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The calm face who guides India amid Hindu extremism

One year after a shaky start, prime minister's moderate stance seems

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As India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee looked on smilingly, two rock groups - one Pakistani, one Indian - joined on stage to end a celebration of his first year as head of the world's largest democracy.

The symbolism was striking. After a turbulent year in a region of unstable governments - a year that started with India, then rival Pakistan testing nuclear weapons, making threats, and in which Mr. Vajpayee's government seemed in perpetual collapse - the atmosphere in the cool air on March 19 was relaxed and moderate. Much like the image cast by the prime minister himself.

India is a highly political country where shopkeepers and clerks are as attuned to the moods of government as paid analysts. The mechanics of politics take place through subtle symbols and shifts. Since 1990, six governments have come and gone in India; none were reelected.

Appeal to voters

Yet a year after the Bharatiya Janata (BJP), a hard-line Hindu "India first" party, was voted into office here, one thing seems clear: Prime Minister Vajpayee has emerged as a moderate leader who has seized the reins of power.

After devastating local elections late last year, Vajpayee, a bachelor, a man of ascetic tastes whose hobby is reading, began consolidating his position. Today he and his coterie are the only moderates in a party vowing it will further "Hinduize" India.

Still, it is also becoming clear that no one can replace Vajpayee, much as some in his own ranks might want to. Even the vast bureaucracy, famous for its roadblocks and red tape, is slowly accepting the current regime.

Partly, Vajpayee's consolidation of power is due to his charisma and Indian folkways, which connect with a broad range of ordinary Indians. Partly it is an aura of personal integrity that has kept the 18 bickering members of his coalition together. Partly it is Vajpayee's own seizing of history and, Nixon-in-China-like, traveling to Lahore, Pakistan, last month to talk peace with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.


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