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Hindu Nationalists Rule India - but How Long?

As the Bharatiya Janata Party prepares to rule, its opponents derisively call it the 'eight-day wonder' and predict its demise

It was the day the lotus bloomed. As Atal Behari Vajpayee took the solemn oath of office to become the country's 10th prime minister, jubilant supporters of his Bharatiya Janata Party celebrated the historic victory of Hindu nationalism in India.

At the BJP's Ashoka Road headquarters in New Delhi, saffron-colored flags carrying the party's lotus symbol covered the gates. Inside the sprawling bungalow, the crowds watching the ceremony on television erupted into chants of Jai Shri Ram (Hail Lord Ram) and Atal Behari Zindabad (Victory to Atal Behari), and distributed sweets in his honor.

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For the party faithful, any doubts about the unfinished agenda of proving a majority in parliament dissipated yesterday when Mr. Vajpayee and his 11-member Cabinet were sworn in by President Shankar Dayal Sharma at his official residence in a short 20-minute ceremony.

"We don't start on the premise that we might fail," BJP treasurer V.B. Goyal said.

"If we had so much doubt, we wouldn't have accepted [the president's] invitation," he said.

Still needing a majority

The BJP now has until May 31 to attract the support of at least 60 more members of parliament needed to ensure its political survival. Together with its declared allies, the party controls only 195 seats in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament. If Mr. Vajpayee cannot muster the support of a majority, his government will collapse.

The BJP hopes that it will be able to lure members from the ranks of the defeated Congress Party, the National Front-Left Front (NF-LF) alliance, or numerous uncommitted minor regional parties and independents. As an incentive the party has proposed granting more autonomy to the states in their financial affairs.

From the moment the first ballots were cast in the general election that concluded May 27, the country's 950 million people had been waiting for this day with either joy or apprehension.

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Never before has India been so deeply polarized along religious lines, never before has the rest of the world been so alarmed by the sudden shift to the right of the world's second-most populated country.

At a press conference just hours after being invited to form a government, Mr. Vajpayee reiterated that his party would not compromise on any points of its election manifesto.

India's first Hindu nationalist prime minister pledged to keep the country's nuclear-weapons options open, retake parts of the northern state of Kashmir currently "occupied" by Pakistan, and construct a temple on a disputed religious site at Ayodhya.

"We expect that the nuclear nations will stop stockpiling nuclear weapons, but if they fail to do so, we will do whatever is required for the security of the country," Vajpayee warned.

The BJP leader also reiterated India's right over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which he stated "legally and rightfully belongs to India."

He added, however, that his government would pursue friendly relations with its neighbor. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since independence in 1947 and Western intelligence agencies say both countries have the capacity to build nuclear weapons if they have already not done so.

No going back

But Vaypayee also said there could be no going back on the party's Hindu nationalist ideology and its pledge to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram on the site of a mosque destroyed by Hindu fundamentalists in December 1992. The BJP is widely held responsible for stirring the passions that led to the mob's destruction of the famous Muslim shrine in India at Ayodhya.

"The BJP believes in the policy of cooperation, and not confrontation. We will treat all citizens alike and on an equal footing, and there will be no discrimination on the basis of religion, region, class, or caste," Vajpayee said at the press conference.

Despite his assurances, the BJP's ascension to power has alarmed India's large Muslim community. "They say one nation, one people, one culture, which is repugnant to the very Constitution of our country," says Syed Yusuf, a member of Jammat-i-Islami party.

The prospect of a BJP government has also aroused fears among liberal Hindus who believe moderates within the party like Vajpayee will be slaves to the vociferous extremist wing of the Hindu movement.

The BJP's rank and file are dominated by organizations like the militant Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corp), a martial organization promoting an exclusively Hindu definition of the Indian nation, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), which has been campaigning to liberate Hindu sites allegedly occupied by Muslim shrines.

"It is in the nature of their kind of ideology to intimidate their enemies. It will be extremely difficult for liberal elements [in India] if the BJP forms a government," says historian Romilla Thapar, who was one of several prominent intellectuals to receive death threats for criticizing the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque.

When questioned about voters' motives, Ms. Thapar rejects the suggestion that it was just a vote for change and not necessarily a subscription to the party's Hindu nationalist philosophy. "If you are a supporter of the BJP, you have a particular ideology. The majority clearly believe this is the ideology that suits them."

With just two weeks left for the BJP to pass its ultimate test of survival on the floor of parliament, the defeated Congress Party and an increasingly fragmented NF-LF alliance will find it hard to maintain a united front.

Although Congress spokesman V.N. Gadgil believes the BJP will be an "eight-day wonder" lacking the numbers to survive a no-confidence vote, the BJP's strategy of splitting the opposition appears to be working sooner than expected. Within hours of Mr. Sharma's decision to invite the BJP, as the single largest party, to form the next government, the NF-LF had accused Congress Party leader and former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao of conspiring to keep the alliance out of power.

The NF-LF claimed Mr. Rao had deliberately delayed the delivery of a letter to the president endorsing his party's support for the alliance's prime ministerial nominee, H.D. Deve Gowda. They claim the delay would have helped open the way for Congress to fill the vacuum left by the BJP, should it fail to get a majority.

The NF-LF statement could be the beginning of the end for an anti-BJP coalition. Even if the bickering factions are able to bury their differences in the next two weeks, the lack of a common program to unite the parties around something more than a broad secular platform appears more remote than ever.

As the BJP's countdown to taking power commences, India is bracing itself for the most significant and uncertain fortnight in its political history.

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