To devotees, he is the savior of Hindu India: "as pure as the Gangotri, and as broad as the Ganges," as one put it. To critics he is destroying the dreams and ideals of Mohandas Gandhi a dangerous fascist willing to risk riots and flames to hold power.
Either way, L.K. Advani, India's new deputy prime minister and heir apparent to Prime Minister Vajpayee is clearly emerging as the Indian most responsible for the rise of nationalism here and for posing India as a force to be reckoned with.
This weekend, US Secretary of State Colin Powell is set to visit India and Pakistan in a bid to reduce tensions between the two nuclear states, and discuss Kashmir. Mr. Advani has taken the lead for India with the US, voicing India's frustration over cross-border violence. An urbane Brahmin born in Pakistan, a brilliant tactician, and leader of a quasi-secret elite Hindu order, Advani is the kind of leader the Bronx-born Mr. Powell has probably rarely met during his military career.
Advani became deputy prime minister in a recent cabinet reshuffle, a move that was rumored for months. During two intense border standoffs with Pakistan, talk in Delhi was that Advani who reportedly favored military action against Pakistan was gaining a foothold at the top. After a January trip to Washington to make India's case, arguing an equivalence between Sept. 11 and cross-border terrorism with Pakistan, Advani's status skyrocketed.
"We felt it was Advani who most stood up for India with the Americans," said one official. "The Americans listened to him."
Advani's promotion early this month from home minister to the apex of power carries its own message: Analysts say it signals the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is again pumping up a radical Hindu nationalist program called "Hindutva." The move could further polarize multicultural India along religious and ethnic lines.
In the 1990s, BJP-led Hindutva excited voters with a message of martial vigor, a media campaign that featured Hindu gods, and an anti-Islamic slant that angered the 14 percent Muslim population.
Mainly due to a Hindu revival that Advani has devoted his life to, the character of India has changed in recent years. Since 1980, on a Hindutva platform, the BJP rose from a paltry four seats in parliament to ruling India. Only weeks after the BJP came to power in 1998, India tested a nuclear device, changing the geopolitics of South Asia.
Among the Indian middle class, the byproduct of Hindutva was a new discourse of muscular nationalism. In private schools, conferences, history books, clubs, camps, rallies, and popular TV series, a mix of Hindutva ideas and pro-India bravado altered the dialogue here.
Ultimately, Hindutva represented a powerful new elixir in a country whose corrupt Congress Party was seen as ineptly mouthing the words of Gandhi's nonviolent independence revolution.
Yet today, BJP is flagging in the polls. Insiders feel the party is hamstrung by its moderate coalition partners. Hardliners want the BJP to break free from the ruling coalition and capture office on an uncompromising and sharper pro-Hindu agenda. From Advani, they want someone who will take charge, speak for their interests, and train a set of more devout Hindu cadres.
"With Advani at the top, the signal is that BJP will use the Hindu card for its political furtherance," says an observer with close ties to the ruling party. "The feeling is that in coming months, it is now or never."
Advani first cut loose with a full-scale Hindutva agenda in 1992. His attention-getting theatrics included dressing up as a Hindu saint and touring India, posing with a drawn bow and arrow. Prior to that, he was India's minister for broadcasting in the short-lived Janata Party in the late 1970s.
Advani was arrested in 1992 after a months-long pro-Hindu campaign that led to the destruction of a mosque in Ayodyha, sparking bloody riots across India. The event has been a controversial epicenter of Indian politics since.
But Advani has always turned setbacks into gains. By 1998, he became the powerful home minister in charge of security. Now, he is a half-step closer to the throne.
"Advani is the man of the hour, and he is the man of the future," says Dewedi Vireshawer, Delhi spokesman for the VHP, a right-wing Hindu group. "He is the man who took the BJP into the hearts of the Indian people. He is the next natural choice for us."
However, such feelings are not echoed by those who feel the logic of a Hindu revival will lead the country toward ethnic strife.
"Advani can voice your bias and prejudices in a way that makes you feel justified about hating," says a liberal Hindu executive at a multinational firm in Delhi. "Frankly, I fear the man. I fear he will easily mesmerize the middle class and the urban voters in order to hold power."
Advani, in a Monitor interview earlier this year, denies that he backs radical behavior, saying that India's real problem is Pakistani-instigated terror. "As one sworn to uphold the Indian constitution ... I feel a secular approach is the only right way to conduct politics in India. But it doesn't serve my adversaries to highlight that. It serves them to say if I came to power, we would have a Hindutva state."
