As it campaigns to end five years in opposition, India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party has been bidding to reclaim power in New Delhi by shifting voters’ attention away from its long-standing, core agenda of promoting what it calls multi-faith India’s intrinsic “Hindu-ness”.

Its manifesto for upcoming, month-long parliamentary elections – which start on April 16 – aims at a wide cross-section of Indian voters with bread-and-butter pledges such as tax cuts, subsidised rice for the poor, road building, and strong measures to combat domestic Maoist insurgents and terrorism.

Its cherished Hindutva, or “Hindu-ness”, agenda – such as banning the slaughter of cows (revered in Hinduism) and building a temple on a disputed site of a ruined 16th century mosque – are ostensibly on the backburner. Development, good governance and security are the new party mantras. “We have to put people first,” says Sudheendra Kulkarni, a senior BJP strategist.

Yet the BJP’s effort to remake its image – and to bury perceptions of its hostility to India’s Muslim and Christian minorities – has been undone by its backing for Varun Gandhi, a scion of India’s most famous political dynasty, now jailed for making incendiary anti-Muslim speeches.

A 29-year-old member of the BJP’s national executive board, Mr Gandhi was filmed at campaign rallies in the volatile but politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, vowing to slice off the hands of Muslims who threatened Hindus, and demanding that Muslims be pushed to neighbouring Pakistan.

What gave his vitriol its real impact was Mr Gandhi’s pedigree: his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, and grandmother, Indira Gandhi, were both towering former prime ministers and staunch advocates of secularism. His 38-year-old first cousin, Rahul, is heir apparent to the BJP’s rival Congress party, the keeper of the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic flame.

Having briefly distanced itself from Varun, the BJP now rallies to his defence, revealing tensions in the party, as it tries to present an acceptable face to mainstream urban middle-class voters, while galvanising the foot-soldiers of its militant Hindu nationalist base.

“It’s like walking on two legs,” Mahesh Rangarajan, a Delhi University political analyst, said of the BJP. “They have to keep their core ideology as the original party of Hindu nationalism while reaching out to a vast section beyond as an alternative to Congress. The emphasis will change but they will never give up either.”

Further emphasising his party’s solidarity with Mr Gandhi, Rajnath Singh, the BJP president, visited him in his small-town Indian jail on Monday, saying the BJP would not watch idly as he was harassed. “He may be alone in his jail cell but his party is with him,” Mr Rangarajan said.

After the tapes were published, Mr Gandhi claimed they were doctored, though he acknowledged seeking to boost the confidence of Hindus in his would-be parliamentary constituency. The BJP quickly condemned his words and party leaders debated denying him the parliamentary ticket.

But as support for Mr Gandhi surged among hard-line Hindu nationalist groups – and the BJP assessed the tough battle it faced in populous Uttar Pradesh, the party changed tack. It backed the young leader’s claim of foul play and demanded India’s sluggish legal system be permitted to take its course.

“It was difficult for the BJP to withdraw, as the political costs would be too high,” said Vinod Mehta, editor of Outlook magazine. “It has energised their cadres.”

The BJP – which led multi-party governing coalitions in Delhi from 1998 to 2004 – is highly sensitive to the mood of its base. It blamed its shock 2004 election defeat in part on its failure to motivate Hindu nationalist cadres, as its re-election campaign emphasised India’s robust economic growth and rising global stature, playing down its Hindutva agenda.

But Mr Gandhi’s inflammatory speech – and local authorities’ decision to hold him under a draconian National Security Act – has galvanised the Hindu right. “It gives them a martyr – someone who has gone to jail for the cause,” said Mr Rangarajan.

Sidharth Nath Singh, a BJP spokesman, denied the BJP sought to capitalise on Mr Gandhi’s provocative words, blaming the BJP’s rivals for hyping the issue to woo Muslim voters.

“They are trying to whip up their sentiments by creating a ‘hate Muslim’ poster boy and then bashing him,” Mr Singh said.

However, P.L. Dharma, a political science professor at Mangalore University, says it is the BJP that is “really playing a very opportunistic game.”

It remains to be seen how furore will affect the BJP’s performance either in Uttar Pradesh or nationally. But Dipanker Gupta, a Jawaharlal Nehru University sociology professor, said the BJP clearly saw Mr Gandhi as a future party heavyweight.

“If Varun Gandhi gets elected and is able to stave off the court cases against him - in the fullness of time - they want to groom him as the alternative Gandhi,” he says.

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