'Hindu First' Party Arrives

India's new prime minister, to be sworn in Thursday, may not act on his extreme views.

The world's second-most-populous country, and largest democracy, enters a new and fragile era this week as India's version of the religious right takes the reins of power.

The leader of the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), poet-politician Atal Behari Vajpayee, will take the oath of office as India's 13th prime minister on Thursday.

The ceremony will end three tension-packed months since elections were called last December.

One of Mr. Vajpayee's main tasks will be to control the conflicting aspirations of a coalition government of more than two dozen parties.

The alliance is larger, more ideologically diverse, and more susceptible to double-crossing and defection than any seen in India since independence 50 years ago.

After widespread concerns in India and abroad that the country was about to take a sharp turn to the right, the government being sworn in this week may be so preoccupied with political survival, it will have little opportunity to implement some of its cherished pro-Hindu policies.

Plans to revive India's nuclear-weapons program, restrict some forms of foreign competition, ban the slaughter of cows, and scrap rules that protect India's minority Muslim population, are likely to be put on hold.

"Life with one partner in power is difficult enough - Mr. Vajpayee will have to keep peace with a whole harem," says M.J. Akbar, editor of the Asian Age newspaper.

Topping the list of the BJP's dangerous liaisons is Jayaram Jayalalitha, the south Indian politician who shares little ideological common ground with the Hindu nationalists other than a taste for power. Ms. Jayalalitha used her clout last week to extract key ministerial berths and special economic advantages for her state of Tamil Nadu.

Her efforts set a precedent for expensive populist measures to be extended to other BJP partners.

"The BJP has only been able to get this far because of its electoral partnerships and it will be dependent on them to remain in power," says Pran Chopra, senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research. "For this reason you can expect more changes in the rhetoric of the new government rather than in its actual policies."

A tenuous situation

The party's tenuous hold on power depends on a minor party abstaining in a vote of confidence later this month and its opponents in the Congress Party and the United Front remaining divided. Divisions within the BJP coalition will also cramp the party's ability to implement some of the more controversial elements of its "Hindu first" agenda.

Pressure to do so is already building up within the BJP's vocal right-wing fringe that considers itself the party's ideological and spiritual conscience.

Right-wing demands

The agenda of groups like the powerful Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is to have an assertive India armed with an arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles, a moratorium on foreign investment, and an end to the appeasement of minorities like the country's 120-million-strong Muslim community.

The RSS is unhappy that plans to build a shrine to the Hindu god Ram at Ayodhya - where a 16th-century mosque was demolished by Hindu fanatics in 1992 - have been shelved.

But it can do little about other demands such as abolishing the special status of Kashmir, which requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament to change the Constitution.

The BJP's policy of swadeshi - or economic nationalism - with its "Computer chips, yes. Potato chips, no" approach to foreign investment also looks as if it may have to be watered down.

Although party strategists like Jay Dubashi, head of the BJP's economic wing, believe that anything that Indians can make need not be made by foreign firms, whoever takes over the finance portfolio will be careful not to deter foreign investors from bringing the capital India so desperately needs to revive its flagging economy.

BJP's history

Formed in 1980 as a political front for the RSS, the BJP made its Parliamentary debut in 1984 with just two seats.

In 1991 it rode the religious fervor associated with Ayodhya to become the second largest party in Parliament.

In 1996 it became to first party to eclipse Congress, but the stigma of political untouchability cost it vital support it needed to stay in power for longer than 13 days.

Now its patience has finally been rewarded, but its problems seem far from over.

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