NEW DELHI, India -- In most countries, few would consider it an insult. But when political opponents of India's prime minister went looking for a slur to use against him, they found one in his diet -- or at least his alleged diet.
They said Atal Bihari Vajpayee ate beef.
"The cow is our mother, Atal eats her," read banners held aloft at rallies by members of a youth wing of the opposition Congress party.
It was no minor accusation. Cows are sacred to many of India's 900-million Hindus, particularly among the fervent believers who form the core of Vajpayee's governing Bharatiya Janata Party. In his circles, a charge of beef-eating is a declaration of political war.
The banners set off accusations and counteraccusations between the party and its opponents, with sex scandals and dietary habits rocketing into the headlines. Soon, more and more politicians were calling for a nationwide ban on the slaughtering of cows.
"I prefer to die rather than eat beef," Vajpayee said in a speech, calling the charge "a blatant lie."
As Hindu nationalism is debated across India -- and as this sprawling nation of more than 1-billion people struggles, in many ways, with its own political identity -- it is issues like beef-eating that are increasingly dominating political discourse.
Does the prime minister eat beef? Has a Hindu temple been buried for centuries in the town of Ayodhya, hidden beneath the rubble of a later Muslim mosque?
These are a couple of questions India has debated in recent weeks, often pushing aside topics such as the budget and relations with longtime rival Pakistan.
Until recently, most governments tried to keep religion out of the political mainstream. India was founded by fierce secularists and ruled for nearly 50 straight years by the secular Congress party. Politicians took pains to portray India as a nation accepting of all religions.
But in 1998, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power as the leader of a multiparty coalition, and the tone shifted.
To Hindu nationalists -- believers in Hindutva, or "Hindu-ness," which implies Hindu beliefs should govern India -- issues like protecting cows define the country.
"India must be a Hindu nation," said Jaibhawan Goyel, a New Delhi official of the Shiv Sena party, a Hindu nationalist group allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
To Goyel, the cow is a deity, a milk-making machine and a living pharmacy producing urine and dung widely used in folk medicines. And even though India has more than 120-million Muslims, 20-million Christians and millions of less observant Hindus, Goyel insists on the protection of cows.
"The respect given to the cow must be obeyed by everyone," he said. "We would not tolerate (mistreatment of cows) from any other community."
Despite such beliefs, cows that no longer give milk wander freely in garbage-strewn streets, often sick or hungry. Still, the animals have strict legal and often stricter cultural protections. Cow slaughter is allowed in only a few Indian states, and finding beef outside big-city hotels can be difficult.
In late 2002, a mob of Hindu hardliners in northern India killed five men -- "untouchables," or Dalits, who have traditionally skinned dead cows for their leather -- after rumors spread they had skinned a cow alive.
News reports said that when investigators arrived, they performed a post-mortem on the cow to determine whether the killing of the Dalits could be "justified."
It is emotions like these, government critics say, that make the cow an ideal political tool, ready-made to inflame Hindu passions with the often-unspoken subtext that beef-eating Muslims cannot be trusted.
"It's a political gimmick, not very genuine on the part of the BJP," said Swami Agnivesh, a Hindu theologian and social activist. "They've been racking up issues which they can project as anti-Muslim and win votes."