NEW DELHI — The domestic terminal was nearly deserted when the dawn flight from Bombay touched down Saturday morning, carrying the man likely to emerge as the most powerful face on India's political landscape after the conclusion this week of the nation's prolonged and painful parliamentary elections.
There were none of the adoring crowds that had mobbed Lal Krishna Advani, hung on his every word and showered him with flowers and confetti of saffron dozens of times during eight straight days of nonstop campaign rallies. The last had ended at 2 that same morning, just a few hours before the balding 63-year-old candidate ambled through the New Delhi arrival hall, carrying his own battered suitcase.
There were only his wife and his future daughter-in-law waiting quietly inside the terminal to welcome him home for a brief visit--just enough time to change clothes and rest for a bit--a tiny island of peace before Advani set off on yet another tour of this vast and troubled land a few hours later.
Such is life, it seems, at the crest of the Hindu revivalist wave that this man and his Bharatiya Janata Party have ridden to political prominence. It's a wave that critics in this overwhelmingly Hindu nation charge is threatening the safety of India's 100 million minority Muslims; one that stands to radically alter the political shape of all of South and Southeast Asia.
And yet, as he arrived for his brief weekend respite, the man who would be ruler of the Bharatiya Janata Party's ram rajhya --ideal kingdom--if it emerges early next week as winner of these elections hardly appeared the raving, fanatic Hindu fundamentalist that his detractors have portrayed.
When Hindu airport porters fell at his feet outside the terminal, Advani's snow-white whisk-broom mustache turned up with quizzical embarrassment. He shrugged uncomfortably when startled passers-by shouted greetings and words of support. And, during an interview with The Times in the back seat of his old, Indian-made Ambassador car on his way home, Advani expressed frustration and occasional anger at the fascist, fundamentalist image that has been carved out for him amid the unprecedented religious polarization and carnage that is India today.
"I've battled against authoritarianism wherever I've seen it all my life," Advani said, his voice croaking and cracking after hundreds of campaign speeches. "I spent 19 months in prison because I was opposed to the Emergency (two years of authoritarian rule under former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi).
"You judge me not by what my adversaries say about me. You judge me by my track record," Advani insisted. "I wish someone were to point out to me anything from my manifesto, constitution, utterances, statements, anything that can be pinned down as being indexes of fascism. . . . Where is the authoritarianism? Where is the fascism? These are trite and stereotyped words of political abuse. And, because everyone uses them, therefore they do stick. What can I do?
"And then, people meet me, talk with me, discuss with me and find that this is not correct. So then, they think I'm clever."
Clearly, the leader of India's fastest-growing political cult is more than just clever. He and his party colleagues, among them shrewd strategists from virtually every sector of India's professional and intellectual elite, have, in just a few years time, carefully crafted a national movement that has taken India by storm.
Using powerful symbols of Hinduism and a highly disciplined, grass-roots organization called the Hindu Revivalist Movement, Advani and his followers have used the election campaign as a clarion call to unite their diverse and often-anarchic nation around the religion of 83% of India's 840 million people.
The crusade has struck deep chords among India's burgeoning middle-class, largely Hindu businessmen and entrepreneurs drawn not only to the Bharatiya Janata Party's promise to end a litany of affirmative-action quotas, but also to its rightist economic policies, which call for sweeping privatization and free trade in a country now sagging under the inefficiency and bureaucracy of four decades of socialism that began under Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.
Even before former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a suicide bomber at the height of the election campaign on May 21, Advani and the co-leader of his party, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, were mounting a strong challenge to Gandhi's long-ruling Congress-I Party for national leadership. The Bharatiya Janata Party won 88 of the 545 seats in Parliament during the last national elections in 1989, up from just two seats five years earlier. And every prominent political analyst in New Delhi had predicted that Advani's revivalists would do far better this year.