Critics counter that Advani uses the language of modern secular politics with elites and foreigners, while saving his Hindutva message for the home crowd. Look what Advani does, not what he says, they argue.
Early this month, they point out, Advani was to travel to Gujarat, scene of bloody Hindu-Muslim clashes this spring, to speak at rally of Hindu radicals. Only a condemnation by India's National Human Rights Commissioner, Verma, caused Advani to cancel his trip.
That Hindu forces are stoking the fires is seen in the appointment of one Vinay Katiyar to head the BJP in the crowded "cow-belt" state of Uttar Pradesh. Mr. Katiyar, a hand-picked protégé of Advani, has led a radical Bajrang Dal Hindu youth army, a group that has attacked Muslims and Christians. He is now member of parliament from Ayodhya, and is fighting to put a Hindu temple over the destroyed mosque.
Hindu groups have long backed Advani as prime minister. But the BJP's coalition partners chafe at the idea of a hardliner at the helm. They prefer the more genial temperament of Mr. Vajpayee. Yet by accepting a deputy prime minister slot, Advani has dared the coalition to break up the government over what amounts to only a half-step closer to the top job.
A major sign of Advani's clout is the ongoing rise of the most powerful of Hindu groups, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, or RSS. The RSS, made up mainly of Brahmin-caste members, operates as a ruling elite in a broad network or "family" of Hindu groups, known as the Sangh Parivar.
The RSS is a "metapolitical" organization, say its backers. Those who study it point to its roots in turn-of-the-century Aryan fascism. The BJP has been described by RSS leaders as a "front" for their agenda.
In the RSS view, the beloved motherland of India messy, chaotic, and blessed with an astute population that leads the world in software writing but is seemingly cursed with an inability to organize well needs the kind of systematic discipline their organization alone can provide. Only with a strong Hindu hand can India emerge as the leader of nations that RSS members feel it should be. The RSS would free India from a mentality of subversion and impotence they say was imposed by Muslim invaders, and then British colonialists.
In RSS camps, youngsters are drilled in physical exercise. But according to D.R. Goyal, a former RSS member, this is "much more than a physical routine.... It is a psychological drill leading to total surrender of the individual personality to what the RSS establishment [calls] 'the ideal.' "
On June 20, 1942, a 14-year-old Advani attended an RSS lecture in Karachi that changed his life. The subject: Hindutva.
Within a year, young Advani would meet M.S. Golwalker, arch-guru of the RSS. Mr. Golwalker's photo now hangs in all RSS schools, and his writings on the superiority of Hindu culture, and the need to remove from India the influence of non-Hindus, Muslims, and Christians included, lie at the core of RSS belief.
Ten years before meeting Advani, Golwalker had written: "This great Hindu Race professes its illustrious Hindu Religion, the only religion in the world worthy of being so denominated .... Guided by this religion ... the Race evolved a culture which despite the degenerating contact with the debased 'civilizations' of the Mussalmans and the Europeans... is still the noblest in the world." (Golwalker's books, including the RSS bible, "Bunch of Thoughts," are on sale at BJP headquarters in Delhi.)
Advani at first flirted with an engineering career. But after RSS Officers Training Camp in Indore and then Ahmedabad, he committed himself to the cause. By 1947, the year India was partitioned, Advani was chief of the Karachi RSS intellectual cell; 10 days before the epic and bloody partition of India, Advani became the RSS head in Karachi. On that day, coincidentally enough, Golwalker met him on a tour of what would soon become Pakistan.
Advani is regarded as someone unusually attuned to RSS rhythms. Supporters point out he works 15- to 16-hour days; journalists marvel that he can stand for hours on end giving speeches and talks, holding meetings, and never seeming to tire.
"Advani is the incarnation of RSS ideology," argues Christophe Jaffrelot, author of the comprehensive study, "The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India." He sits as easily with bearded other-worldly Hindu sadus or "saints," as with groomed executives of India's high-tech corporations. He can talk the language of fundamentalism with the old guard, but is contemporary with India's sophisticated young.
In his spare but imposingly spacious Delhi office, Advani is relaxed and wears his power lightly. He smiles, cracks jokes, and says he wants to watch the movie "Pearl Harbor," but hasn't had time for a film since "Titanic."
He stays away from the religious vernacular. But he states, "People fear that if I come to power I will annex Pakistan. Now Pakistan and India are two sovereign countries. But I do concede that a day may come, and a day will come, when both countries and their leaders and people will realize that partition did not help either of them, and perhaps a confederation of the two countries will be in the best interest. I look forward to that day.
"There was a time when the two Germanys could not think of living together."