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Ayodhya: BJP caught on the wrong foot

A report that five Union ministers supported VHP chief's plans to build a temple at the site of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya caused embarrassment to the Government, reports Venkat Parsa 

The Ram Temple issue seems to be hotting up again. It was a strange case of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) conclave, hosted at the residence of a ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Pradeep Rawat, which was attended by five Union Ministers of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government. There was an echo in Parliament on Friday, when the Lok Sabha was adjourned for the day amid uproar after Congress attempts to raise the issue of ministers reportedly attending a "secret" VHP meeting on the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya. 

There has been a quiet build-up in the temple activity behind the scenes. The Sangh Parivar had advanced the deadline for the commencement of the temple construction to February 17, from the original deadline of March 12. The Dharam Sansad of the VHP decided upon the March 12 deadline, during the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in January this year. Clearly, by advancing the deadline, the political pitch could be queered for the Vajpayee Government. 

The VHP had been raising the tempo on the Ayodhya issue. The BJP had been trying to play down the entire issue. Hectic construction activity is on at the Karsevakpuram in Ayodhya. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on Thursday assured full support to VHP in its agitation for construction of the temple and described the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 as a "secular act." RSS spokesman M G Vaidya evaded a direct reply to a question whether RSS was prepared to rock the Vajpayee Government on the Ayodhya issue, saying, "Who are we? It is an NDA Government and it is the concern of the parties in power." 

Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas chief Ramachandra Parmahamsa has welcomed Prime Minister Vajpayee's offer to seek a negotiated settlement before the March 12 deadline, failing which, he said, the temple construction work could commence. There is little leeway for the ruling BJP to distance itself from the RSS-VHP. 

It was against this backdrop that the secret conclave has come as an open embarrassment for the Vajpayee Government. The ruling BJP is making desperate attempts to wriggle out of the embarrassment. If the meeting comes under media glare, Vajpayee and the party would come under increasing pressure from the NDA partners, who find the Ayodhya issue too hot to handle. 

A massive damage-control operation is under way for the last two days. Political managers in the government quickly collected letters of denial from the five Union Ministers addressed to the prime minister and the copies were made available to the office of the Lok Sabha Speaker, to ensure that the issue does not cause embarrassment to the government on floor of the House. 

In their separate denials, the five Union ministers - Ved Prakash Goyal, Sripad Naik, Jayawanti Mehta, Annasaheb Patil and Balasaheb Vikhe Patil - have taken strong exception to "such irresponsible reporting," a Prime Minister's Office (PMO) spokesman said. 

The Congress had raised the issue in Parliament on Friday. In the Lok Sabha, the Treasury Benches stonewalled the Congress bid to raise the issue during the Zero Hour. Heated exchanges between the Opposition and ruling benches took place, and there was wrangling over Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker P M Sayeed's decision to allow Congress Chief Whip Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi take the floor. Dasmunshi said the ruling of the Chair had been questioned, when MDMK's Vaiko had claimed that he was the first to give notice and, therefore, should be allowed to speak first. 

In the Rajya Sabha, Union Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs O Rajagopal said the court verdict would be adhered to. "The Vajpayee Government is committed to scrupulously adhering to the Supreme Court directive to maintain the status quo" at the disputed site in Ayodhya, he said. He was responding to Leader of Opposition Dr Manmohan Singh, who wanted Vajpayee Government to clarify whether the ministers had cheered VHP leader Ashok Singhal when he declared that construction of Ram temple would commence at Ayodhya on March 12. 

Rajagopal said the five Union Ministers had already denied any such endorsement and the report was "wrong." Union Home Minister L K Advani had clarified earlier in the House that no violation of the apex court's directive would be allowed. Dr Singh said if the report was true, it was shocking that five members of the Union Cabinet had encouraged the "illegal" act of the VHP, and that the ministers' action should be condemned (tehelka).
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