All Smiles?

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's upcoming Inauguration won't be as tense as the last. A year and a half ago Vajpayee took the podium at the presidential palace looking ashen, averting his eyes from the front row of VIPs. There sat K. Sudarshan, boss of a militant Hindu movement called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, surveying the proceedings with the air of a kingmaker. Vajpayee's own Hindu nationalist party had grown from roots in the RSS, and was still beholden to its radical leaders. In the dead of the previous night, Sudarshan had gone to Vajpayee demanding that he drop "liberals" from his cabinet. High on the hit list: Vajpayee's old friend, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh. After the Inaugural, Vajpayee walked away with the grim expression of a man haunted by his party's radical past.

No more. In national elections last week, the Hindu nationalists continued their rapid ascent from the violent fringe to the democratic mainstream. Less than a decade ago their Bharatiya Janata Party was headed by embittered militants, who in 1992 aroused a Hindu mob to raze the Babri Mosque in the temple city of Ayodhya. The anti-Muslim violence triggered a surge of Hindu nationalism that would reshape Indian politics. By 1996 the BJP had expanded from a two-seat toehold to a 161-seat plurality in Parliament. But no rival party would back a group that had so openly flouted India's Gandhian legacy of secular democracy, and the 1996 BJP government collapsed in 13 days. Vajpayee, now at the helm, began to fashion a more moderate BJP, ultimately attracting 23 parties to an alliance that last week gave the Hindu nationalists their greatest majority yet, with 304 of the 543 Parliament seats. During a celebration Thursday afternoon at his New Delhi bungalow, Vajpayee exulted in an exclusive NEWSWEEK interview that "the BJP has emerged as the dominant pole of Indian politics."

Dominant, and still controversial. In recent months Vajpayee has purged militants from his inner circle and rehabilitated liberals. Characters from the RSS, with their khaki uniforms and morning drills, are gone from advisory posts. The scholarly Jaswant Singh is back as foreign minister. Vajpayee has openly snubbed advocates of swadeshi, or "economic nationalism," who would roll back India's recent opening to the outside world. Yet there are still suspicions about the BJP. Many Indians believe that a recent wave of violence against Christians in western Gujarat state is the work of Hindu militants, who may plot a comeback within Vajpayee's party.

The Congress party of the Gandhi dynasty was particularly alarmist in defeat. The former ruling party took just 112 seats, its worst showing since 1947, and went down warning that the BJP's newfound tolerance is a sham. Before salvaging a seat for herself, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi went to Vajpayee's home district of Lucknow to issue a blunt attack. The Hindu nationalists, she said, "are wearing a mask of secularism to trick you. These are the people who demolished a religious shrine and who even today are attacking minorities in certain states." A fortnight earlier, a group of academics, artists and social activists got together in New Delhi and launched a campaign to "expose" Vajpayee. "If he is a liberal, what is he doing in the BJP, which is a right-wing fascist party?" asks historian K. N. Panikkar. "Their real agenda is to turn India into a Hindu theocratic state."

Hindu nationalism has never been simple to read. After British partition of the Subcontinent in 1947, Muslims broke off to form Pakistan, and many Hindus furious at the loss found haven in groups like the RSS. The BJP would rise in turn from the RSS, with one faction led by Vajpayee, and a more militant one led by L. K. Advani. During partition, Advani saw Muslim mobs expel his family from its ancestral home in Karachi, now part of Pakistan. But Vajpayee, who hails from a low-income but upper-caste family in the central Indian town of Gwalior, suffered no personal scars in the turmoil. The split would become obvious. Decades later, after a bitter Advani orchestrated the mob attack in Ayodhya, Vajpayee was so upset that he remained confined to his room for a day, and later described the razing of the Babri Mosque as a "national shame."

Yet Vajpayee did not turn on the culprits. He never publicly renounced the RSS. As a young man, Vajpayee had flirted with the socialism of the Congress party, but rejected what he later described as its Anglicized airs and its habit of sneering at common Indian ways. If Congress was the party of the Indian elite, this son of a Brahmin schoolteacher was more comfortable in the less aristocratic surrounds of the BJP. To this day, Vajpayee says there is "no question" of distinguishing himself from militant BJP leaders. Advani, the architect of the Ayodhya siege, is his Home minister in charge of internal security.

Vajpayee's complex nationalism quickly bewildered the world. One of his first acts as prime minister was to carry out a standing BJP threat to test India's nuclear weapons. The test, in May 1998, prompted global fears of an arms race between India and Pakistan. Instead, having established India's claim to a place among the nuclear powers, Vajpayee followed up with a historic peace visit to Pakistan. During his bus trip to Lahore in February, Vajpayee visited a minaret to show that the BJP accepts the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. For India it was a turning point, the moral equivalent of Arabs' recognizing Israel's right to exist. And like Richard Nixon's visit to China, says Foreign Minister Singh, it was the kind of gesture only a leader with strong conservative credentials could get away with at home.

