India's Leader-in-Waiting Fans Hindu Nationalism ; Colin Powell Begins His Tour of Asia This Weekend with a Stop in India and Pakistan

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To devotees, he is the savior of Hindu India: "as pure as the Gangotri, and as broad as the Ganges," as one put it. To critics he is destroying the dreams and ideals of Mohandas Gandhi - a dangerous fascist willing to risk riots and flames to hold power.

Either way, L.K. Advani, India's new deputy prime minister - and heir apparent to Prime Minister Vajpayee - is clearly emerging as the Indian most responsible for the rise of nationalism here and for posing India as a force to be reckoned with.

This weekend, US Secretary of State Colin Powell is set to visit India and Pakistan in a bid to reduce tensions between the two nuclear states, and discuss Kashmir. Mr. Advani has taken the lead for India with the US, voicing India's frustration over cross- border violence. An urbane Brahmin born in Pakistan, a brilliant tactician, and leader of a quasi-secret elite Hindu order, Advani is the kind of leader the Bronx-born Mr. Powell has probably rarely met during his military career.

Advani became deputy prime minister in a recent cabinet reshuffle, a move that was rumored for months. During two intense border standoffs with Pakistan, talk in Delhi was that Advani - who reportedly favored military action against Pakistan - was gaining a foothold at the top. After a January trip to Washington to make India's case, arguing an equivalence between Sept. 11 and cross- border terrorism with Pakistan, Advani's status skyrocketed.

"We felt it was Advani who most stood up for India with the Americans," said one official. "The Americans listened to him."

Advani's promotion early this month from home minister to the apex of power carries its own message: Analysts say it signals the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is again pumping up a radical Hindu nationalist program called "Hindutva." The move could further polarize multicultural India along religious and ethnic lines.

In the 1990s, BJP-led Hindutva excited voters with a message of martial vigor, a media campaign that featured Hindu gods, and an anti-Islamic slant that angered the 14 percent Muslim population.

Mainly due to a Hindu revival that Advani has devoted his life to, the character of India has changed in recent years. Since 1980, on a Hindutva platform, the BJP rose from a paltry four seats in parliament to ruling India. Only weeks after the BJP came to power in 1998, India tested a nuclear device, changing the geopolitics of South Asia.

Among the Indian middle class, the byproduct of Hindutva was a new discourse of muscular nationalism. In private schools, conferences, history books, clubs, camps, rallies, and popular TV series, a mix of Hindutva ideas and pro-India bravado altered the dialogue here.

Ultimately, Hindutva represented a powerful new elixir in a country whose corrupt Congress Party was seen as ineptly mouthing the words of Gandhi's nonviolent independence revolution.

Yet today, BJP is flagging in the polls. Insiders feel the party is hamstrung by its moderate coalition partners. Hardliners want the BJP to break free from the ruling coalition and capture office on an uncompromising and sharper pro-Hindu agenda. From Advani, they want someone who will take charge, speak for their interests, and train a set of more devout Hindu cadres.

"With Advani at the top, the signal is that BJP will use the Hindu card for its political furtherance," says an observer with close ties to the ruling party. "The feeling is that in coming months, it is now or never."

Radical ethnic views?

Advani first cut loose with a full-scale Hindutva agenda in 1992. His attention-getting theatrics included dressing up as a Hindu saint and touring India, posing with a drawn bow and arrow. Prior to that, he was India's minister for broadcasting in the short-lived Janata Party in the late 1970s.

Advani was arrested in 1992 after a months-long pro-Hindu campaign that led to the destruction of a mosque in Ayodyha, sparking bloody riots across India. …