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Last Updated: Friday, 21 May, 2004, 12:03 GMT 13:03 UK
India's new-look governing party

By Abhishek Prabhat
BBC correspondent in Delhi

Before it suffered a shock defeat in the recent general elections, India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been trying to reinvent itself.

Vehicle adorned with BJP portraits
The party's leaders have decided to change gear for 2004

The BJP once flaunted a strongly Hindu nationalist ideology, much to the anxiety of the 130 million Muslims in this secular nation.

But the BJP appears to have moved on a long way in trying to shed its old image and ideology.

It was once known for its rigid stance against the opening up of the economy, its hardline brand of Hinduism and for its aggressive postures towards Pakistan.

For a long time that made the BJP a political untouchable in India.

But while its opponents have been busy labelling it as a party of traders and saffron-clad Hindu holy men, the BJP has quietly embraced economic reforms and development.

It has also built up a sophisticated party machinery, often using cutting edge technology.

That helps explain why it could run a 20-party coalition, with relative success, for the last four years.

The BJP, however, faces fresh challenges after its defeat and could have to renew efforts to stitch up a more formidable alliance.

New poll plank

The BJP had resolved to contest the general elections on the issue of development.

Costumed performers
Performers dressed as mythic Hindu heroes spice up the Hyderabad event

While the new plank of development was being promoted, the BJP quietly pushed aside - at least for the moment - the issue that has remained at the heart of its campaigning over the last decade.

The Ayodhya dispute, in which hardline Hindus pushed to build a grand temple on the ruins of a destroyed 16th century mosque, was once the BJP's key campaign issue.

The hardliners believe the mosque, destroyed by Hindu mobs in 1992, was built over a site marking the birthplace of the Hindu God Ram.

But Ayodhya did not even find a mention in the four-page pre-election political resolution adopted by the BJP.

Party ideologue and cabinet minister Arun Jaitley denies that the BJP is changing its character.

"Every party evolves," he told the BBC.

Crowd in Hyderabad
Larger than life cut-outs of BJP leaders tower over supporters

"There are some issues which are ideologically always a part of its personality and these issues will remain," he said.

"But the business of governance is independent of these issues," Mr Jaitley said.

Two other favourite issues of the BJP have been shelved as the party no longer considers them fruitful.

One is the demand that there be only one civil code for all Indians - at present Muslims, for example, are allowed to have more than one wife.

The other is the call for an end to special status for Kashmir - residents of the disputed Indian-controlled part of Kashmir enjoy special privileges under their own constitution.

Hindutva redefined

In its quest for power, the party has also redefined Hindutva (literally Hinduness), the hard-to-define philosophy of Hindu nationalism

The BJP has sworn by Hindutva ever since its birth in 1980.

But it often changed its meaning to suit its own convenience.

For hardline Hindus it was meant to be the establishment of a Hindu nation while for the minority community it spelt cultural nationalism.

Now the BJP has defined it yet again.

"Hindutva means all-round development and prosperity", Venkaiah Naidu told journalists.


As Hindutva loses favour with voters, the party has rested its hardline mascots.

Marching supporters
Broadening appeal: BJP marchers in Hyderabad

Cabinet minister Murali Manohar Joshi, who still faces charges over the Ayodhya mosque demolition, and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi rarely appear on party posters and banners.

Mr Modi earned notoriety when the state of Gujarat was engulfed in bloody religious riots nearly two years ago.

More than a thousand people, mainly Muslims, died with Mr Modi's administration being accused of turning a blind eye to the rioting.

But these days Mr Joshi and Mr Modi are rarely consulted on sensitive political issues.

Their place has been taken over by the technology-savvy, suave and media-friendly Pramod Mahajan and Arun Jaitley.

The two, along with former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, his deputy L K Advani and BJP chief Venkaiah Naidu form the party's "high-five".

Another radical change can be seen in the party's style of functioning.

BJP leaders
Mr Vajpayee's circle enjoys the limelight - but others have lost out

During its years in opposition, the cadre-based BJP often criticised its rival Congress Party's personality-led politics.

But in five years it was in power, the BJP relied quite heavily on the personal charisma and popularity of Mr Vajpayee and his Mr Advani, rather than the party rank-and-file.

Analysts say that whether the party will continue to reinvent itself will be keenly watched after its defeat in the polls.

Some say the party could revert to its hardline nationalist agenda to take on the ruling Congress-led alliance to win back support of its main constituency: upper caste, well to-do Hindus.

India votes 2004: Full in-depth coverage here


Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee Atal Behari Vajpayee
India's charismatic coalition builder


File photo of Sonia Gandhi, September 2008 Sonia Gandhi
The enigmatic Italian-born Congress leader




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