'Mr Nice' strives to bottle genie of religious divide

Indian general election: Front-runner attempts to temper Hindu extremism

The man who may become India's next prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was at his campaign headquarters in Lucknow when the phone rang. It was the Muslim film actor, Raj Babbar, calling.

He is Mr Vajpayee's main rival in this religiously charged campaign for a Lucknow parliamentary seat. Voting starts today, the second round of the Indian elections.

"He said that as an elder brother (an Indian term of respect) I should bless him. And so I did," said Mr Vajpayee, chuckling that his main challenger, and a Muslim at that, should seek blessings from the leader of a right- wing Hindu party that most Indian Muslims have learned to fear.

That is because Mr Vajpayee has a reputation as a bright, decent man, a liberal who keeps his distance from the Hindu extremists within the BJP who wave tridents and saffron-coloured flags and shout anti-Muslim slogans.

He is an accomplished ex-foreign minister with a natural, populist manner (he can sling himself on to a rope charpoy bed at a roadside tea-stand and have the crowd belly-laughing at his jokes). The only jab which his opponents can make against him is that because of his broad-mindedness, Mr Vajpayee may be "the right man in the wrong party".

When Hindu extremists tore down a 16th-century Mogul mosque in Ayodhya, igniting communal riots across the country, Mr Vajpayee is said to have wept and called it "an outrage", while other BJP leaders rejoiced.

But the "wrong party" may at last be right for Mr Vajpayee. The BJP seems to be as elastic as Hinduism, a faith which embraces a multitude of gods and seemingly conflicting practices. Having sensed that Indians have lost the stomach for the BJP's strident Hinduism after the 1992 riots and killings, the party is - apparently - transforming itself into Mr Vajpayee's more moderate image.

Mr Vajpayee may still appear at campaign rallies flanked by actors dressed up as heroes from the Ramayana epic, but his speeches are not about destroying more Muslim places of worship but about matters that are closer to the common Indian: government corruption, over-population, and how economic reforms have failed to reach the countryside.

Self-possessed and with a wry smile, Mr Vajpayee looks equally at ease whether he's greeting a visiting head of state or riding a bullock cart along the dusty campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh state.

In the likely event that neither the BJP nor the ruling Congress Party wins a clear majority, Mr Vajpayee is better placed than his combative companions in the BJP triumvirate - LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi - to strike a deal with coalition partners.

When votes are finally tallied, on 10 May, after the third stage of elections, forecasts indicate that the BJP may emerge as the largest party, with about 200 of the 543 parliamentary seats.

"We have no thoughts of forming a coalition, but if we fall short we'll seek support from the regional parties," said Mr Vajpayee, 69. At rallies, the grim-faced Black Cat commandos assigned to protect Mr Vajpayee seem genuinely to like him; they even grin at his jokes.

Mr Vajpayee insists he never wanted to be the BJP's candidate for prime minister, that he is a born loner, a misfit.

But shortly before elections, the party president, Mr Advani, was snared in a corruption scandal that was devised by the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, to cripple his enemies.

Mr Vajpayee was clean and he stepped into Mr Advani's place. Electorally, it was probably a stroke of good fortune for the BJP that Mr Vajpayee got the job. Even Mr Advani admitted that he lacks his replacement's "mass leader" qualities.

But even if Mr Vajpayee has gained the respect of his film- star rival and other Muslims and moderates, he has failed to dispel the suspicion that many Indians feel towards his party. They say that the religious extremists within the BJP may not let Mr Vajpayee stray too far into the centre.

The BJP manifesto pledges to expand India's nuclear status, which will speed up its atomic arms race with its Muslim neighbour, Pakistan. Nor is there much chance of India signing nuclear-disarmament treaties under the BJP. "We need nuclear weapons to protect India," Mr Vajpayee insisted. "We want to live in a nuclear-free world, but India cannot go along with this nuclear apartheid in which some nations have the bomb and others don't."

If elected, the BJP has said it will take a firmer stand against Muslim insurgents in Kashmir, though it is difficult to imagine how much tougher it could get: during this six-year revolt more than 20,000 Kashmiris have been killed by Indian security forces, human-rights monitors said. The BJP also vows to change the constitution, stripping away the special status held by religious and linguistic minorities.

Mr Vajpayee may also be under pressure from BJP traditionalists who want to shut the door on some multi-national companies, only recently allowed into India.

The BJP insists Indian values are being eroded by consumerism and loose western morality seen on imported Hollywood films and on Rupert Murdoch's satellite television beaming down to India.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before