As a champion of Hindu nationalism, Jayawantiben Mehta has impeccable credentials. During 30 years in politics, she has dutifully campaigned for every major Hindu platform--from building a temple to Lord Ram on the site of a demolished mosque, to creating a uniform civil code that supersedes Muslim law.
But here is what Mehta, 61, promises as she strides through a working-class housing complex while campaigning for Parliament: A "stable and able government," led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that will provide residents with safe drinking water, housing repairs and more public parks.
Then there is Sanjay Nirupam, 33, a muscular young politician from the Shiv Sena, the Bombay-based shock-troop outfit notoriously known for anti-Islamic activities such as sabotaging cricket matches with Pakistan and provoking anti-Muslim riots.
These days, while insisting he is still committed to promoting Hindu causes, Nirupam is also following orders and campaigning on a solidly secular platform, speaking out for paved roads and literacy programs for rural areas outside Bombay.
So what has happened to Hindutva, the emotionally charged crusade for "Hindu-ness" that once defined Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies like Shiv Sena? As the BJP broadens its audience beyond its traditional power base, are the forces of Hindu nationalism fading into history--or are they just waiting for the right moment to return with a vengeance?
India is in the middle of a five-phase election for Parliament. By early October, 605 million people will have voted for 543 legislative seats, and by mid-month a new prime minister will have been chosen.
The BJP, once a religious fringe group that held only two seats in Parliament as recently as 1984, has grown to a mass-based, coalition-backed juggernaut. Now, under the leadership of Vajpayee, 76, it appears likely to capture a solid parliamentary majority over its chief rival, the secular-based Congress party.
In the process, however, the party has shed much of its ideological baggage, arousing skepticism from critics and alarm among hard-line loyalists. As a price for widening public acceptance and the parliamentary alliances it needs to rule in a fragmented political culture, the BJP may have sacrificed the pro-Hindu mystique that once lured and unified its supporters.
"The BJP is sidetracking the very issues that brought them up. No one is talking about the Ram Temple any more," said Nirupam with dismay. "In order to create a consensus, we have to drop these controversial issues for now. But if we keep on compromising our ideology, ultimately there will be no difference between the BJP and Congress."
Critics from Congress officials to Muslim intellectuals charge that pro-Hindu groups have temporarily dropped their religious crusade as a purely tactical measure, and that if they win a commanding majority in Parliament, it will inevitably surface again.
"The BJP is trying to hide its real agenda of hate and mistrust behind the mask they are wearing and taking off at their convenience," charged Congress president Sonia Gandhi in a recent speech. Gandhi, 52, is running for Parliament and is widely expected to be her party's candidate for prime minister.
India is about 80 percent Hindu and 15 percent Muslim, with pockets of Sikhs, Christians and other groups. The Hindu and Muslim populations have never co-existed easily, and the violence that accompanied the chaotic 1947 partition of India and the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim state has periodically resurfaced.
The BJP, formed in 1980 with Vajpayee as president, has consistently pressed the major pro-Hindu issues: the right to rebuild an ancient Hindu temple at Ayodhya, the creation of a uniform civil code that would override Hindu family and social law, and the elimination of Kashmir's longtime "special status" as a partly autonomous, Muslim-dominated state.
Philosophically, the BJP and its allies--the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), a scholarly association that runs schools and publications, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a grass-roots cultural movement--also promote Hindutva, a vaguely defined concept of Hindu values and precepts, as a unifying national force.
For years, the BJP and its philosophical partners were limited to an obstructionist role on the edges of a proudly secular society headed by Congress. But the BJP gained influence in the 1990s as pro-Hindu sentiment swelled. Vajpayee has been chosen prime minister twice in the past three years, and the BJP holds 189 seats in Parliament.
Now, capitalizing on Vajpayee's success in handling the 10-week border conflict with Pakistan this summer, the party is being flooded with new members and courted by a wide variety of coalition partners.
In the campaign, however, not a single BJP or Shiv Sena candidate has raised Ayodhya, the civil code, or the status of Kashmir. Instead, all have focused on constituency services and the accomplishments of Vajpayee--even though the stricter Hindus among them wince at his bon vivant lifestyle and disagree sharply with his liberal political views.
"The reality of politics in India today is that no one party can carry out its agenda," said one longtime RSS member. "We are trying to form a government, so we must make compromises. We cannot run a country based on these contentious issues, so let us leave them aside. But just because you don't talk about it doesn't mean it's absent."
The BJP's back-pedaling on pro-Hindu issues has alarmed supporters who fear the party may permanently sacrifice its core principles for the sake of votes. They make little effort to hide their hopes that, once the party gains a solid grip on government, it will revive their sacred causes from a new position of strength.
"The main need today is to come to power, so we can't afford to go for Hindutva any more. But it's a temporary phase," said Arvind Parmar, one of Mehta's campaign aides. "The voters know we haven't forgotten these issues or gone to the other side, we are just waiting for the right time."
CAPTION: Once, Jayawantiben Mehta would have raised Hindu issues on the campaign trail, but today she only talks about housing, safe water and more parks.