It's not uncommon to hear Lucknow's Muslims, who account for nearly one-fifth of the city's 3.7 million residents, praising Vajpayee, the leader of a party that has sometimes spouted virulently anti-Muslim rhetoric. Thanks to a booming economy, as well as Vajpayee's trip to Pakistan, India's most popular Prime Minister of the past decade has won over a wide spectrum of Indian voters—and his party looks set to cash in on that appeal by calling general elections as early as April, five months before the scheduled date. The BJP is counting on Vajpayee's enhanced stature to project a drastically new image for itself. The party of macho Hindu nationalism, which stunned the world by testing a nuclear bomb in 1998, is now portraying itself as Vajpayee's party—the party of moderation, economic growth and peace. It's a dramatic makeover for a political outfit with a renegade past, and it has left many Indians wondering: Is the BJP growing up at last?
The new BJP is very much in evidence as it swings into election mode—not by promising to fulfill key items of the Hindu-nationalist agenda, like building the temple in Ayodhya, but by talking economics. Finance Minister Jaswant Singh has announced a $2.7 billion handout to India's middle class by slashing taxes and import duties on foreign travel, cell phones and computers. "We don't want any agenda that is religious or divisive," says Pramod Mahajan, a key electoral strategist for the BJP. "We want to fight on economic, rational issues." The party, says Mahajan, is projecting Vajpayee as the only leader who can transform India into a prosperous nation. To make sure voters understand that there is no alternative to Vajpayee, BJP's top strategists also plan to hammer hard at Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born head of the opposition Congress Party, portraying her as a political outsider without the gravitas to rule India. "Atal vs. Sonia will be our first point," says Mahajan.
Vajpayee's success in curbing the extremists within the BJP has allowed the party to keep its fragile coalition intact and to forge the most stable non-Congress government in India's history. The BJP has pushed through important reforms that have opened large parts of the Indian economy to private competition and foreign investment. The result has been a spectacular burst of economic growth; last year, the economy grew by more than 7%. Vajpayee's recent trip to Pakistan has also reconfirmed a feeling among many Indian Muslims that their Prime Minister is not a bigot. In Lucknow, Muslims say that they believe Vajpayee's sensitivity to their concerns stretches back to his tenure as India's Foreign Minister in the late 1970s, when he took steps to make it easy for Indian Muslims to work in the Middle East. "He's not a hard-liner," says A.H. Alvi, the Muslim editor of the Avadh Skyline, a Lucknow newspaper.
But has Vajpayee truly converted the BJP, forcing it to renounce its Hindu chauvinism? The BJP's attitude toward the Hindu right has been strategically ambiguous. At the same time that it has done little to upset the secular parties whose support it needs to stay in power, the BJP has also tried to reassure its right-wing base of its commitment to Hindu nationalism. Though the government has so far made little effort to build a Hindu temple at Ayodhya, the BJP's Mahajan says such plans remain part of his party's platform. "We will try to facilitate the construction of a temple through legal, constitutional means," he says. Muslim leaders complain that the BJP continues to promote a Hindu agenda by rewriting school textbooks to marginalize the place of Muslims in India's history. Even as the party touts Vajpayee as its benign, paternal face at the national level, it allows some of its local leaders to ignore any harassment of Muslims by Hindus in their states. And despite the friction between the BJP and its right-wing support base, the party will still use the RSS, which has 50,000 branches throughout India and at least 2 million active members, during the coming elections. RSS members are expected to campaign for the BJP and to take over some party jobs, freeing BJP officials to concentrate on electioneering. Some observers think Hindu right-wing groups such as the RSS would prefer to see Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani lead the BJP—but realize that his reputation as a Hindu hard-liner makes him unacceptable to moderate voters. Says the Hindu's Khare: "Given a choice, the RSS would rather see the back of Vajpayee. But they know the alternative to Vajpayee is to allow an Italian-born, Roman Catholic woman to become Prime Minister of India."
Though many political analysts have assumed that Vajpayee's popularity will power the BJP-led coalition to a resounding victory in the elections, the party's core base of support is confined largely to upper-caste Hindus in the north and west. The party has little appeal in the south or east and relies on small regional parties for support. The Congress has been aggressively wooing many of these regional parties—with increasing signs of success. To forge a coalition of anti-BJP parties and to strike a chord with moderate voters, the Congress appears determined to harp on the theme that the BJP is still a party of religious extremists. Jaipal Reddy, a Congress spokesman, says his party will fight a campaign to "save the secular soul of the country." The BJP's Mahajan says his party would prefer not to bring religion into the election but warns, ominously, that the BJP will "have to respond" if the Congress makes religion an electoral issue. If the Congress succeeds in turning the heat on the BJP by making the elections a closer contest than expected, the BJP could face the temptation to rouse its supporters by veering toward Hindu nationalism once more.
That's one reason why many Muslims, including some in Lucknow, say they still don't trust the BJP. Nevertheless, plenty of them have come to see Vajpayee as a friendly figure—and perhaps as India's only viable Prime Minister. Lucknow journalist Alvi says that although many Muslims would support the Congress over the BJP, they feel that Sonia Gandhi is "immature"—leaving them with no option but Vajpayee. When asked if he wouldn't prefer someone other than Vajpayee to lead India, Mohammed Ayub, the repairer of sewing machines, smiles and says: "Who else is there?"