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February 3, 1998


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Campaign Trail/Sunil Sethi

The road from MP to PM is now crossed with hazards

At eight on a smoky-grey morning in Lucknow, there is already a crowd spilling on the pavement outside the VIP state guest house down the road from Raj Bhavan. Word is out that the sitting member of Parliament from the city is to arrive that morning on the Lucknow Mail from Delhi. He is to file his nomination, address a rally, attend a number of functions and stay overnight. Within an hour, a planeload of journalists and camera crews have flown in, and by 10 am, the crowd is a thronging horde at the tail of a half-mile-long procession. The capital of the most-populated state in India and the core of Hindu heartland is en fete to receive Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, the only prime ministerial candidate in the 1998 election and the BJP's biggest draw and its most effective campaigner, Vajpayee does not like to keep his constituents waiting. Although he has only represented Lucknow since 1996, the one slogan that has dogged him for 11 continuous terms since he first became MP in 1957 is, "Ab ki bari, Atal Bihari" (This time, it's Atal Bihari).

Of course, his fans don't just mean an MP nowadays, they mean PM! And they mean a full-term prime minister. 'The Man India Awaits' -- as his party publicity campaign states -- was prime minister for 13 days in 1996 when the BJP held the maximum number of seats in Parliament. The party, however, failed to reach a majority and his government resigned.

For Vajpayee, it has been a long journey. Splendid orator, sensitive poet, suave diplomat, and shrewd pragmatist of Hindu Right, he knows that he has waited too long. This, he realises, is his last chance -- if the BJP fails to obtain a majority this time, it could be curtains. From the many themes thrown up by the midterm poll, the issue he has chosen to be most emphatic about is political stability.

"We need a stable government that will survive its full term of five years," he has repeatedly stressed, even at a Presidential banquet for visiting French President Jacques Chirac. "Without such a government, the country is in trouble."

To achieve this end, the BJP abandoned its political principles by welcoming defectors and criminals last October to help form a government in Uttar Pradesh and, more recently, forged a pre-election alliance with corrupt politicians like Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu. "When we behaved, we kept losing and you press people called us bekar (useless),... we are in the business of politics to win elections and to carry out our agenda," says Vajpayee. As the smiling, moderate face of the BJP -- which critics such as party general secretary Govindacharya once described as a "mask," Vajpayee may be acceptable to most Indians as prime minister. His party, however, is less so.

As a result, his ideological position, his opinions, even his daily agenda on the campaign has undergone a shift. Unlike Sonia Gandhi who recently issued a belated apology for the demolition of the Babri Masjid on behalf of the Congress, the BJP has not.

But Vajpayee circumvents issues such as the demand for building a temple at the site of the mosque and tends to altogether eschew the subject of religion in his speeches. His public engagements are carefully tailored to stress his secular, tolerant image. In Lucknow, he attended ritual Hindu prayers in the morning, then released a translation of the Bible in the local dialect at an old Christian college in the afternoon and attended an iftaar party hosted for Muslim notables in the evening.

Although they constitute just 10 per cent of the city's population of four million, Lucknow's Muslims have descended from a hoary and influential elite. To mop up their votes -- and play on their unease about Vajpayee -- former UP chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, the BJP's main rival in the state, has gone in for glamorous figures. In 1996, it pitted movie star Raj Babbar against Vajpayee, who lost miserably. This time it's film director Muzaffar Ali, maker of the blockbuster Umrao Jaan, who also belongs to Lucknow's old aristocracy.

The 52-year-old film-maker, imposingly leonine and supported by his ravishing young wife, receives visitors his elegant haveli in Kaiserbagh. "I have not addressed a big rally yet, only small meetings," he says. Turning to his wife, he asks: "Why don't you sell the household furniture? We need trucks to bring people in. That might pay for the trucks."

Ali's heart bleeds for the decaying city of his forbears, its homeless poor, its untended sick, its silenced poets. In reality, Lucknow's vote will be split between his party and the Congress and he doesn't stand a chance against Vajpayee. Still, he wears his opposition like a badge of courage.

Vajpayee won his seat in the last election by a margin of 130,000 votes. He will easily beat his own record this time. But the road from MP to PM is now crossed with such hazards as a slowly reviving Congress under Sonia's dominance. Will Vajpayee realise his dream of heading a stable BJP government in New Delhi? It is the answer India awaits.

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