Wed, Jun 02, 2004 - Page 5 News List

BJP moderates lose in India as Vajpayee rejects top job

NEW DELHI , REUTERS

India's main opposition party, still in shock at its surprise defeat in last month's election, elected former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani as its new leader in parliament on Tuesday.

Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, 79, was elected chairman of the Bharatiya Janata Party, but is expected to take a more backseat role after turning down the post Advani took.

"We have elected Vajpayee as chairman of the parliamentary party," BJP president Venkaiah Naidu said. "L.K. Advani will be our leader in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament)."

But the broader question of where the Hindu nationalist BJP goes from here remains unanswered.

"It's a question they don't even know the answer to," said Vinod Mehta, editor of the weekly magazine Outlook. "They are utterly and totally confused and traumatized by this defeat."

Riding on the "feel-good" factor of a booming economy and improved ties with old foe Pakistan, the BJP was the overwhelming favorite to win the election, only to be swept away by Sonia Gandhi's Congress party.

Advani has already admitted the BJP campaign motto "India shining" may have backfired, alienating large sections of the rural and urban poor excluded from the economic opportunities enjoyed by the middle class.

But the post-mortem will also have to examine whether the BJP's traditional message of hardline Hinduism -- set aside this time in favor of a platform of moderation and good governance -- remains a vote-winner.

Vajpayee was the standard-bearer for the BJP's moderate wing, and played a key role in building and sustaining a broad coalition government during his five-year rule.

As Vajpayee's star wanes, hardliners are already arguing that the BJP should return to the militant Hindu themes that first brought it to prominence in the 1990s, like the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a razed 16th-century mosque.

"Generally the right sees only one way to go when in trouble, and that is the temple route," said Mehta. "But the younger generation in the BJP is trying to resist this; they see the BJP's future as a center-right party devoted to good governance."

The election results were also a setback for the hardline cause, with their champion Narendra Modi losing six seats in the western state of Gujarat, scene of some of India's bloodiest clashes between Hindus and Muslims in 2002.

India's Supreme Court blamed Modi for looking the other way like a "modern-day Nero" while Hindu extremists raped and butchered Muslim women and children. Parts of the Indian electorate apparently felt the same way.

Modi survived calls for his resignation after the riots, when the BJP felt he remained a vote-winner. Today he faces calls to quit even from within his own party.

BJP hardliners were also wrong-footed after Gandhi shocked the nation and won its sympathy for renouncing the prime minister's role after winning the election.

After mounting a vicious campaign against her Italian origins -- with one BJP leader threatening to shave her head -- Gandhi's opponents ended up looking to many like graceless losers.

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