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 Monday, 7 January, 2002, 15:32 GMT
Atal Behari Vajpayee
Atal Behari Vajpayee began his political career during the British Raj
Poet-politician said to be his generation's finest orator
By BBC News Online's David Chazan

Atal Behari Vajpayee's critics call him "the mask" - saying his benign smile of moderation hides his party's links with Hindu extremists.

Although he leads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), his priority seems to be raising India's profile as an aspiring world power, rather than making war on Pakistan.

Atal Behari Vajpayee
Age: 77
Jailed during independence struggle
Bachelor who writes poetry and enjoys cooking
Famed for eloquent Hindi speeches
Leads Hindu nationalist party
Has tried to improve relations with Pakistan
Criticised by Hindu radicals for opposing destruction of Ayodhya mosque
Ordered nuclear tests in 1998
Questions about his health

Since a 13 December suicide attack on India's parliament by militants allegedly based in neighbouring Pakistan, Mr Vajpayee has taken a tough line.

Yet those close to him say his personal mission has been to improve relations with Pakistan.

As foreign minister in the 1970s, he managed to forge closer links with India's rival nuclear power.

Later, he transcended his political roots in the right-wing Rashtriya Swamyamsevak Sangh (RSS) to emerge as the moderate voice of the BJP.

The party's Hindu revivalism is unacceptable to most Muslims and other minorities, and even many moderate Hindus.

Bus diplomacy

Undeterred by radicals who accused him of embarking on a charm offensive to Pakistan, Mr Vajpayee rode triumphantly into the Pakistani city of Lahore in 1999 aboard the first direct bus from India.

Hindu fundamentalist in demonstration
Hardline Hindu groups support the BJP
But his diplomatic breakthrough - hailed as the dawn of a new era - was followed only months later by hostilities in disputed Kashmir that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

Perhaps alone in the BJP leadership, Mr Vajpayee is seen as a statesman and a pragmatist, capable of initiatives reaching far beyond the Hindu nationalist political agenda.

But given the current tension with Pakistan, his party may not allow him to be too conciliatory.

It could even prove difficult for the 77-year-old Mr Vajpayee to stay in office and avoid war with Pakistan, some analysts say.

Free market champion

Hardliners in the BJP are also ill at ease with Mr Vajpayee's liberal economic policies which have opened India's economy and brought the country closer to the West.

Critics say that behind Mr Vajpayee is his right-hand man, the powerful hardline Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani.

Indian Home Minister L.K. Advani
Hawkish right-hand man LK Advani
Mr Advani and most BJP politicians supported the 1992 destruction of a mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya.

Mr Vajpayee, however, went out on a limb to condemn the attack unequivocally.

He has, at times, tried to appeal to Muslims and other minority groups, and he has been a reassuring figure for India's mainly secular establishment.

Honest politician

His personal integrity has never been seriously questioned, but arms bribery scandals have exposed corruption in his government and cast doubt on his judgment.

A high caste Brahmin, he was born in 1926 in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

Ayodhya temple
Mr Vajpayee was a lone voice in the BJP over Ayodhya
As a teenager he was jailed briefly for opposing British colonial rule, but played no major part in the freedom movement.

He flirted with communism before choosing to support the RSS and the Jan Sangh - both right-wing organisations that later developed close links with the BJP.

He dropped out of law school to run an RSS magazine in the early 1950s.

The RSS enforces strict discipline and its members wear military-style uniforms. Many BJP leaders including Mr Advani began their careers as members.

Mr Vajpayee first became prime minister in 1996 - after four decades in opposition.

Pragmatism over ideology

But his coalition government was weak, and he lasted only 13 days as prime minister.

The lack of a powerful majority hampered his second stint in power from 1998.

His government collapsed after a politician from the southern state of Tamil Nadu - Jayalalitha - withdrew her party's support from the coalition.

He was re-elected in 1999 at the head of a more stable coalition.

But to win the backing of more secular groups, he had to abandon some of the cornerstones of BJP policy.

These had included scrapping special autonomy for Kashmir, building a Hindu temple on the site of the Ayodhya mosque and abolishing India's separate civil code for India's Muslims.

A lifelong bachelor, he lists cooking as one of his hobbies and writes intellectual poetry in his spare time.

  The BBC's Jill McGivering
profiles Mr Vajpayee
See also:

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24 Sep 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
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