Indian politicians have begun to call the 16th-century Babri-Masjid mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya “the Temple of Doom.” Sporadically since 1885, Hindu militants have campaigned to destroy the mosque in order to make way for a temple on the site, which they claim is the birthplace of their god Ram. Last year, they enraged Moslems by beginning work to lay a foundation stone for their temple. That, in part, led to the defeat of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government in November, 1989, general elections. Vishwanath Pratap Singh became prime minister and, for a year, the six-foot-deep pit where Hindus had prepared to lay their stone remained untouched. But the issue continued to simmer. On Oct. 30, more than 20,000 Hindus stormed the
mosque, provoking Hindu-Moslem riots there, and across the country, in which 200 people died. Last week, the temple claimed its latest victim. Singh, who deployed 250,000 troops in an effort to stop the assault on the mosque, lost a vote of confidence in Parliament, and his 11month-old minority government collapsed. “This pit has swallowed two governments,” said a senior official at the shrine. “Let’s see who falls into it next.”
Singh resigned as prime minister after he lost the confidence motion in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, by an overwhelming 346 votes to 142 (with eight abstentions). His coalition government faced strident opposition not only from his former allies in the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata party, who have campaigned to build the temple at Ayodhya, but also from dissidents within Singh’s own Janata Dal party. Last Thursday, Indian President Ramaswamy Venkataraman asked Gandhi, whose Congress (I) party has the most members—195 of the 545 seats in the Lok Sabha—to form a new government. Gandhi refused, and instead threw his support behind veteran socialist Chandra Shekhar, who, claiming the allegiance of at least 56 other dissidents, broke away from Singh’s Janata Dal party. At week’s end, Venkataraman named Shekhar the new prime minister and asked him to form a government.
Political analysts in India said last week that Gandhi likely refused the job because he did not want to suffer the political consequences of
ruling in the climate of violence surrounding the Ayodhya mosque dispute. At the same time, because Shekhar needs the Congress party’s parliamentary support, Gandhi will have the power to dictate that Shekhar call a new election whenever it would appear to favor his party. Western diplomats last week warned that Shekhar’s tenuous position will result in an unstable government. Said one diplomat who requested anonymity: “This is going to be the smallest tail wagging the biggest dog in the history of parliamentary democracy.”
With Gandhi’s support, Shekhar is certain to win the parliamentary vote of confidence that he must call by Nov. 20. Then, he will face an enormous challenge in resolving a series of bitter disputes. Since Singh came to power last December, at least 4,000 people have been killed in sectarian violence, including a Sikh secessionist campaign, a revolt in the Moslemdominated Jammu and Kashmir state, and student street protests against Singh’s decision to increase the number of government jobs reserved for lower-caste Hindus. And the most volatile issue, the question of Hindu rights to the Ayodhya mosque, remained unresolved. As he left office last week, a reflective Singh told his countrymen: “Religion is the lamp of the soul. Let it light your way. Do not use it to ignite the flames of hatred.” Despite that appeal, the new prime minister seemed doomed to a crisis-ridden rule.
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