Rational outlook new PM's hallmark

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 May, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 May, 1996, 12:00am

New Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has spent a lifetime in politics, and seems uncomfortable with the strident nationalism promoted by the hardliners of his Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

A poet, former journalist and formidable debater, he has been an MP for 30 years, most of them in the opposition.

But for a brief period, when the Congress (I) Party was out of power in 1977, he was foreign minister, improving relations with neighbouring Pakistan like never before or since.

But like all senior BJP leaders today, Mr Vajpayee, 70, began his political career in the 1940s in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a neo-Fascist Hindu revivalist movement on the fringe of the independence struggle against the British.

The RSS, with its para-military youth wings and disciplined cadres, remains the ideologue of the BJP, committed to perpetuating Hindu power and pursuing anti-Muslim policies.

Mr Vajpayee blossomed as an RSS worker, and at 25 was one of the youngest founders of the Jana Sangh, its political wing.

He led the Sangh through decades of political wilderness, assuming leadership of the newly-constituted BJP in 1980, which by appealing to India's majority Hindu community has, along with its allies, grown from having two MPs in 1984 to 187 today.

But buoyed by its success in the early 1990s, the BJP became more hardline, pursuing an anti-Muslim stand, and the liberal-minded Mr Vajpayee found himself sidelined by extremists, like party president Lal Krishna Advani.

In 1992 he found himself further alienated after Hindu zealots, led by the RSS, demolished a 16th-century mosque at Ayodhya in northern India. In the rioting which followed more than 1,500 people died.

But as the BJP moved to expand its influence and bid for power in the recent elections, Mr Vajpayee's relaxed style and moderate views began to look more appealing.