It was also Vajpayee's way of asserting a point of Hindu nationalist pride: that India is above petty spats with a neighbor one tenth its size. Months later, when intruders slipped over the Pakistan border into Indian Kashmir provoking an undeclared war, Vajpayee maintained an attitude of calm. His aides say that while the prime minister felt betrayed, he fought off demands of Indian hard-liners for an invasion of Pakistan. Now basking in international praise for his restraint, Vajpayee expects to entertain Bill Clinton on a state visit to New Delhi in January. Indian officials say they are prepared to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in return for the lifting of U.S. sanctions imposed after the test explosions. Those who feared the BJP would make India a pariah may instead see it welcomed in the club of nuclear powers.

The home front may prove tougher. Vajpayee has been pushing forward free-market reforms begun by Congress in the early 1990s. BJP moderates say that opening to the outside world was natural for a party of small merchants and traders, who had long criticized socialist monopolies once favored by the Gandhis. Vajpayee cut subsidies on food and fertilizer, invited private and foreign investment in airports, roads and telecommunications, and eased controls on foreign exchange. Then late last year came an internal revolt, says a party leader in Delhi. "Once in the government the hard-liners again tried to exert their pressure by pushing an inward-looking economic nationalism."

The rebellion soon became public. When Vajpayee tried to push free-market reform to cover the insurance business, a branch of the RSS called the Swadeshi Jagran Manch dug in its heels. These economic nationalists want to pull India out of the World Trade Organization, ban luxury imports and bar foreign investors. Hoping to force Vajpayee's hand, the Swadeshi forum invited him to open a celebration of indigenous industry and culture last January in New Delhi. Vajpayee , a nimble orator, sidestepped their calls to revive trade protection. "It's good that you have come up with ideas," he told the forum. "But if I can' t execute them, I' ll say sorry."

The religious militants would be harder to subdue. After the debacle of his 13-day government in '96, Vajpayee jettisoned his party's most inflammatory anti-Muslim stands. He abandoned any mention of plans to build a temple dedicated to the Hindu God-king Ram at the site of the demolished Babri Mosque. He dropped calls to abolish autonomy in the Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir, and to end the legal exemptions for minorities that now allow Muslims to practice such customs as polygamy. Now, Vajpayee plans to welcome Pope John Paul II to New Delhi, despite hard-line complaints that the pope's grand mass on Nov. 7 will "clash" with the Hindu celebration of Diwali, or the festival of lights. "You must give credit to Vajpayee for taming the ultranationalists," says author Kuldip Nayar, often a staunch critic of the BJP. "But I think once out of power the hard-liners in the RSS may raise their heads again."

They're already stirring. At a BJP conference last February, Vajpayee pushed through a resolution condemning the attacks on Christians in Gujarat. He also asked the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh to rescind an order making aprayer to the Hindu god of learning mandatory in schools. That was too much for the RSS ideologue Dattopant Thengdi, who attacked Vajpayee as a "petty politician'' easily manipulated by "doubtful advisers." Hard-liners also targeted Vajpayee loyalist and adviser Madan Lal Khurana, who resigned under pressure--but not before warning that the RSS "wants to remote-control the government and tarnish its image."

Vajpayee aides say that a subsequent purge of militants has left him fully in command. Really? The BJP chief minister for Uttar Pradesh, Kalyan Singh, recently warned in an election speech that "No power on earth can prevent the construction of the Ram temple" in Ayodhya. In fact devout Hindus have already hired master craftsmen to carve the stonework for a new temple. A Hindu trust called Nirmohi Akhara is battling a Muslim trust for control of the site, and their rival claims are being heard by the state high court.

Vajpayee's call for both sides to respect the court decision has further alienated Hindu priests. The head of Nirmohi Akhara, priest Jagannath Das, complains that Hindus who died in the 1991-1992 skirmishes have been forgotten by the BJP. The family of tea vendor Vasudev Gupta, one of three men shot by the police before the mob stormed the mosque, now lives in penury. His wife and three surviving children live in a dingy room behind his tea shop, which is about to close. His daughter Anusuya says, "We have approached the BJP leaders for help so many times but they don't pay any attention."

It comes as some comfort to minorities, however, that Vajpayee has withdrawn active support from Hindu militants. Fear among the Muslim population of more than 100 million is subtly easing. In Delhi, the imam of the Grand Jama Masjid had always warned his flock to vote against the BJP, but did not bother to do so this year. Among 24 parties in the BJP's National Democratic Alliance are representatives of minorities from Sikhs in Punjab to Christians in northeast Mizoram. "As a Muslim I always voted for the Congress," says Mohammad Sahid, a cotton trader in the eastern town of Raghunathpali. "But I voted for the BJP because I trust Vajpayee when he says all minorities will be protected."

Vajpayee will be able to satisfy such hopes, however, only if his alliance remains united. He knows the dangers; the prime minister once reminded a campaign crowd about the story of King Dasarath and his son and chosen successor, Ram. Dasarath's succession plan crumbled when he promised one of his three wives a favor in return for a good deed. She did her part, then asked Dasarath to exile Ram for 14 years and make her own son king instead. As an honorable man, Dasarath had to keep his promise. As a respectful son, Ram had to comply. The moral, on the eve of Vajpayee's Inauguration: let moderates beware of the schemers, who would remake India in their own spiteful image.