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India’s Modi to Keep Decades-Old Vow by Opening Controversial Temple

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is poised to open a Hindu temple in January where a centuries-old mosque once stood, achieving a pledge made by his nationalist party and that’s now aimed at reinvigorating his base ahead of elections next year.

Modi, 72, is expected to preside over the installation of the god Ram’s idol in the northern riverside town of Ayodhya, which is widely believed by devotees to be the Hindu deity’s birthplace. The Supreme Court handed custody of the religious site to the Hindus in 2019 after decades of bitter disputes that came to a head with deadly riots in the 1990s.

“The ceremonies to move the idol to the temple starts on January 14 and is likely to take 10-12 days,” Nripendra Misra, chairman of the temple construction committee, told reporters. 

The construction of the temple and the surrounding complex, slated to be completed in 2025, is estimated to cost 15 billion rupees ($181 million), said Misra. The temple alone costs 6 billion rupees, he added.

The inauguration of the temple comes about three months ahead of elections expected to be held by April and May. This helps the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party make the case to voters that Modi should be elected for a third straight term as prime minister.

Read more: India’s Narendra Modi Broke Ground on a Controversial Temple of Ram. Here’s Why It Matters

It’s a full political circle for Modi, who in 1990 was one of the main organizers of nationwide push to build a Hindu temple to replace a mosque on the site — a campaign that marked the emergence of his party as a national electoral force. The mosque’s destruction by a Hindu mob two years later sparked riots that killed 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.

The BJP used the temple issue to gain support among Hindus, increasing its vote share from two members of parliament in 1984. It led a coalition government by 1998 before losing power in 2004. It now controls more than 300 lawmakers in 543-member lower house of parliament.

The temple is the most visible manifestation of the BJP’s Hindu-first agenda. Modi’s opponents say the BJP has made the South Asian country less tolerant of minorities in the nine years it has been in control of government. This was recently exemplified by the ethnic violence in the remote, northeastern state of Manipur and communal clashes in Delhi.

Modi last week used the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi to burnish his credentials as a statesman with global diplomats and voters back home. India’s opposition parties are trying to counter Modi’s popularity by forming an alliance to ensure there won’t be many-cornered fights in the parliamentary elections.  

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