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Friday, 15 December, 2000, 14:06 GMT
Vajpayee's double victory
Prime Minister Vajpayee
Vajpayee has gained the upper hand over Ayodhya
By Vir Singh in Delhi

In one stroke, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has staved off an opposition attack and pleased hardline Hindu groups.

Hindu nationalists had become increasingly critical of his government over its refusal to openly support the construction of a temple on the site of the demolished mosque at Ayodhya.

But several of Mr Vajpayee's coalition allies expressed alarm at his remarks in support of the temple and urged him not to deviate from the government's secular agenda.

However, when their loyalty was put to the test, they stood by the prime minister.

A motion in India's lower house of parliament calling for the dismissal of three senior ministers charged with inciting a mob to tear down the Babri mosque eight years ago was defeated.

Now the government has the upper hand in the Ayodhya row.

Playing to the gallery

Mr Vajpayee's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and at least two opposition parties want to extract maximum political mileage from the debate so as to broaden their appeal.

Construction of temple
Hindu nationalists want a temple to be built on the site of the mosque

In Indian political parlance, this is known as building "vote banks."

But some other parties, notably some regional allies in the BJP-led coalition, want to steer clear of Ayodhya.

They fear that being linked with a "communal" party - a party associated with a particular religious community - will hurt them in upcoming elections to state assemblies.

Mr Vajpayee's remarks last week, when he said the movement to build the temple was an "expression of national feeling," drew widespread criticism.

Mr Vajpayee's reputation as a moderate Hindu leader, which helped him to form a coalition government 14 months ago, was seen as a "mask" that had now come off.

Drumming up Hindu support

But hardline Hindu groups such as the National Volunteer Corps (RSS) and the World Hindu Council (VHP), praised the prime minister and asked him to remain "resolute."

Criticism from the RSS - whose grassroots workers the BJP depends on during elections - has grown over the last few years because of the BJP's gradual backing away from the Ayodhya issue.

Mr Vajpayee's remarks in support of the temple were calculated to win back support from its ideological forebears who espouse a fiery mix of economic and religious nationalism.

Taking the high ground

As for India's main opposition party, Congress now has few fundamental differences with the Vajpayee government on economic reforms - certainly not enough to create a stir.

Riot
The mosque's demolition prompted riots

It tried criticising the government for neglecting Indian farmers but found that this issue did not arouse much interest.

So Congress reached into its pockets and out came a temple.

The party's decision to seek a motion against the BJP's Ayodhya-tainted ministers came just two days before the 6 December anniversary of the mosque's destruction - when tensions in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where Ayodhya is situated, traditionally run high.

By provoking the latest Ayodhya debate, Congress has taken the high moral ground, hoping its secular image will pay off in state elections.

The party, which headed the national government when the Babri mosque was pulled down, wants to win back Muslim voters.

Not over yet

On Monday, the debate moved to the upper house, where the government lacks a majority.

While a censure vote there could not bring down the government, it would be an embarrassment for the BJP.

The next stage of the Ayodhya row promises to be as noisy and emotional as the drama of the past week.

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See also:

15 Dec 00 | South Asia
Indian Government wins Ayodhya vote
13 Dec 00 | South Asia
Ayodhya debate to test coalition
05 Dec 00 | South Asia
Uproar in Indian parliament
16 Nov 00 | South Asia
India's Ayodhya cauldron bubbles
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