When newly appointed Indian Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani recently said that he had no faith in Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, his words could not be brushed aside as they once might have been. Advani’s recent promotion to his new post is believed to signal the rise of hawks in India’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads a coalition government.

Another statement by Advani is even more disturbing. He averred that India would do whatever was necessary if Islamabad failed to end terrorism. Given progress made in recent days to de-escalate tension between India and Pakistan, Advani’s words appear to indicate a hardening of attitudes in New Delhi’s halls of power.

After having been in control for years, India’s moderate Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee seems to have lost his will to govern. Or perhaps he has been defeated by the hawks in the BJP.

Advani’s new position, which he holds in addition to the powerful Home Ministry portfolio, will have significant ramifications for India, Pakistan and the world at large.

The fact that Advani has been accepted by all the coalition members indicates that he will succeed Vajpayee, who is now 77 and has visibly aged in recent months. For Advani, who 10 years ago led a movement that culminated in the demolition of the ancient Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in northern India and sparked bloody riots between Hindus and Muslims, this is nothing short of a coup in a world that sees him as a hardliner.

Of course, Advani has often said that he regrets what happened at Ayodhya. But there is little doubt that he and other hawkish BJP elements would have implemented their Hindu nationalist agenda had they not been restrained by the other coalition partners and Vajpayee.

This agenda includes building a Hindu temple on the site where the Babri Mosque stood and reversing laws that benefit India’s Muslim minority, which compromises 12 percent of the population.

A few weeks ago, Advani caused a panic when he threatened to “dismember” Pakistan. And he has on several occasions clashed with Vajpayee, who has always preferred to be lenient toward both India’s smaller neighbor and India’s Muslims.

But with Advani now considered by most to be the real head of India, the BJP is likely to swing to the right and may not listen to its coalition allies.

Although Advani has been careful enough to tone down his hard stance, most analysts believe that this is only cosmetic. His Hindu nationalist fervor is here to stay, much to the discomfort and nervousness of the world at large and many Hindu Indians in particular, who do not want to enrage Muslims and spoil peace and harmony at a time when the nation is striving for economic development.

Vajpayee is not expected to last beyond the next general elections, which are due in 2004. Some say that he will go sooner than that. This may spell trouble for India’s Muslims, and could also mean a worsening of Indo-Pakistani relations.

But there is a solution: India’s electorate could throw out the BJP in two years and bring in a government more considerate to Muslims and with a deeper commitment to peace in South Asia.

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