Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, on a nationwide election campaign, told a public meeting late on Monday that a temple to Hindu god-king Ram would be built after elections which the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition is expected to win.
The promise was a dramatic departure from the BJP's bid to get re-elected in this month's polls on a platform of development and growth in the northern town of Ayodhya, a flashpoint of tensions between Hindus and Muslims.
"I'm confident we will be able to reach an agreement involving Hindu and Muslim representatives shortly after the new government is in place," Advani reiterated at a news conference on Tuesday.
The BJP rose to prominence on the back of a Hindu revivalist campaign that sought the construction of a Ram temple on the site of the 16th century mosque torn down by Hindu mobs in 1992.
"I'm confident we will be able to reach an agreement involving Hindu and Muslim representatives shortly after the new government is in place"
Lal Krishan Advani,
Indian Deputy Prime Minister
But since coming to power in 1999, the party has been forced by secular coalition allies to put its pet Hindu themes on hold - a move that has not gone down well with its hardline supporters, particularly in the key state of Uttar Pradesh.
Advani refused to give details and merely said talks between various parties to the row have been going on for the past several months and would produce results after the April-May elections.
Minutes before the news conference, Advani prayed at the makeshift temple put up on the site of Babri mosque, which some Hindus claim was built by Moghul kings after destroying temple on the site of Ram's birth.
About 3000 people were killed after the mosque's destruction in some of India's worst Hindu-Muslim riots.
Advani, a fiery orator who was the driving force behind the campaign to build the Ram temple, said the BJP remained committed to the temple campaign.
Thousands died in Hindu-Muslim
riots after the mosque's destruction
"I feel very good whenever I come to Ayodhya," said the 75-year-old Advani, on his first political visit to the dusty town since an election campaign trip in 1999.
He was in Ayodhya when the mosque was razed and was briefly jailed and subsequently accused of inciting the mob until a court threw out the charges last year.
"Today, when I visited the temple I could not help wonder how far is that day when all these barricades would be removed and a beautiful Ram temple is built," Advani said, referring to the heavily fenced and guarded site.
Residents of Ayodhya, however, were not impressed.
"Why didn't Advani come to Ayodhya all these years and address a rally? ... Now that they need votes, they have suddenly become devout and turned to Ram"
"Why didn't Advani come to Ayodhya all these years and address a rally?" asked Beeresh Singh, a hard-line volunteer at one of the dozens of temples that dot Ayodhya.
"Now that they need votes, they have suddenly become devout and turned to Ram."
"All this talk about resolving the dispute through dialogue is rubbish. We have to build the temple by force."
Analysts said Advani was playing to different audiences: trying to portray a new, moderate image as an inclusive party while telling its hardline cadres that nothing had changed.
"They are prisoners of their past," said political analyst Prem Shankar Jha. "They have to tell their core supporters that they have not moved an inch from their original positions."
"However, you can't have a situation where they keep stoking tensions while asking for votes and try to act responsibly while in power."