The calm face who guides India amid Hindu extremism

One year after a shaky start, prime minister's moderate stance seems

As India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee looked on smilingly, two rock groups - one Pakistani, one Indian - joined on stage to end a celebration of his first year as head of the world's largest democracy.

The symbolism was striking. After a turbulent year in a region of unstable governments - a year that started with India, then rival Pakistan testing nuclear weapons, making threats, and in which Mr. Vajpayee's government seemed in perpetual collapse - the atmosphere in the cool air on March 19 was relaxed and moderate. Much like the image cast by the prime minister himself.

India is a highly political country where shopkeepers and clerks are as attuned to the moods of government as paid analysts. The mechanics of politics take place through subtle symbols and shifts. Since 1990, six governments have come and gone in India; none were reelected.

Appeal to voters

Yet a year after the Bharatiya Janata (BJP), a hard-line Hindu "India first" party, was voted into office here, one thing seems clear: Prime Minister Vajpayee has emerged as a moderate leader who has seized the reins of power.

After devastating local elections late last year, Vajpayee, a bachelor, a man of ascetic tastes whose hobby is reading, began consolidating his position. Today he and his coterie are the only moderates in a party vowing it will further "Hinduize" India.

Still, it is also becoming clear that no one can replace Vajpayee, much as some in his own ranks might want to. Even the vast bureaucracy, famous for its roadblocks and red tape, is slowly accepting the current regime.

Partly, Vajpayee's consolidation of power is due to his charisma and Indian folkways, which connect with a broad range of ordinary Indians. Partly it is an aura of personal integrity that has kept the 18 bickering members of his coalition together. Partly it is Vajpayee's own seizing of history and, Nixon-in-China-like, traveling to Lahore, Pakistan, last month to talk peace with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The international community, however, is likely to adopt a "wait and see" attitude about Vajpayee and his government, sources say. Vajpayee's longevity will be tested in local elections next fall. How far economic liberalization will go is an open question. So too is the continuation of an anti-Christian campaign in the villages that has hurt the image of India.

"If I am a foreign investor looking at India right now, I am still hesitating," says a European diplomat in Delhi. "I am asking, why should I go into a country that seems to have an unstable government, where ethnic minorities are targeted by nationalists and not protected, and where red tape is still a major hurdle?"

The "new Vajpayee" is a recent development. Five months ago he appeared listless. Rumors of health problems flew around Delhi. Sonia Gandhi of the opposition Congress Party loomed large. Politically, he seemed a doormat: Coalition partners like Jayalalitha Jayaram, a former actress and party head from the south who this month was accused of beating up a colleague with a high-heeled shoe, threatened to topple him. Vajpayee appeared ready to slip on "any available banana peel," as newspaper editor Chandan Mitra put it.

So Vajpayee took decisive steps to consolidate his position. Chief among these was the inclusion of friend and chief negotiator Jaswant Singh into his Cabinet to handle foreign policy. Last month Vajpayee weathered a potentially government-ending dust storm over a crisis in Bihar, India's equivalent of the Wild West, where various private-landowner-financed armies are operating outside of government control.

Outbreaks of violence

Still, Vajpayee's conscious policy of benign moderation does not entirely reflect the temper of his country. The day before the anniversary festivities in the capital, 38 Indians were slaughtered in Bihar. Just prior, some 1,200 Christians were burned out of their homes in the eastern state of Orissa - the latest event in a year-long campaign. Recently the American firm of Lehman Brothers pulled out of India. Delhi itself is dealing with a crime wave, partly brought by villagers coming to the city and joining gangs.

Nor does a role as statesman-above-the-fray signal a long-term change of direction in Vajpayee's party, or its Hindu agenda. Perhaps the main dynamic in current politics is the tussle between Vajpayee and most of the rank- and-file in his party, who would change the longtime secular nature of Indian society.

Whether Vajpayee is providing a moderate face to Indian politics as it shifts to the right, or whether he has tempered his right wing, are questions that will affect South Asia for years to come.

Reach of Hindu groups

The BJP itself is merely the political wing of 70-plus Hindu organizations, known as the Sangh Paravar, or family group. Born in the 1920s, and, as French researcher Christophe Jaffrelot points out, finding a rapport with fascist movements in Europe that stressed discipline and a martial spirit, the Sangh Paravar, led by the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, or RSS, is committed to restoring India's greatness. RSS members feel this has been lost due to years of Muslim and then colonial domination. The BJP had four members of Parliament in the early 1980s; today it has 185.

Hard-liners of the RSS persuasion feel Vajpayee, as prime minister, has ignored the Hindu program they felt they were elected to usher into India, from culture to foreign relations. To many secular-minded Indians, for example, testing a nuclear device was an expression of security concerns; for many nationalists, it was an expression of India's nascent Hindu greatness.

Vajpayee, asked in a friendly interview what he's learned from struggles over the past year, said, "not to worry too much."

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