An attack Tuesday by heavily armed men at a disputed religious site in northern India has given the country's Hindu nationalists their best opportunity to rally against the coalition government, led by the Congress party, since being voted out of power in national elections last year.
Indian police killed five gunmen who stormed the Ayodhya complex. It houses a makeshift temple to the Hindu deity Ram that is built over a 16-century mosque torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992. A sixth attacker blew himself up. At press time, no group had claimed responsibility.
India's largest opposition group, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has called for a nationwide strike Wednesday to protest the attack which it regards as an insult to the majority Hindu community. The mass mobilization of the BJP's rank and file comes after the party was jolted by a controversy last month over remarks by its president, Lal Krishen Advani, while on a visit to Pakistan.
The attack at a place claimed by Hindus as well as Muslims also comes at a time when the BJP is trying to mend fences with its ideological forebears. The BJP's electoral fortunes skyrocketed in the 1990s when it supported a campaign to build a Hindu temple at Ayodhya. But the party earned the wrath of pro-Hindu organizations by backing away from this pledge three years ago, when it headed a national government. Mr. Advani further antagonized this hard-line base when he visited Pakistan and called the founder of Pakistan a secular leader.
"Advani is now in a very precarious political position. [His Pakistan visit] has backfired in the worst possible way. This got him into all kinds of hot water with the Hindu radicals in India," says Sumit Ganguly, director of the India Studies Program at Indiana University in Bloomington. "Obviously what he is trying to do now is to curry favor with the radical Hindu elements."
Tensions over the site in the town of Ayodhya, about 375 miles southeast of New Delhi, have been a flashpoint in the past and security forces were alerted across the country to prevent trouble after Tuesday's raid. The demolition of the mosque in 1992 triggered nationwide riots in which 3,000 people died. Hindu groups say the mosque was built by Islamic invaders on the spot where they believe Ram - one of Hinduism's most revered deities - was born thousands of years ago.
"It's not a symbolic attack but a very serious attack," said Advani, who led the campaign for a Ram temple on the disputed site in Ayodhya in the early 1990s. "The reaction to this attack should be proportionate."
The right-wing Shiv Sena Party blamed the raid on Islamic militant groups they said were supported by neighboring Pakistan. Activists from the party burned a Pakistani flag in India's financial hub, Bombay. Pakistan, however, condemned the attack.
"The people who did this clearly wanted to get some political mileage out of this, so the action must be condemned regardless of which community was involved in this act," says Mr. Ganguly.
The government has appealed for calm as it conducts an investigation. India's home secretary said the identity of the attackers is still being established, but that information indicates they were not from Ayodhya.
The BJP "will try and convert this event into something that might enable them to gain traction again, but I don't think this will work, quite frankly," says Ganguly.
"But certainly among [hardline] elements they can gain traction - particularly if they can portray this as the work of Pakistani-supported Muslims."
• Wire material was used in this report. Ben Arnoldy contributed from Boston.