Muslim candidate in the current elections, as proof that its policies go against the secular nature of the Indian Constitution.
In Lucknow, the capital of India's largest state Uttar Pradesh, prominent Muslim leader Abdul Hassan Ali Nadvi, says the BJP will discriminate against Muslims if elected to power. "We have our religion, our Prophet, and Personal Law," Mr. Nadvi says. "The BJP wants to prevent the reconstruction of the Babri Mosque, they want to abolish the Minorities Commission, and they want a common civil code. That is unacceptable to Muslim voters."
Although these demands form part of the BJP's manifesto, the party's spokesman in Lucknow, Rajesh Pandey, claims the party's alleged anti-Muslim stand is nothing more than a hoax. "It's deliberate propaganda against the BJP," he claims. "We are more concerned that whoever lives in India should think for India. He must possess the national character, that's all."
The possibility of a BJP government is also causing concern among India's neighbors and overseas investors. BJP leaders say they want to boost defense spending and are prepared to deploy nuclear weapons in the event of external aggression from countries like China or Pakistan.
In its economic policy, many in the party want to limit foreign investment to areas such as infrastructure development.
Despite the chord that these policies might strike with voters, the BJP's greatest liability after the elections is the stated refusal of most parties to join forces with it in a coalition should it fall short of a majority. Although the BJP enjoys the support of some minor parties, the other major political group fighting this election, the National Front-Left Front alliance, which is likely to hold the balance of power between the Congress and BJP, has ruled out helping the BJP gain a majority.
Even if it does emerge with the largest number of seats, the BJP could remain an isolated, although by no means a spent, force on the Indian political scene.