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Manmohan at home on BJP turf

New Delhi, May 6: From Pokhran and hypernationalism to quiet diligence and knowledge. From L.K. Advani and A.B. Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh.

The Indian middle classís preferences ' and pin-ups ' could be changing.

A sign of this came last week in Bhilai ' the steel city that threw up the first runner-up, Amit Sana, in Sony TVís Indian Idol contest.

The Prime Minister, who had just laid the foundation stone for the Swami Vivekananda Technical University, used a word straight out of the BJPís nationalist lexicon. India, he said, was poised to become a 'superpower'.

The difference was in the connotation.

To the BJP, the word symbolised the Pokhran blasts, the war against terrorism and the 'unseen enemy' and the lobbying for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. To Singh, the road to superpower status was punctuated by the milestones of knowledge, science and technology and their use in improving the quality of life in the villages.

If India is to become a 'superpower', it must seriously work and build on the knowledge sector, Singh said. He emphasised the need for excellence in education and ethical values like diligence and honesty in the workplace.

The speech and the low-key style went down well with the audience, made up mostly of Bhilai Steel Plant employees and their families, the Prime Ministerís aides said.

Singh, whose government completes a year on May 21, has reportedly directed the ministries to treat the date as just another day, avoiding the fanfare and hyperbole associated with anniversaries.

Those close to Singh believe that speeches and gestures of this kind will appeal even to those sections of the urban middle classes whom the BJP had won over in the past decade with its fare of Hindutva and hypernationalism of the Ayodhya-Pokhran-Kargil variety. After all, he is a 'symbol' of this class whose members traverse, or aspire to traverse, the same scholastic and career path that he did.

'He wrote exams, got a scholarship, jobs, then worked in government and came up through sheer hard work and merit,' a source said. 'He has begun to strike a rapport with his class.'

So, does Singh now occupy the space that BJP 'icons' such as Vajpayee and Advani once did'

Those close to the Prime Minister believe the real test of his appeal and popularity would be an election in which he campaigned intensively.

But they also think that the BJP, with its boycott of Parliament, has lost ground among a section of the middle class that lays a premium on discipline and hard work.

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