Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, apparently headed toward victory in parliamentary elections next month, asserted today that India has proved its might against military attackers, staved off economic crisis and united across religious and ethnic lines as it enters the new millennium.
Addressing the nation on the 52nd anniversary of its independence from Britain, Vajpayee referred proudly and repeatedly to India's recent defeat of Pakistani-based forces during a two-month border war in the Kargil region of Kashmir. He said Pakistan's attack had vindicated India's controversial decision last year to test nuclear weapons in the Pokaran desert.
"The world saw Pokaran as irresponsible, but today the world has seen what we risked for our national security. We showed we would not bow down to pressure," said Vajpayee, 73, reading in Hindi from behind a bulletproof shield atop Delhi's historic Red Fort. "Kargil showed that when our patriotism is challenged, every Indian stands up together."
The annual ceremony was held under unprecedented security because of fears of attacks by Islamic rebels or Pakistani agents. No incidents were reported, but thousands of police and soldiers surrounded the site and barred all traffic from nearby streets.
Numerous recent polls show that Vajpayee and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are likely to be swept along by postwar euphoria to a relatively easy parliamentary majority against their chief rival, the liberal secular Congress party headed by Sonia Gandhi. The first round of elections is Sept. 4.
One poll in this week's Outlook magazine said the BJP and its allies are likely to win more than 280 seats, while Congress may not capture more than 160. Other polls put the BJP tally at more than 300 seats in the 543-member lower house. Every survey shows that the Kargil victory, and national security issues in general, have helped Vajpayee's party overcome its image as a religious reactionary movement.
"Kargil has reversed the national mood and done a U-turn for the BJP," said Bhaskara Rao, a leading independent pollster who heads the Center for Media Studies, who predicts a massive BJP victory.
Vajpayee has been India's caretaker prime minister since mid-April, when Congress forced and won a vote of no confidence in his government but was then unable to form an alternative one. Since then, Congress has taken a heavy public beating for bringing down an elected government, and has been unable to reap any political gain from the Kargil victory.
Crowds of people streaming from the Mogul fort were overwhelmingly positive about the speech. Some people described Vajpayee as a strong and experienced leader who had shown his mettle in Kargil, while also reaching out to Pakistan with an unprecedented diplomatic initiative last spring.
"I have never heard such an inspiring speech by any other prime minister," gushed Vibhuti Kumar, 20, a science student who will be voting for the first time.
In his 20-minute speech, Vajpayee vowed to sustained applause that his government "will never let terrorists win." He said India and Pakistan "need to build trust again," but questioned whether that was possible when "terrorists trained in Pakistan" attack India.
In the past two weeks, there has been an increase of sabotage against military posts and personnel in Kashmir, where Islamic rebels have waged an insurgency against Indian troops for a decade. At least 37 people have died in near-daily bombings and rocket assaults.
The attacks continued today in Kashmir and in the northeastern state of Assam. Police and guerrillas clashed in Chenani, 50 miles north of Jammu, Kashmir's winter capital. Four officers were killed and 12 wounded, police said.
In another gun battle in southern Kashmir, guerrillas killed a policeman and wounded three others. In Assam, two bombs exploded, killing one person and wounding two, a district police official said on condition of anonymity. No one claimed responsibility, but authorities suspected separatists.
In his address, Vajpayee also spoke briefly of economic and social issues, describing his vision of India with "no hunger, no fear, no poverty."
But it was clear that BJP strategists focused on the theme of national security because of the outpouring of patriotism following Kargil, and because it is a victory for which Gandhi, the 52-year-old widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, can take no credit.
"Kargil widened the gap between people's perception of Vajpayee and Sonia," Arun Jetly, a BJP campaign committee member, said in an interview last week. "Vajpayee has come out to be a restrained, firm, mature leader both in war and peace." In contrast, he contended, Congress "shot itself in the foot in Kargil" by criticizing the government over it while the nation was at war.
On Saturday, the normally shy and solemn Gandhi held her first news conference to present her party's election manifesto and insisted that "the victory in Kargil was that of our armed forces and not of our government," which she said had "allowed intruders to occupy our territory while it was sleeping." Indian forces were taken by surprise in April when Pakistani-based fighters occupied numerous peaks in Kargil.
Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Indian leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee attends a reception to mark national independence.