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Profile:  Indian PM Atal Behari Vajpayee - 2004-04-16


Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has filed to seek re-election in parliamentary elections that begin April 20. The prime minister's appeal is one of the main reasons Mr. Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to return to power.

In a promotional film for the Bharatiya Janata Party campaign, India's 79-year-old poet Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, promises to build a new India.

Whether it is films, posters or campaign speeches, Mr. Vajpayee is the man the BJP promotes as its unquestioned leader. The party's strategy is based on the huge personal appeal of the prime minister. Recent opinion polls have rated Mr. Vajpayee's popularity far higher than that of his main rival, opposition Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, and even higher than that of his own party.

Public opinion polls indicate the BJP-led coalition will return to power, and party spokesman Siddharth Nath acknowledges Mr. Vajpayee's role. "Yes, Vajpayee is giving us an edge and his leadership, his vision for India, has created not only for the BJP, but for the country and the world, a very tall leader," he said.

Mr. Vajpayee is seeking a fourth term in office. His first stint in 1996 lasted less than two weeks - his second in 1998 a little more than 18 months. But this time he has completed a full term.

In the past six years, Mr. Vajpayee's stature has increased steadily, his image changing from an old, easygoing man to a charismatic leader.

He has won much praise for being a consensus builder - a rare politician who held together 22 disparate parties and gave India its first coalition government to run a full term.

His efforts to make peace with Pakistan are seen as his biggest achievement. Mr. Vajpayee said achieving this peace is of paramount importance. At election rally after rally, Mr. Vajpayee spoke of his hope that the South Asian rivals can set aside their hostilities, and focus on development.

But most important, Mr. Vajpayee is seen as the one who has steered his party's image away from its nationalistic, anti-Muslim reputation, and helped it campaign from a more moderate position.

Six years ago, the BJP catapulted to power on a Hindu nationalist agenda. In 2002, religious violence swept through the BJP governed Gujarat state, killing more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. The riots raised fears that hardliners in the BJP might inflame communal strife.

But the BJP is now projecting itself as a party reaching out to Muslim voters, making peace with Pakistan and concentrating on economic growth.

Independent political analyst Prem Shankar Jha said Mr. Vajpayee's personal belief in tolerance and his ability to tame "hawks" within his party have convinced people he - and his party - are committed to secularism. "Vajpayee has been singularly successful in persuading people that what he believes, which is that India is pluralistic and must therefore be secular, that this is actually the policy of the BJP as a whole," he said.

Some political analysts believe Mr. Vajpayee has genuinely recast the BJP in a more moderate mold. Others call him an "aberration" in his party, and say it is risky to believe that the BJP and Mr. Vajpayee stand for the same ideals.

However, concerns remain about Mr. Vajpayee's age and health. There has been some speculation that if he wins another term, he may make way for the number-two man in the party, Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, after a year or two. Mr. Advani has a reputation as a hardliner.

Mr. Vajpayee recently told party workers in his constituency, Lucknow, that he is seeking re-election not because he wants to, but because of pressure from the party and people. He dismissed suggestions that he plans to leave active politics, saying the time is not right for him to retire.

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