Temple row may split BJP coalition

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2003, 12:00am

Hindus want access to holy site, but Vajpayee cannot push Muslim allies too far

Doubts are once again being raised about the future of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's coalition government after the Supreme Court yesterday rejected a plea to allow Hindu prayers at the site of a razed mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya.

The decision by the five-judge bench of India's top judicial body has angered Hindu radicals, who demolished the 16th century Mughal mosque in 1992, claiming it was the birthplace of the Hindu god Lord Ram.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which has spearheaded the Ram Temple movement and helped the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) come to power, has threatened a nationwide campaign demanding that the disputed site be immediately handed over to the Hindus.

'We will go to the people's court,' said a VHP leader.

The party has already been holding daily demonstrations near parliament to pressure lawmakers into enacting legislation that bypasses the judiciary and facilitates the construction of the Ram temple.

'We will be meeting MPs from all political parties to obtain written assurances of support from them,' said VHP leader Ashok Singhal. But Mr Vajpayee, who recently completed five years in office, presides over a carefully cobbled coalition, which includes several regional parties that depend on the Muslim and secular Hindu vote for their survival.

The smaller, secular parties have been willing to give the BJP a long rope and refused to break ranks last year, even after the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat state. But they may not agree to go along if forced to vote in support of legislation handing over the disputed Ayodhya site to Hindus.

In fact, the BJP had to put its own Ayodhya temple demand on hold before forming the coalition government. But after winning the Gujarat state elections last December on a stridently Hindu platform, Mr Vajpayee's party appears to be reconsidering its neutral stance on the issue.

As a result, the government petitioned the Supreme Court last month to lift the ban on Hindu prayers at the site where the mosque once stood. But the judges ruled that the ban ordered by a lower court a year ago was needed 'to maintain communal harmony'.

They said the status quo should continue in Ayodhya until a state high court resolved the land ownership dispute between Hindus and Muslims. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the umbrella Hindu nationalist organisation that spawned both the BJP and the VHP, described the court order as a 'setback'.

'The government should now explore other options,' said RSS leader Ram Madhav. 'It should use its legislative powers after securing the support of all political parties.'

Any further rightward tilt by the BJP in favour of Hindus could well risk the stability of the government.

However, with elections in major Indian states due later this year followed by national elections next year, Mr Vajpayee may find himself in a catch-22.

The court order has put Hindu radicals in an even more belligerent mood. A prominent leader threatened to 'repeat the Gujarat experiment in the rest of the country', while Mr Singhal rhetorically asked: 'After this decision, with what face will the Vajpayee government go before the people and ask for votes?'