India tries Hindu rule Vajpayee again: Secular tradition rebuked, threats to Muslims and Pakistan feared.

March 21, 1998

THE LAST TIME Atal Behari Vajpayee was sworn in as prime minister of India, his regime lasted 12 days. On the 13th, in 1996, he resigned rather than lose a confidence vote in parliament. Now he is in office again, with a better chance, though still heading a coalition commanding only a minority of votes, needing the silent acquiescence of more to stay in power.

Mr. Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) represents Hindu power and tradition of the vast majority of India's 952 million people, repudiating the secularism of the founding Congress Party. That includes the caste system, which successive Indian governments tried to banish. It summons up bigotry against India's minority of 100 million Muslims, intransigence on holding disputed and majority-Muslim Kashmir and enmity to neighboring Pakistan. The BJP says it respects minorities and opposes only privileged protections for them.

Its policies are not religious but cultural, BJP's defenders assert. Its first-place finish in the election in the world's most populous democracy is part of a world revival of fundamentalist political movements that repudiate corruptions of the modern age and long for a return to a past purity that may never have existed. It is not so different from the rise of Islamist parties of various stripes, the victory of a rightist coalition beholden to Jewish Orthodoxy in Israel, the vitality of the Christian right in the United States.

The hard right of Mr. Vajpayee's party dominates his Cabinet. Still, its members will be constrained by 12 coalition partner parties, the aggregate commanding but 264 votes out of 545 in parliament, before a confidence vote next week. Such numbers induce moderation.

This government needs to be moderate about its nuclear weapons advocacy, which could fuel an arms race with weaker but nuclear-ready Pakistan, and the treatment of India's Muslims, which has caused riots, grief and suffering. The BJP favors continuing economic reforms freeing India from the bureaucratic socialism of Congress Party rule, but with sharp restrictions on foreign investment. This would put New Delhi at odds with Washington.

But Mr. Vajpayee is not a novice or an unknown. He was a responsible foreign minister in a coalition government two decades ago. He knows the inherent dangers, and may even avoid them.

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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