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An old-style battle to be India's PM

With a combined age of 157, the two men vying for the post of India's prime minister are having a high old time lobbing ageist stones at each other from their respective glasshouses.

india Updated: Apr 12, 2009 09:26 IST

With a combined age of 157, the two men vying for the post of India's prime minister are having a high old time lobbing ageist stones at each other from their respective glasshouses.

Incumbent Manmohan Singh, 76, of the ruling Congress Party and 81-year-old LK Advani of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have both made efforts to appear the more spry and energetic on the campaign trail.

The Oxford-educated Singh underwent multiple heart bypass surgery in January, but made a speedy recovery and has not missed the chance to bring up the five years he has on his opponent.

Singh attributed Advani's accusation that he was India's "weakest" prime minister to his rival's "ripe old age" and suggested he change astrologers as he was clearly too old to change his views.

Advani, meanwhile, has been photographed lifting weights in front of supporters and has tried to reach out to younger voters with a blog.

Although both were born in present day Pakistan, they took markedly different routes to reach the corridors of power in New Delhi.

Unlike Advani, a career politician with activist roots, Singh is regarded as an accidental prime minister, a technocrat with an unblemished reputation who rescued India from the brink of bankruptcy but seemed destined to keep a low profile.

His anointment in 2004 by Sonia Gandhi, after she refused the post, has led Advani to label Singh a puppet of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

The challenge of heading a rocky coalition government means Singh has been criticised for his low-key leadership style.
"It's a little unfair," said sociologist Andre Biteille, who worked with Singh at the Delhi School of Economics. "He has had to accommodate too many pressures from too many sides."

Known for his unflappable demeanour, Singh trained as an economist and headed India's central bank, amongst other government positions, until former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao made him finance minister in 1991 in the midst of an economic crisis.

Singh is widely praised for phasing out India's rigid socialist economic system in favour of greater liberalisation. Advani, meanwhile, jumped straight into politics as a teenager by joining the Rashtriya Swayamasevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu outfit that has groomed many BJP leaders.

The self-professed Hindi film buff is considered a hawk by detractors who see his unabashed pro-Hindu policies as incompatible with multi-faith, officially secular India.

Opponents ridicule his commitment to building a Hindu temple over the remains of a razed mosque in northern India -- still a key BJP manifesto pledge despite pressing issues of a slowing economy and dire poverty.

The destruction of the mosque in 1992 by Hindu zealots triggered some of the worst Hindu-Muslim sectarian clashes since India's independence in 1947.

Advani led the movement to rebuild the temple but denied involvement in the demolition, calling it "the saddest day" of his life.

Chandan Mitra, editor of the pro-BJP Pioneer newspaper, said Advani's concept of Hinduism is political rather than religious, and reflects his vision of Indian society.

"He sees Hinduism primarily as a cultural phenomenon and therefore he has always linked the Hindu ethos of India with Indian nationalism," said Mitra.

But Advani's efforts to rebrand his image as a moderate and reach out to secular voters backfired in 2005 when he praised Pakistan's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah on a visit to the country, leading to condemnation from his own party and its hardline anti-Muslim backers.

Nonetheless Advani has remained the party's figurehead and is credited with turning the BJP into a viable political force. He served as home minister and deputy prime minister under the BJP-led government between 1998 and 2004.

First Published: Apr 12, 2009 09:21 IST