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Page last updated at 04:43 GMT, Monday, 6 April 2009 05:43 UK

India's defiant opposition leader

By Sanjeev Srivastava
India editor, BBC Hindi services

LK Advani
This may be Mr Advani's last chance to go for India's top job

The prime ministerial candidate of India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Lal Krishna Advani, looked fresh and alert as always. At 81 he carries himself quite well.

But he looked more relaxed, assured and confident when I met him a year ago, shortly after he had published his autobiography.

This time one could detect a certain tension, a kind of restlessness.

Not difficult to understand considering it's election time, he is leading his party's campaign and on a personal front the stakes could not be higher.

Hung parliament

This is the first time in several decades that former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is not the BJP's mascot in a parliamentary election.

Mr Advani (r) and BJP President Rajnath Singh

That responsibility now rests on Mr Advani and the veteran leader realises that this year's elections could well be his last shot at trying to become the country's prime minister.

He also realises it's not an easy election.

A key ally has deserted the BJP-led alliance, the party is still looking to identify the one big issue with which to connect with the masses and there is a growing perception among political observers that the elections may throw up another hung parliament with a number of smaller, regional parties holding the key to power.

"But I don't see any chance of a third front - a non-Congress party or non-BJP government coming to power. Whichever group or party forms the government in Delhi it will have to seek the support of either Congress or the BJP," Mr Advani says.

The BJP's election slogan of "strong leader, decisive government" is aimed at trying to exploit this perception of confusion and chaos after the elections.

The projection of Mr Advani as a strong leader is also part of a careful two-pronged strategy. It is an image the party has assiduously tried to build over the years.

Mr Advani's decisiveness has been contrasted by the BJP in the run-up to this campaign with the character of Congress leader and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been portrayed as a weak man constantly in deference to the party president, Sonia Gandhi.

But as the election campaign gathers heat and momentum Mr Advani has been keen to take the debate away from personalities to issues.

So during our nearly one-hour conversation this time he chose not to attack the prime minister by name even once. The BJP leader chose to concentrate on what he described as the failures of the Congress-led coalition.

Anti-Muslim image

"There is not even one success which I can credit to this government. I can't think of any other government in my 60 years of public life which can't boast of even one achievement.

Hindu devotees destroy and scale walls surrounding Babri mosque
The destruction of the Babri mosque has dogged Mr Advani

"All that this government has done is run to the USA each time India is in trouble. Even post 26/11 (the Mumbai terror attack) all the pressure was exerted on Pakistan by the West, particularly the USA.

"Washington is this government's police station and they run at the smallest pretext to register their complaint there."

Mr Advani was keen to shrug of his anti-Muslim image. Not an easy task considering the BJP leader has always been seen as a hardliner. He shot to prominence by launching and leading a controversial campaign for the construction of a Lord Ram temple in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya which resulted in the demolition of the 16th century Babri mosque there.

But in recent years Mr Advani has attempted to seek an image makeover. He all but lost the chance to lead his party in this year's election campaign when a couple of years ago - during a much publicised visit to Pakistan - he showered praise on Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder and certainly not a very popular figure among the Hindu right in India.

Mr Advani was roundly criticised for his positive remarks on Jinnah. His party virtually disowned him and for a brief while it looked as if it was curtains on the BJP leader's public life.

Retirement

"But the party soon appreciated I had said nothing wrong. Ours is a democratic party and once the leadership realised its mistake we made amends."

LK Advani visiting the mausoleum of Pakistan's founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah in Karachi
LK Advani's comments during a visit to Jinnah's mausoleum sparked a furore

Mr Advani may not like to dwell too much on intra-BJP tensions but it's clear that he firmly believes that the Jinnah episode was a turning point in his relationship with Muslims.

"Nowhere was I perceived as an enemy more than in Pakistan. But after my visit and my comments on Jinnah, my image in Pakistan has completely changed. I am now seen by them as a friend.

"It's only a matter of time before Indian Muslims also realise that certain parties have exploited their mistrust for the BJP by instilling a sense of fear in them. I am sure Muslims will soon see that their welfare is best served by the BJP."

Mr Advani said he was optimistic about his party doing well in these elections.

"We should be able to form the government."

It's always difficult to tell, but he appeared to sound a bit hesitant making these bold assertions. Certainly he did not have the swagger of a sure-fire winner. But then to be fair to him it's difficult to find one leader who projects that kind of confidence in Indian elections.

So will this be his last election if he loses? Considering he is in his eighties, will he contemplate retirement if his party does not form the government?

"Why should I?" this veteran politician responds defiantly. "Out of my 60 years in public life, only eight have been in power. I never feel that I am not doing anything constructive if I am out of power. We will sit in the opposition.

"My only wish is that I am still healthy whenever I decide to opt out of active public life. That will be a good way to go."



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