NEW DELHI: India’s Hindu nationalist-led ruling coalition is firmly in the grip of hardliners after the biggest cabinet and party revamp carried out by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee since the government took power in 1999.

The rise of hawkish Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani to deputy prime minister and of a clutch of hardliners to top party positions will do little to heal the wounds of Hindu-Muslim clashes this year, opposition leaders and analysts said.

Instead, the communal divide caused by the country’s worst bloodletting in a decade in the western state of Gujarat in February and March looks set to widen further ahead of national elections due by 2004, the main opposition Congress party said.

“It is a complete takeover by the hardliners. They want to widen the communal divide and reap electoral dividends,” said spokesman Jaipal Reddy, adding that the first test will take place in Gujarat where state elections are due early next year.

“This is hardly a coalition government anymore, it is a BJP government dominated by those who believe in the hardcore Hindutva ideology,” said Zoya Hasan who teaches politics at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Advani, who represents Gujarat in the lower house of parliament, catapulted the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from obscurity in the 1980s to centre-stage with a nationwide campaign of Hindu revivalism in mainly Hindu India.

But since Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee — seen as the moderate face of the BJP — took charge of the coalition government, the BJP has been forced to put its Hindu agenda on hold to satisfy secular coalition allies.

Among the BJP issues put aside was a campaign to build a temple in Ayodhya in northern India on the ruins of a 16th century mosque destroyed by Hindu zealots in 1992.

Monday’s cabinet reshuffle, accompanied by a revamp of the BJP, ends that period of restraint, analysts said.

“It had put its ideology on the back burner...but this looks like the beginning of the end of this phase,” said political analysts Mahesh Rangarajan. “There is a feeling in the BJP that it is sharpening its ideological focus.”

The fiercely nationalist BJP has long advocated a tough stance on Pakistan and on an uprising against Indian rule in Muslim majority Kashmir.

It also wants common civil laws for Hindus and Muslims alike, and believes the building of the temple in Ayodhya will end a centuries-old perceived slur on Hindus by Muslim ‘invaders’.

While the opposition accuses it of using Hindu-Muslim tension to win votes, the BJP in turn has accused the Congress party, which ruled India in the decades following independence in 1947, of “appeasing” Muslims to win votes itself.

“We have no reason to be apologetic about our agenda,” said Venkaiah Naidu, who took over as BJP president on Monday.

Vinay Katiyar, another firebrand leader who was closely involved with campaign to build the temple on the site of the razed mosque, has been named as chief of the BJP unit in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and home to Ayodhya.

“There is a pattern to all this, this is not a one-off thing, the BJP believes it can restore political support through a re-assertion of Hindutva,” said Hasan.

Some 3,000 people died in riots that followed the destruction of the mosque in 1992, and to this day Ayodhya remains at the heart of Hindu-Muslim tensions.

TOO FAR GONE ON PAKISTAN: The Hindu nationalists are unlikely though to push the envelope further with Pakistan at a time when the nuclear armed nations have, under intense US-led international pressure, just stepped back from the brink of war, analysts said.

“On Pakistan the hardline view has prevailed in the government since last year, I don’t see any change one way or the other,” Hasan said.

New Delhi has refused all dialogue with Pakistan until Islamabad ends what it calls “cross-border terrorism” in Kashmir.

Islamabad, which denies direct involvement in the Kashmir uprising, said it was ready to do business with India, regardless of the leadership.—Reuters

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